The John Key Biography – the early years

NZ Herald editorial writer has published the first biography of John Key, Portrait of a Prime Minister. It’s a fascinating insight into Key’s childhood, business career and then political career. There’s a lot of material that hasn’t been in the public domain before, as not just Key, but Bronagh and Key’s sisters agreed to be interviewed for the biography.

People often wonder why Key gave up his business career to become a backbench MP. He had been fantastically successfully in business. In fact the book reveals that he was seen as a candidate to become the global CEO of Merrill Lynch. Why give that all up, to enter politics? It wasn’t a deep ideological conviction like Ruth Richardson or Norman Kirk. It wasn’t because he wanted to be famous like Kevin Rudd. It wasn’t because he needs the money. It wasn’t because he defines political success as critical to his self-worth like Helen Clark.

I’ve had the occasional contact with John Key, and like most, think he is a pretty amazing guy – both as a political leader, and as a normal Kiwi, who is devoted to his family and treats everyone around him well. This is rare than it should be in politics.

But despite that occasional contact, I have never been able to work out what motivated him to enter politics. He was on track to become a global CEO, and was succeeding in a role which didn’t require  interrogation  by media every day, or 17 hour working days.

The book helps answer that question. I’l get to it in the third part of thsi review, but in my opinion it relates back to his mother and her expectations of him.

The book is an easy read at 248 pages, but there’s a lot of material in there. I’m going to summarise and review it in three parts – Key’s early years, Key’s business career and then Key’s political years.

It starts with an interesting and amusing tale about how Obama came to invite Key for that round of golf. Tony Abbott asked Key to introduce him to Obama at Mandela’s funeral, and that is where Obama asked Key if he was going to be in Hawaii in January, and if so would he be keen to play some golf. The amusing part is that Key only told MFAT about the invitation two days before it occurred. I can just imagine the panic it set off!

Key’s early years

  • Key was born on 9 August 1961, when by coincidence they lived at 9 August Place, near One Tree Hill
  • His parents had a contract to run the cafeteria at a milk treatment plant
  • When Key was six, his mother Ruth left his father George, and they moved to first Wellington, but then Havelock North where they lived in a caravan. They then moved to Christchurch where Ruth Key got a job as a night porter.
  • George Key died when John was 7. His mother said he shouldn’t go to the funeral, and in fact he doesn’t know where his father is buried. Roughan discovered it is at Waikumete Cemetery in a soldier’s plot.
  • Key missed not having a father when he was playing rugby, and only his mum was there. Also a funny story about how he went to a father and son sex education talk with a family friend, and it was far more graphic that they expected, and quite uncomfortable to be having that talk with a man who is not your father.
  • George Key left Ruth with a debt of around $40,000 in today’s money.  She had the choice of bankruptcy but decided to pay the debt off. The only mitigating factor is as a widow, she now qualified for a state house. She managed to pay off the debt by 1973.
  • Ruth actually supported Labour, and John started debating politics with her around age eight. It was their debates that fueled his interest in politics.
  • When he was nine, he told the family he was determined t do two things in life – make a million dollars, and be Prime Minister – in that order.
  • At age 13 John wrote to Bill Rowling asking what should he do to become Prime Minister one day. I presume the answer wasn’t wait for Big Norm to die!
  • To wind up his mother, he presented her a National Party rosette when Muldoon won in 1975 (she did not like him at all). He thought it would have been long thrown away, but they found it in her collection when she died.
  • Ruth used to smoke, and John nagged her for around five years to stop smoking as he didn’t want to lose her, and at age 15 he won, and she did stop.
  • Ruth never spoke about her time in Austria (my grandmother was absolutely the same) and John only found out what happened to her relatives in 2010 when Murray McCully mentioned his ancestry to the President of Austria. He found out that sadly her uncles died in the holocaust
  • Later in life, John phoned his mother basically every day, no matter where he was in the world.

In the next post, I’ll cover his business years.

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