John Key’s greatest political gift is his levity. Which is not to say that the Prime Minister is inappropriately frivolous or comical – although he does have a politically endearing talent for self- deprecating humour. The word’s original meaning was “lightness”, and it is in this sense that I am using it.
In many countries Key’s light touch would not be regarded as an asset. When politicians become prime ministers or presidents in these much older societies they are expected to put on political weight, and to evince at all times a judicious seriousness. In short, they are expected to display gravitas, not levitas.
New Zealanders are more than a little ambivalent on the subject of levitas versus gravitas. On the one hand, we do not expect our leaders to embarrass us on the world stage. On the other, we don’t like leaders who put on too many airs and graces or talk down to us.
Many journalists have remarked that when Key became PM, they thought it was inevitable his behaviour would change – that he might stop answering certain queestions because they were beneath him, might start talking in the third person etc etc – but as most would testify he treats people and media much the same today as when he was Opposition Leader.
Key is certainly a very wealthy man, but that fact alone does not condemn him in the eyes of most New Zealanders. After all, he did not inherit his money – he made it himself, by deploying the skills he was born with to their best effect. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s humble background; the fact that he and his sisters were raised in a state house by their widowed mother; only serves to reinforce his fellow citizen’s confidence in the universal attainability of the New Zealand dream.
A large pile of cash in the bank does, of course, possess the power to levitate just about anyone up, up and away from the daily drudgery of earning a living. For many people, however, the levity money confers can be personally devastating. It either breeds a sneering sense of superiority, or crippling feelings of guilt and/or obligation.
But, Key’s public conduct reflects neither of these classic responses.
His wealth does not appear to have had any malign effect upon him. Miraculously, he has risen above even this.
Hence why Michael Cullen never got much resonance with his rich prick comments.
The Prime Minister is not a connoisseur of fine art. He doesn’t attend the opera. He has penned no books, made no scientific breakthroughs, climbed no mountains, written no songs.
He does not mix with artists or intellectuals, nor does he espouse with any noticeable fervour the grand, all-encompassing ideologies and religions of mankind.
He is, however, a husband and a dad with two teenage kids. He does like to watch the rugby. He turns a mean steak on the family barbecue, and he drinks his beer straight from the bottle – just like hundreds of thousands of ordinary Kiwi blokes.
And more to the point when he does, it looks natural – not some desperate PR plot to make him look like a man of the people.