‘What they see is what they get’

What you see is what you get ...

What they see is what they get …

Part of it is, I think, is, I suspect … I’m a pretty laid back, sort of down-to-earth hopefully approachable guy, and, … and, I think kind of again, what they see is what they get and they like that element of, I’m a regular kiwi bloke.

John Key, Morning Report, Friday, 28 February, 2014

So said John Key in an attempt to explain his apparent popularity with the populace. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine a less revealing self-assessment – or a more revealing one, when seen a’right.

Given that there is an election to be held on 20 September this year – and that all agree that John Key’s personal popularity will be crucial in that election – perhaps it’s time to start seeing John Key so that we’ll know just what we are really getting.

In the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, there features a mirror, the Mirror of Erised. It’s a special kind of mirror:

Albus Dumbledore: “Let me explain. The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is. Does that help?

Harry Potter: “It shows us what we want… whatever we want…

Albus Dumbledore: “Yes and no. It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.

For many New Zealanders, I’d hazard, when it comes to the personality they most desperately desire in their own Prime Minister, you couldn’t get a better description than the one Key ascribes to himself.

But it’s not all about Key.

That description also affirms the way in which many New Zealanders like to see themselves. Better yet, he’s proof-positive that – paradoxically – being a “regular Kiwi bloke” doesn’t prevent anyone from being a multi-millionaire and Prime Minister. (It’s presumably just a mystery why all the other ‘regular Kiwi blokes’ live pretty ‘regular Kiwi lives’.)

John Key, then, is our very own Mirror of Erised. He reflects back at us our most desperate desires about ourselves. (‘Erised’, of course, is ‘desire’ spelt backwards – as if the word were reflected in a mirror.)

Or, better, his persona is our very own Mirror of Erised.

The most fascinating feature of the John Key persona is that – in a remarkably fortuitous way – it manages to achieve two quite unrelated aims:

  1. It fulfils the  desires of many New Zealanders for a Prime Minister who really is “a regular kiwi bloke” and who therefore affirms their own self-image;
  2. It provides the interpersonal means for Key to achieve his personal ambitions – as it has always done.

To see how these two aims are achieved, let’s first dissect Key’s own description of himself.

Key describes himself as ‘laid back’, ‘down-to-earth’ and ‘approachable’. Those terms invite a certain bonhomie, a cosy culture of ‘we’re all mates together with the PM’.  Implicit in all of this is the attitude that ‘there can’t be anything wrong with this, can there?’

Judith Collins confirms that this propensity to see politics as all about amiable, straightforward mate-ship  is not confined, in Cabinet, to John Key’s manner. About 1min 45secs into the linked audio she has this explanation of her absent political antennae:

I should have been thinking it might be controversial and, I just didn’t, I let myself down and I was thinking in terms of  friends, and having dinner with friends and I just didn’t see the issues with it

It’s not only Oravida businessmen and unnamed senior border officials – who generally speak in a language that she doesn’t understand- that Collins includes as her personal friends. At about 2mins 35secs into the same recording she helpfully explains that there was also a member of her staff in attendance. Presumably not everyone on Ms Collins’ staff is counted as a personal friend but it is good to know that the Minister is close ‘mates’ with at least some members of her staff.

Perhaps the explanation for Judith Collins’ lapse, then, was nothing other than her ‘laid back’, ‘down-to-earth’ and, certainly, ‘approachable’ manner as she served up to her Prime Minister the greatest form of flattery – imitation.

Certainly, John Key has been similarly ‘laid back’ about being photographed – at least twice – with Oravida executives and his ‘approachability’ now spans from private companies who donate large sums of money to National all the way to ‘meet the PM’ fundraising dinners for National, the Maori Party and ACT.

But back to Key’s self-assessment.

In the context of New Zealanders’ enduring self-image of being ‘100% Pure Regular Kiwi Bloke’ it was actually a fascinating – even if counterintuitive – form of political boasting. Admittedly, it’s not every society in which the assertion of ordinariness could be seen as a boast but, in New Zealand, that assertion has a proud history.

The egalitarian myth has been repeatedly identified as a crucial aspect of New Zealand identity:

Myth of classlessness

For over a century, from the mid-19th century until the later 20th century, many commentators suggested that New Zealand was a classless society. Immigrants from Great Britain frequently praised the lack of inherited classes and the relatively high standard of living. In 1959 New Zealand’s leading historian, Keith Sinclair, concluded that while New Zealand was not classless, ‘[i]t must be more nearly classless, however, than any other society in the world. Some people are richer than others, but wealth carries no great prestige and no prerogative of leadership.’

In popular culture many observers noted a cult of egalitarian mateship which rejected those who ‘gave themselves airs’. There was a widespread belief that equality was a key New Zealand value, implying both equality of opportunity and some relative equality of condition.

It was Rob Muldoon who, forty years ago, made memorable political hay out of this notion – and demeanour – of the ‘ordinary bloke’ as the pinnacle of New Zealand culture. Today, John Key has simply updated the same winning formula. And the crucial ingredient is not an ordinariness of back story (how many New Zealanders have made millions on the global financial markets?) but an ordinariness in something much easier to project – personality, demeanour and manner.

Certainly, John Slater (former National Party president and father of Cameron Slater of WhaleOil blog fame) found just this exact “lack of airs and graces” aspect of Key’s personality impressive when he first met him, despite Key arriving with a $200 bottle of wine (which, surely, invites the impression of ‘putting on airs’?):

Slater invited Key to a traditional New Year’s brunch he held at his Pauanui holiday home in the first days of 1999. Key made an immediate impression, arriving with a bottle of Stonyridge Larose (recommended price $200). Slater still has the bottle: “I think we might crack it open on election night,” he says.

About 30 party people were there, including officials and some MPs, Maurice Williamson, Katherine O’Regan and Warren Kyd among them. Slater was immediately impressed with him, admiring his personality, and his lack of airs and graces, and finding him easy to get along with.

In so explicitly, deliberately and even brazenly exploiting national myths, Key is also in interesting international political company.

When Vladimir Putin (in)famously posed for a photo-shoot, shirtless atop a horse he was affirming not just his personal tough-guy image but a very Russian – and very abiding – form of machismo. Here’s an interesting insight into that historical myth, exploited by Soviet and Russian governments alike:

Not only does it draw on an eclectic range of contemporary, Soviet and Imperial-era narratives; it has reached as far back as the Christian Rus’ – the presumably Greco-Romano-Nordic warrior colonialists who founded the polities that over time morphed into the Tsardom – for myths that can legitimize the patriarchy.

Consequently, not only the Soviet state, but also modern Russia led by President Vladimir Putin has been actively promoting the culture of machismo. Consider, for example, Putin’s regular appearances with his torso bared, fishing or hunting like an exemplary masculine hero. But Putin is not simply a bad boy: he is also, at times, presented as a ‘tender beast’.

Russian machismo is very different from, say, its Italian variant, as a Russian man is not expected to be pretty, groomed, well-dressed and creative when it comes to courtesy. He is not supposed to sing or dance, he is not supposed to write poetry and create miracles in the kitchen. A real Russian man is supposed to be a manual worker, a proletarian; he is expected to have big fists, to smell like a factory, to be a bread-winner, to eat substantively and to hold his liquor.

It’s not quite shirtless, proletarian posturing but there’s no mistaking the fact that John Key carefully appeals to a mythic portrayal of the New Zealand male as ‘Kiwi bloke’ – ‘laid back’, ‘down-to-earth’, ‘approachable’ (in a matey way, of course) and always ready for a bit of a joke.

Key’s extraordinarily numerous appearances on Radio Sport (and here, and here, and here …), his chatty demeanour on the ‘Prime Minister’s Hour‘ on Radio Live and his surprising electioneering habit of avoiding talk of politics all speak of his reliance on the mythic appeal of the ‘regular Kiwi bloke’.

But what does it matter if that is indeed what the real John Key is like? Perhaps he truly is the incarnation of a ‘laid back’, ‘down-to-earth’ ‘regular Kiwi bloke’?

Or maybe he isn’t.

A ‘persona’ is, in essence, a social mask. It is the front we provide to others in order to ease our path through the social world. As Carl Jung – the originator of the technical, psychological version of the notion of a ‘persona’ – defined it, the persona is:

“a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual”.

If you want the closest thing to a ‘free pass’ in any social world your best bet is to conform – in your persona – to the most generic myth of what it is to be a person in that society. You’ll rarely have to explain your manner, your views, your sense of humour, your preferences or just about anything else you express or do.

Quite the opposite, in fact: what you do within the confines of the persona will be warmly embraced. Put simply, adopting the generic, mythical persona of your society amounts to inhabiting a social ‘safe house’, a refuge from the risk of social isolation or rejection.

It may well be that as John Key grew up he had reason – like many other people – to conform, at least outwardly, to the mythic persona of the ‘regular Kiwi bloke’.

After all, there was a lot in his background that no doubt set him apart from the other Kiwi children he would have mixed with – raised by a strong mother from a cultured, European background; being the only male in his family once his father departed; and – from a very early age and unlike most of his peers – having a firm focus on becoming a successful businessman and the Prime Minister of New Zealand.

None of these features of Key’s background and early ambitions would have been predictive of his development into a “regular Kiwi bloke“. In fact, such attributes and ambitions may well have resulted in social acceptance in his peer group being particularly challenging for the young Key.

Of course, the whole phenomenon of adopting an acceptable ‘persona’ arises because of the need to overcome such challenges. Like nothing else it signals that you’re one of the pack – at least to the extent that you are willing to put on the ‘mask’ that marks you as one of ‘us’ and to conform to the role of being, in Key’s case, a regular New Zealander.

It’s like wearing a suit to conform to an office environment – at a minimum it shows a willingness to subordinate any differences you may have that conflict with the group myth about itself.

Nevertheless, adopting the generic persona of ‘ordinariness’ might seem incompatible with the fulfilment of extraordinary personal ambitions – such as major financial success or becoming Prime Minister. Put bluntly, being genuinely ‘laid back’ doesn’t work as a strategy for world domination – or even just getting ahead.

The proof of most puddings is in the eating. So when we spoon our way through what is available in public media about John Key – beyond the photo ops – is it a case of a laid-back, ‘regular Kiwi bloke’? Is what people see of Key pretty much what they get?

A place to start is the opinion of those who’ve spent some time with him. Key himself volunteered one enduring insight into those opinions when he mentioned that his nickname in the financial industry was the ‘Smiling Assassin’, a moniker that has stuck, especially in the minds of his critics and doubters:

There [Merrill Lynch], he survived ructions following the Russian debt crisis (which led to heavy losses for some parts of Merrill’s London-based business) and after a brutal round of axings found himself last London manager standing. Among his new responsibilities was the duty of sacking hundreds of staff, a task he performed with his customary cheerfulness: “They always called me the smiling assassin.”

As nicknames go, it’s not flattering. More significantly, it highlights a revealing disjuncture between Key’s interpersonal manner and his actions. Even more significantly, it also reveals the ultimate motive behind those actions – his personal ambitions and goals.

Then there’s this account of Key’s time as a trader:

The high stakes and tribal nature of investment banking mean the head of a successful team, such as Key, is often hated by others in rival teams. And those with sufficient character to rise to the top are often aggressive, forceful individuals with polarising personalities.

But Key managed to make himself appear relatively inoffensive to the widest possible number of people. Perhaps this makes him bland, indeed, one former trader describes him as “a bit of a clone”.

He is likely, too, to have gained an extra layer of blankness from his training as a trader. Traders must learn the art of the poker face, to show no emotion even in extreme situations, and to guard their inner self.

The only tangible sense in which Key asserted a persona of his own was in his accent. “We sometimes felt he would lay on his Kiwi accent so thick in meetings that none of us could understand what he was saying it was kind of deliberate,” says Kelly.

Not quite ‘what they see is what they get’.

And when John Key was featured in a 1987 ‘Close Up’ documentary as a 25 year old FX dealer at Elders Merchant Finance Limited what is most striking is how unlike the other traders he apparently was. Reference in the video to traders acting as “petulant children” clearly did not apply to Key.

Not for him the flash, boisterous lifestyle. No, he had bigger fish to fry – as he always has had.

In account after account of John Key’s life before politics there is a remarkable contrast that is repeatedly drawn: On the one hand Key appears affable, amiable, inoffensive, even ‘bland’; on the other hand he shows an unrelenting determination to achieve his long term goals; goals which at times necessitate acts of clinically ruthless decision making.

One episode (called ‘In Search of John Key‘) of the series loosely known as the ‘unauthorised biography of John Key’ published by the New Zealand Herald in 2008, relates the family anecdote of Key, age 10, returning home and announcing he was going to learn to play golf:

“He’d figured out that business guys have golf lunches,” says Sue. “He told us ‘I have to start working on those skills now so when I need them they’re in place‘.”

The golf tale is a telling insight because it shows that Key, even as a child of 10, was driven and had calculated what he would have to do to achieve his goals.

That level of determined and early ‘preparation’ was still very much in evidence as Key gained his commerce degree and, in the process, abandoned the subject he had the most talent for – economics:

Key was one of a group of top students whom Tay [Head of the Economics Department] wrote to, encouraging him to continue with economics. Key declined. “He said that the reason he went to accountancy was because he looked at the boards of directors and found most of them were accountants,” says Tay.

That early fixation on (and strategic decision making in the service of) easily ‘quantifiable’ goals – i.e., easy to know when they can be ‘ticked off’ – might explain the otherwise surprising fact, at least to his friends and acquaintances, that the amiable Key can also be very instrumental.

As mentioned already, that seemingly quixotic ability to shed the ‘laid back’, ‘down-to-earth’, ‘approachable’, ‘regular Kiwi guy’ persona and make decisions that require more than an element of ruthlessness was the reason he was dubbed the ‘Smiling Assassin’ by those he managed, and fired.

Yet, significantly, he was known as a manager who could unite a team – when it was in his interests to do so:

Key’s colleagues say his ability to hold a demoralised team together was most evident in 1998 and 1999 when Merrill suffered big losses as a result of the Asian crisis. Morale plunged, and the bank risked losing many of its best staff to rival firms.

Key rallied his team in London around him and kept them inspired enough to stay at the bank rather than bolting for the door.

This was the time when he also began sacking what the Metro article (cited previously) reports as “hundreds of staff” but during which he Key recalls sacking only dozens, according to Stuff (in the article cited above) – “fewer than 100 as Key recalls it“.

In the same way, those of his colleagues in politics – and some of his oldest friends and acquaintances – were surprised by his ability to ‘take no prisoners’ once he had the power to do so:

Good political leaders require an element of ruthlessness and until Key took the helm of National there was little evidence of this lurking beneath his amiable outward nature in the political sphere. Some of his oldest friends even now wonder whether that the streak is there.

To many of Key’s caucus cohorts, he was for a long time their smiling and friendly colleague. Three swift acts by Key shortly after Brash resigned would change those views.

Two of those acts were removing Brownlee from the position of Deputy Leader (replacing him with Bill English, leader of the main opposing faction); dealing to deposed Don Brash – who expected and repeatedly expressed a desire to have a front bench role:

Brash waited for a job offer from Key that never came. Just a week after stepping down as leader Brash quit politics altogether. Key had ignored Brash’s repeated statements that he would be willing to stay and in the end the pair met to talk and it was unceremoniously over.

In the eyes of those in the caucus who had been Brash supporters till the end, it was a harsh exit.

In the light of Don Brash’s recent autobiography, Key’s disposal of Brash – a move that allowed him (Key) to break with the public hard line Brash had taken over Maori issues and New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance –  can be seen as an even harsher exit than some Brash supporters may have realised at the time.

In his autobiography Incredible Luck published today, Brash reveals the toll on his marriage after he entered public life, and also lifts the lid on some long-standing secrets.

Among them is that he never intended serving out a full term as prime minister had he won in 2005 – and that he and John Key hatched a plan in a Blenheim motel room for Brash to hand over the reins to Key before the 2008 election.

I’ll return to this particular point in a moment but, for now, it’s interesting to see that those childhood ambitions have guided both John Key’s ability to ingratiate himself with colleagues, juniors and his superiors when needed and then, in a coolly calculating way, to dispose of them “unceremoniously” when ambition required it.

Certainly Don Brash has much more to say on how he perceives that John Key has treated him:

Nowadays, Key doesn’t return his calls, and Brash strongly suspects National plotted with Epsom MP John Banks to manoeuvre him out of the ACT leadership. He even questions whether that may have been the real reason for Key’s determination to keep secret the so-called teapot tapes recording a conversation between him and Banks without their knowledge.

“Whatever was said on that occasion, I have reason to believe that John Key’s willingness to signal to National voters in Epsom that it would be okay to vote for John Banks with their electorate vote was linked to an understanding that, if elected, I would not continue as leader of ACT.

Brash also talks about Key’s haste to get him out the door once he stepped down from the leadership – he believes due, only in part, to National wanting to distance itself from his legacy.

“There was also at the time a huge focus on the Nicky Hager book published in November 2006, a book which argued strongly that the National Party in general and I in particular were beholden to sinister influences – Big Business, the Exclusive Brethren and American neo-cons – and the quickest way of getting that story out of the headlines was to have me out of sight.

“That was particularly the case given that John himself was also implicated to some extent, particularly in the allegation that he and I had both received an email from the Exclusive Brethren offering substantial financial support in the 2005 election campaign.

But Brash says he does not feel betrayed by Key, even though he is now considered “persona non-grata” by the National hierarchy and he was effectively shown the door by Key when he took over the leadership in 2006.

“John was clearly keen to have me out of the caucus as soon as possible, something he made abundantly clear both by what he offered me if I stayed . . . and by what he offered me if I went quietly.”

The go-quietly option Key offered him was a plum diplomatic posting in either Washington or London. But when National later became government Brash was told Washington was not available, though he could have London. He turned it down.

Put simply, at different times the persona of the affable friend and the clarity of action of a clinical operator take turns as means to the same end – becoming a successful ‘millionaire’, and becoming, and remaining, the Prime Minister. The affable friend is, of course, ‘laid back’ and amiable – the clinical operator, however, is anything but.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that, for Key, people are themselves primarily a means to his ends.

Key’s desire to ‘make friends’ with those who will be useful to him – which now, of course, includes the New Zealand public – has been widely noted. It began early in life:

He [Key] shared the economics prize in his last year at school with classmate Paul Commons. “He was focused and studious and he liked to do well,” …

He also remembers Key as being very resourceful and someone who would seek advice.

“It was just generally the way he was, whether it was getting help to be good at maths or playing squash, any part of his life – he was good at finding the very best person who could help him achieve what he wanted to do.”

And, when yet another step towards his goals is being taken Key networks like there’s no tomorrow. When he tipped long-serving National MP Brian Neeson out of the Helensville seat in 2002 – an article which the Herald titled ‘Ambush in the West‘ – it was done in a whirlwind of persuasive, one-on-one conversations with members of the electorate branch as part of a massive internal fight:

The battle to win the National candidacy for the Helensville electorate has gone down as one of the messiest scraps in the party’s history. In the process, long-serving MP Brian Neeson was cast aside, loyal party members felt they were ridden over roughshod, and there were accusations of rule-breaking.

The allegations of rule-breaking included delaying the start of the selection meeting to allow a known Key supporter to attend and handpicking the ‘top-up’ members of the group of 60 people who would make the selection from people outside the electorate who would toe the party hierarchy line.

Nevertheless, Key also turned around some of the 42 people from the electorate that Neeson’s work had ensured would be part of the selection group:

In the event, Key won the ballot by 32-28. He had secured the support of not only the “hand-picked” delegates but had turned enough of the existing delegates too.

Revell says Key achieved this through sheer hard work, contacting every one of the delegates and meeting all of those who were interested in seeing him. Some he saw more than once. “We didn’t have cottage meetings,” says Revell. “He met each and every one of them individually.”

The affable, amiable, ‘laid back’, ‘down to earth’ John Key was no doubt on full show in those one-on-one meetings.

John Key has said that one of the skills that is useful in politics and that he learned as a currency trader was “pattern recognition”.

Well, from what is known about Key’s behaviour over the years – in his early life, in the financial world and in politics – it is very easy to recognise the pattern behind John Key’s behaviour.

The ‘laid back’, ‘approachable’, ‘regular Kiwi bloke’ is the persona behind which Key nurtures his clear personal goals. The persona deflects others’  attention from the importance of these goals to Key. This becomes evident once an opportunity to advance those goals arrives. It becomes even more evident when those who may have been useful in achieving a goal now no longer have much use – or are a direct impediment to achieving Key’s next step towards his next goal.

Some also suspect that there is something deeper than simply achieving particular goals that has motivated John Key’s political ambitions  – a desire to be the ‘main man’.

In considering what politically motivated Key to occupy the 9th Floor of the Beehive, Herald journalists suggested a desire to “save the world, one by one“:

It is clear that donating money is part of Key’s urge to save the world, or at least some of those less fortunate around him. His poor upbringing may have motivated him to give back.

And it is not just about money – he also uses the position he now holds to give a hand to others who need it.

This commendable motive, however, may be less than it seems, especially when paired with the following comment from a, then, National MP:

One of Key’s own MPs thinks there is another, perhaps less ingratiating, element also propelling him toward the 9th floor of the Beehive. Speaking on condition of anonymity the MP says Key seems to harbour a deep instinct to be the most important guy in the room. Generally now that he is leader, he is exactly that. But if an outsider comes in who might challenge that status, Key is said to almost physically transform to take up the challenge.

Philanthropy is not always purely motivated. One of the perks of power, ever since significant power has been able to be wielded in complex societies, has been the ability to distribute favours and, consequently, to have others beholden to you – and to be grateful to you.

All of us – perhaps most of us only in our Walter Mitty moments – no doubt are tempted to fantasise about others expressing gratitude for our overwhelming generosity. The wealthy and the politically powerful, however, have no need to fantasise.

Nothing proclaims status, power and wealth quite so agreeably as a reputation for acts of benevolence. But, once again, does the motive matter? If someone benefits what’s the harm?

There are two views on this question. The first is instrumental and utilitarian and amounts to a quick calculation of the immediate costs and benefits. An act can be ‘good’ irrespective of the motives so long as overall calculated ‘benefits’ exceed ‘costs’.

The alternative view is that motives matter fundamentally – in the long run. It is best encapsulated in T.S. Eliot’s line in his play ‘Murder in the Cathedral‘:

The last temptation is the greatest treason;

To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

I tend to Eliot’s summation of what matters; but perhaps that is too much to expect of ourselves, or of politicians in particular. Perhaps the best to be hoped for is at least some of the ‘right deeds’ to be done.

Which brings me to the final, crucial aspect of Key’s self-assessment: “what they see is what they get“.

There have been several commentators who have pointed out that John Key has a tendency to say different things about the same issues to different audiences. Before the 2008 election there were enough examples for Anne Else to write a column  called ‘What I heard John Key say‘, concluding with:

Speaking of the time he sacked 500 Merrill Lynch staff, I heard John Key say, “They always called me the smiling assassin.”

Much later I heard him say, “In the end I had to carry out wider responsibilities, but I think I’m fundamentally a nice guy, but have to follow instructions.”

Presumably, only the instructions of those who can further Key’s personal goals. In the past, he has shown a remarkable ability to reject ‘opportunities’ – and the associated ‘instructions’ that came along with them – that others, with less clarity in their goals and confidence in their ability to gain them, would have taken.

[As an aside, it is interesting to recall the ‘harder right’ statements Key made in his first years in politics and the reversals of those to more ‘centrist’ views once he was leader. Currently, the newish leader of the Labour Party, David Cunliffe, is often criticised for having made ‘leftist’ statements to the party faithful and unions – presumably to be elected as leader – while supposedly becoming more ‘centrist’ in his stances once the leadership position was attained.

History never performs controlled experiments, of course, but I can’t recall the same argument being made in criticism of John Key once he became leader of the National Party in late 2006 – that he was using ‘hard right’ pronouncements earlier on in order to climb the political ladder, especially under the ‘rightist’ Don Brash. C’est la vie, I suppose.]

But the best insight into the discrepancy between what is seen about John Key and what people ultimately get is something that didn’t eventuate and, paradoxically, involved the public not seeing John Key but, potentially, getting him.

As mentioned above, Don Brash has revealed in his autobiography, Incredible Luck, that he and Key had reached an agreement prior to the 2005 election:

he and John Key hatched a plan in a Blenheim motel room for Brash to hand over the reins to Key before the 2008 election.

John Key has not denied that this arrangement was made:

“We discussed the leadership on several occasions, most memorably when we shared a two-bedroom motel unit in Blenheim in December 2004,” Brash wrote.

“We were both of the view that he was my logical successor.

The plan was for me to lead the National Party to victory in the 2005 election, for me to be prime minister and him to be minister of finance, and then for me to hand over the reins to him during the 2005-2008 parliamentary term.”

Speaking in Blenheim yesterday, where he was accompanying the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as part of their official visit, Key indicated he remembered the meeting.

“We certainly did stay in a motel, there was a two-room motel, we stayed in that motel room,” Key said, making no attempt to deny the agreement existed.

“There were lots of discussions over that time. I don’t think there was any sort of formal agreement, and how things might have played out, who knows?

“In the end we didn’t win that election and the rest is history.”

[T]he rest is history“? Well, no, actually. And the question of who knows how things would have played out is a distraction. Surely, the important question is how John Key had planned for things to ‘play out’?

What Brash called “[t]he plan” and which Key denies amounted to “any sort of formal agreement” was a rose by any other name. It was an attempt to let the electorate see Brash but, then, get Key: ‘Vote Don, get John‘.

Americans call it ‘bait and switch‘, and it’s not usually an admirable tactic. [Arguably, the most famous example of this in modern New Zealand politics was the election of the fourth Labour government in 1984. Then again, the National government’s back-flip on the ‘Decent Society’ in 1991 comes a close second.]

Deborah Coddington has recently written, in the aftermath of the release of Don Brash’s autobiography, that New Zealand was fortunate in 2005 to have ‘dodged a bullet‘ in that it didn’t elect a Don Brash-led government. Yet, it seems that the actual ‘bullet’ that was dodged was John Key – who was pre-loaded into the electoral barrel right behind Brash.

What you see is what you get‘?

It seems to me that what people see of Key – whether they be his long-time friends, his parliamentary colleagues or the New Zealand public in general – is almost always what, in the long run, they do not actually get.

When ‘push comes to shove’ – as it always seems to have done at some point for those around him – Key’s personal ambition (and determination to achieve it) inevitably over-rides the carefully nurtured persona that his acquaintances have seen, day to day. The ‘regular Kiwi bloke’ ends up acting very unlike a regular Kiwi bloke. But in what way?

I mentioned above that Muldoon also used the clarion call of the ‘ordinary bloke’ to stoke his popularity. The famed ‘Rob’s Mob’ (inherited by Winston Peters) strongly identified with that ordinary, Kiwi myth and made Muldoon appear electorally invulnerable until right to the end of his ‘rule’.

Yet, in a way that is markedly different from the pattern that is so clear in Key’s behaviour over the years, Muldoon had a fierce loyalty to those who supported him – including ‘Rob’s Mob’.

It seems to me – at least from the evidence available in the media about Key’s life – that, ultimately, Key does not prioritise that kind of loyalty to those around him. Whenever the choice is between that very Kiwi virtue of loyalty to one’s ‘mates’ and the opportunity to advance one’s personal goals, Key has repeatedly shown that he chooses the latter.

As Maurice Williamson phrased it – while trying to be as generous to Key as possible:

Front-bencher Maurice Williamson shies away from the term ruthless when asked about Key. “I won’t use that word,” he says. “But strong. I actually count John as a friend, I get on well with him, we’ve got a good relationship,” Williamson continues. “But I know that he would not let that stand in the way of dealing to you if you screwed up in the job you were to do – he is that strongly focused on outcomes.”

I think Williamson is correct, except for one implied definition: I don’t think the ‘outcomes’ are the immediately obvious ones (e.g., responsibilities in a portfolio); instead, they are the ‘outcomes’ judged against Key’s personal goals – goals that are kept in the background for others but, I suspect, are always at the front of his mind.

This would help explain Key’s seemingly inconsistent treatment of his Cabinet Ministers – Kate Wilkinson, Pansy Wong, Anne Tolley and Richard Worth find themselves promptly dispatched (as Brash had been); Hekia Parata, John Banks and Judith Collins, by contrast, are the beneficiaries of a hitherto unseen tolerance.

The explanation for this inconsistency may well lie in the calculation Key has made about their necessity in achieving his personal ambitions.

And, what are those ambitions?

The most intriguing aspect of Key’s determined pursuit of his personal goals – held since childhood – is that they now appear to have been achieved. He is a multi-millionaire and he has been Prime Minister. What, then, are his goals from here on in? (I doubt that he is the kind of person who can live out the rest of his days without strong personal goals.)

One goal may well be to continue as Prime Minister for longer than Helen Clark.

What he learnt from Clark – and admired about her – no doubt had little to do with her vision for New Zealand and more to do with her political longevity and popularity. He will presumably want to best her on that, if possible.

But then what?

Whatever his next, post-politics, goals are – for he will already have them in his sights and be making anticipatory preparations for them – if his past approach is anything to go by the New Zealand public can only hope that their general interests coincide with Key’s personal interests into the future.

Otherwise, New Zealanders may come a little bit late to the realisation that, with John Key, what you see does not, finally, predict what you get.

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20 Responses to ‘What they see is what they get’

  1. MrSmith says:


  2. Minette says:

    He’s a politician Mr Puddleglum, a politician. It would be naive to expect him to be otherwise.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Minette,

      It would be naive, I guess. But the extra layer of fascination with John Key is that he so explicitly claims that he’s just a regular bloke. There aren’t many politicians with that level of gall – and who seemingly get away with it.

      My interest in John Key is mainly in what he – or the electoral phenomenon that goes under his ‘brand’ – says about us, rather than him personally.

      At a personal level I wish him well, as I try to do with most people. But at a political level I think greater clarity and analysis about him is needed in public discourse.

      Thanks very much for your comment – I appreciate regular commenters staying in touch; especially when my posting can be so erratic 🙂


  3. Minette says:

    Grateful you amend my reply of yesterday which I submitted in error whilst trying to remove an out of date gravatar. Name should read Minette. Thank you

  4. Lynnette Williams says:

    Great article. Key will be on a promise no doubt – and if he wants to best HC in terms of tenure and popularity, you can lay odds that he’ll want to best her in terms of her post-PM trajectory.

  5. jingyang says:

    “What they see is what they get” – Hmm, what I see when I see Key is a lying slimy amoral rich scumbag whose smile doesn’t reach his eyes…so I guess that is what he really is then.

    • minette says:

      Too often the comments columns of political blogs are not used as fora to discuss policy and the important issues facing our country but as vehicles for ad hominem attacks.

      t would be a great pity of this excellent and stimulating blog went down the same track.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi jingyang,

      Obviously John Key provokes some intense responses, both in favour and opposed.

      As I said in response to a comment above, I don’t think the main issue is what Key is actually like but, instead, what the use of the public persona he (and the media) present of him has to say about the rest of us – collectively.

      So I’d disagree with you when you conclude that “that is what he really is then” – but I realise you meant to take Key’s self-assessment to task (and to mock it), not make a definitive statement about him.

      One of the interesting advantages for Key, or any other politician, of adopting the ‘regular guy’ persona – and having it, presumably, accepted as genuine by significant numbers of people – is that anyone who reacts to him negatively (and expresses it) can quickly be ignored as it goes beyond what social psychologists have termed the ‘latitude of acceptance‘ and is dismissed, often, because it is perceived to be in the ‘latitude of rejection’:

      There is the latitude of acceptance, which is the range of ideas that a person sees as a reasonable or worthy of consideration; the latitude of rejection, which is the range of ideas that a person sees as unreasonable or objectionable; and, finally, the latitude of noncommitment, which is the range of ideas that a person sees as neither acceptable nor questionable.

      It’s a kind of ‘win-win’ scenario (for Key), and many on the left struggle to counter it. On the one hand he gets the benefit of ‘personalising politics’ to his ‘approachable’, ‘laid back’, ‘regular guy’ persona but, on the other, is shielded from direct attacks on that persona (as being ‘negative’ and ‘personal’ and therefore beyond the latitude of acceptance for many people) – all of which leads to a lot of frustration and intense responses.


  6. lep says:

    This is really good, Puddleglum.

    I would add one more self-description that John is fond of…relaxed.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi lep,

      Yes, the word ‘relaxed’ was used a lot by John Key, especially in the early years of his premiership. It’s part of that ‘laid back’ aspect, I guess.

      I also see, in response to the three year old tweets from Labour’s Tukituki candidate, Anna Lorck, that “A spokesman for Cunliffe said he was “aware of the tweets and is relaxed about it”.“.

      Perhaps that response was a bit of a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ dig at Key’s use of the same term – and an invitation to the media to agree that it’s no big deal, in much the same way Key’s relaxed approach was taken as evidence that he wasn’t remotely concerned about numerous issues.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and for the compliment. Really appreciated.


  7. Clemgeopin says:

    Very interesting analysis. I thoroughly enjoyed it and fully agree.

    I am a left wing person, but amidst the Labour/Winston disarray in 2008, I too was fooled and got sucked in by his affable nature and voted for National. A big mistake, because soon after, during their killing of the community education night classes, I instinctively felt in my gut, that he was untrustworthy. His other subsequent behaviour and policies have confirmed my gut feeling about him as well as about the National party. I am hoping that there will be a Labour led decent better government in Sept. Fingers crossed.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Clemgeopin,

      Thanks very much for taking the time to comment.

      As I argued in a previous post, one of the problems with voting in line with impressions of a politician’s character is that we tend to use overt personality as a proxy for it. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily a good guide, especially in a world where our impressions of politicians’ personalities are, quite literally, ‘mediated’. Most of us will have no direct personal experience of them and, even then, such experience is likely to be very limited.

      Character manifests quite slowly over time, as the person responds to a range of events. Also, judging character accurately means not being distracted by our own desires as to what character we would like to see in someone.

      Once again thanks very much for the comment.


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  11. Linz says:

    Excellent article. I’m an old leftie and I’ve been following politics since 1956. When I first saw John Key on TV it was to do with his meeting the Exclusive Brethren. I thought, “Here’s something unusual and very dangerous: Muldoon with a smooth veneer.” Dorian Grey came to mind. Please keep providing us with your excellent and thoughtful analysis.

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