Whatever your political preference it’s hard to disagree with the fact that John Key has brought a youthful, prettier touch to a National Party frontbench dominated by sagging flesh and increasingly outdated conservatism. In fact most people on both sides of the fence list Key as the man next in line for a turn in the big chair and a go at representing New Zealand on the global stage. SALIENT News Editor Nicola Kean talks to Nationalís very own ‘man most likely to’.
Lame puns are a hazard of every day life for John Key. Since his rapid promotion to the position of finance spokesperson for the National Party, newspaper and magazine headlines have been rife with shockingly unoriginal puns playing on his last name. And he’s barely been out of the headlines of late. After giving Minister of Finance Michael Cullen a run for his money during last year’s election campaign, he is now widely tipped to be the next National Party leader. As stupid as it may sound, for many he is, quite possible, the key to the future, (if by future you mean the next National led government).
“It’s all-consuming,” he says of politics from across a coffee table in his Parliamentary office. “It’s seven days a week. It never escapes you. You never get away from it, and I think if you were there and you didn’t really really enjoy it then it would be quite debilitating.” He is a man who clearly loves his job. And why wouldn’t he? Politics is something he got into after a successful, and very rewarding, career in international finance. But far from being an early-retirement diversion, it is something he’s taking just as seriously.
Not everybody thinks so, however. He’s faced criticism from many quarters, but after four years in the job he brushes it off. “Some people hate politicians, some people hate National politicians, other people hate Labour politicians.” Immensely – you could even say filthily – rich, he uses his poor background as a defence against criticism that he’s just an out of touch and very rich middle-aged white guy. He grew up in a state house in Christchurch, and isn’t ashamed to tell you. Over and over. In an half-hour interview he mentioned it three times that I counted – although to be fair I did ask him about it once. Setting the sceptical media hearts aflutter with his Cinderella story, Key has attempted to market himself as A Tory With A Heart.
Rich, middle-aged and white Key may be, but out of touch he isn’t. In fact, he seems remarkably down to earth considering he’s worth over eight million dollars in property alone. “You can get over the line, with the helicopters and Bentleys and things, and people think you’re a dork. I’ve got enough to do the things I want to do, I get three meals a day, so I don’t need any more,” he says. Giving up a multi-million dollar salary as an investment banker in London to return to New Zealand in 2001, he wanted to get into politics to give back to the community. Almost arrogantly, he says he returned because: “I thought the country was in need of help. With every individual there’s an element of making a contribution, that my ideas are good ones and wanting to pull the levers and believing you can make a difference.” The next year he was on the National backbench.
Almost arrogantly, he says he returned because: “I thought the country was in need of help. With every individual there’s an element of making a contribution, that my ideas are good ones and wanting to pull the levers and believing you can make a difference.”
“It’s not a power-hungry thing,” he continues. Key’s meteoric rise through the ranks of the party, from the bottom to number four in the list in three years can be attributed partially to good fortune, and partially to ambition. Promotion was a matter of a waiting game for the young hot shot, in a depleted and tired caucus recovering from one of the party’s lowest election results ever. “You have to do your time,” he says before adding, rather amusingly, “politics is a bit like a boarding school, in terms of the hierarchy.”
Key admits to being ambitious without hesitation. Predictably, however, he is rather more cagey about setting his sights on the National leadership. For the moment he is, publicly at least, playing the loyal finance spokesman. “Don Brash is the leader,” he says forcefully. “He has my support and the overwhelming support of the caucus. I don’t actually see that position changing in the foreseeable future.” Six, nine years down the track, he says, Brash will eventually retire. And “who knows who will be hot property by then?”
Others, however, see doom in the dregs of Brash’s teacup. After National’s narrow loss in last year’s election, Key-fever spread like syphilis across media outlets. Profiles detailing his rags to riches history appeared just about everywhere. Speculation about an impending coup, or perhaps even a orderly transition, was rife. Journalists, academics and some people I overheard talking in a doctor’s waiting room have all placed their bets of Key as the next National leader, and gone so far as to pick him as the next National Prime Minister. If you believe what you read, he is the rising star of the party, a definite pivot in any future success, and the messiah who will lead National from the wilderness of the Opposition benches to the glory of Government.
Asked outright if he sees himself as a future leader of the National Party, Key hardly skips a beat. He’s doubtlessly been asked the same question dozens of times before. There is a second of hesitant stuttering before he switches back into the smooth, charming manner with which he has answered my previous questions. “Yes, I think it’s possible. Do I think it’s probable? Come back and ask me when there’s a vacancy and I’ll tell you.
“There’s no downside for me”, he continues with a smile. “I’m not about to become Minister of War Graves if I don’t become the leader of the National Party.” Aside from the possibility of a dramatic fall from grace – and these days those usually happen to Cabinet ministers Key looks set to be Minister of Finance with a National win in 2008. “If it leads somewhere else, that’s great”, he says. “But if it doesn’t, we’ll see how it goes.”
On the finance front at least, Cullen and Key seem to have a strange almost-respect for each other. As some commentators have suggested, they’re probably united by the financial illiteracy of the most of the remaining MPs, and the New Zealand public in general. I certainly have no idea what either of them are talking about most of the time. (What the fuck is OBERAC?) But my own confusion aside, and despite constant criticism over the last two budgets and the lack of tax cuts, Key is generous to Cullen. ìWe would share some things in common. In some respects, fiscally weíre about the same, itís the delivery of where the money goes thatís different. I have pretty strong golden rules. I donít believe in running deficits. Certainly the make-up of our budgets would have been different, but the net effect would be similar.”
At the same time, Key has consistently argued that tax cuts are not only possible, but necessary. “I donít think Cullen has been overly prudent. I think heís done a tremendously good job of selling himself as prudent. He often says to me that you canít have it both ways; you canít tell me I’m a big spender and too tight by not having tax cuts. Actually itís fiscally possible to have both if you have so much money coming at you.” He compares Cullen to a child that has won Lotto, and has gone on a spending spree only to realise that he needs to save. “That doesnít necessarily make you fiscally prudent.”
And so trying to pinpoint Key on the political compass is a bit like trying to play pin the tail on the donkey. With a live donkey. You look at his voting record and read his press statements about tax and think you’ve got him cornered. He’s voted conservatively on the major moral issues of the last Parliament, including the legalisation of prostitution and civil unions. And enough has already been written about the National’s economic policies by people far more qualified than me. But he denies being a hardcore ‘right-winger’, arguing that his socially liberal views are the legacy of growing up in a state house (strike two).
“I wouldn’t describe myself as ultra-conservative,” he protests, before bringing out the big guns. “I’ve got some friends who are gay, and all that sort of stuff. It’s not something that comes up at parties. I think we’ve all moved on now.” His voting record, he argues, is a reflection of his electorate, the Auckland suburb of Helensville – an ironic name for an electorate so blue. As an electorate MP, though, his function in Parliament is to represent the people who voted for him. And he’s got a good reputation for doing so. “There are some things I probably would vote for even if I thought they were wrong,” he says.
“I’ve got some friends who are gay, and all that sort of stuff. It’s not something that comes up at parties. I think we’ve all moved on now.”
Asking Key about welfare also forces the donkey tail further away from the extreme right. When I initially raise the issue, his response is peppered with the stock phrases like “welfare dependency” and “equality of opportunity”. Despitethe liberal helping of right-wing cliches, he says he’s “not in favour of hardcore abandonment of welfare”, but is “opposed to the abuse of the system.” The typical National line, of course.
But, surprisingly, he soon breaks with the party line. “Whether we like it or not”, he adds softly, “something like the domestic purposes benefit is a reflection of our society and if it wasn’t there, you’d find a whole lot of kids that I’m not sure where they would go. It’s quite soul destroying.” The Tory With A Heart is speaking out again. Althought I’m a tad sceptical, he seems genuinely concerned for the plight of the under-privileged. Not something that you see every day, especially from politicians.
Key is a man with a plan. Despite the semantic sleight of hand on the issue of leadership, he knows exactly where National went wrong in 2005. “We threw everything at tax and the Treaty,” he says, neglecting issues that may have turned important voting blocs – women and Maori in particular. “Something like 45% of women voted Labour. 35% voted National. Historically around the world women are more likely to vote centre left parties, but that gap is too big and I think it reflected the fact that we didn’t spend enough time talking about issues that really resonated with them.”
Furthermore, as academics have speculated, with Brash remaining in leadership the party is tied to the welfare and Treaty policies of the last election campaign. While these policies were successful in bringing the core right-wing voters back to their homeground, the party was unable to poach points from Labour. A leadership change, then, may be what is needed for National to win the next election. And Key just might have what it takes.