I can understand the public love affair with John Key. People comfortable in their own skin are generally comfortable to be around. And that’s how I’ve felt about the Prime Minister on the one or two occasions I’ve met him. What is less usual is for politicians to be comfortable, to ‘be themselves’ on television. From time to time I’ve quoted my friend Ian Fraser’s dictum that the key to coming across on the box is to be able to ‘act yourself’. Despite Ian’s enormous experience as a broadcaster and media trainer, I’m not sure I still agree with that particular gem. It’s the ‘acting’ bit I have trouble with. Acting and sincerity really don’t go together. Critics of Labour leader David Cunliffe regularly accuse him of acting, implying lack of sincerity. I rarely hear the same criticism of John Key. So is John Key more sincere than David Cunliffe? No.
John Key is a better actor than David Cunliffe. With endless repetition, the role he is playing – amiable, easy-going, in charge but still just one of us – has become second-nature to him and, in the process, less recognisable for what it is. Actor and real person have merged. I suspect that Key may in reality be the most focused and ruthless Prime Minister New Zealand has seen, the total pragmatist. When principle and pragmatism collide, principle invariably gives way. By comparison the oft-derided Rob Muldoon was a naive idealist, his bullying manner obscuring a genuine man of the people, genuinely concerned for the ordinary person. You might not like Muldoon’s principles, but he stuck to them.
As for Key, I ceased to believe in him as a man of integrity when he negotiated the ‘pokies for payola’ arrangement with Sky City, the shonkiest and most socially irresponsible political deal I can remember in my half century living in this country. So how does he get away with it? By minimising the significance of anything that might seem to reflect badly on him or his party; by dismissing rather than dealing with criticism. If you watch Key responding to journalists’ questions on the TV news, you’ll see that he almost never gives a sustained or detailed answer to anything. Instead he shrugs off the question or criticism as something of little importance. His answers effectively range from ‘Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?’ to
‘Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it. It’ll be fine.’ Good night, sleep tight. This minimisation of the significance of any critique of his government or himself has been remarkably effective in allowing Key to avoid in-depth discussion of his policies or actions. According to Judy, men often fail to understand that when a woman is upset or worried she may prefer a ‘there there’ to being offered a solution to her problem. Perhaps it’s his feminine side coming out, but the Prime Minister seems to have understood the value of soothing the electorate in preference to offering solutions to its problems. And so far it’s worked.