Edwards on Key

August 21st, 2009 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

Brian Edwards blogs on John Key:

Recently I bumped into Paul Henry having coffee with his daughter in trendy Herne Bay. He’s really very nice when you meet him in person off the box. Or maybe it was the civilising presence of his very nice daughter.

Anyway, we got to talking politics, as you do. He was enthusing about John Key whom he’d interviewed that morning. ‘The thing about him,’ he said, ‘is that he just answers the question. You ask him a question and he just answers it. ‘

I’d formed precisely the same impression watching Key on television. He seems natural, unaffected, nice. There’s no sense of the wheels going round in his head as he searches for a clever, stay-out-of-trouble answer. Nothing obviously  Machiavellian. No evident side. ‘He just answers the question.’

I’m tempted to joke that his comms staff have tried their best to train John up to not answer the question, but they’ve failed :-)

Sometimes I get a bit frustrated that John does answer pretty much anything media ask him. Hence we had the PMs views on the schoolboy rugby fight. I don’t really blame John for answering the questions, but do wish media would ask him more about policy issues and less about his view on schoolboy rugby fights.

I’m inclined to think that this is the real John Key, just as the niceness is the real John Key. I’m a Labour man from way back and I’m saying this – Key might just exemplify the core advice we give to all our clients: In your dealings with the media, be straightforward, tell the truth, admit your mistakes.

The John you see is the real John. Many media have commented to me that he hasn’t changed at all since becoming Prime Minister.

Trouble is, Key isn’t the government. If any one person is the government, it’s Bill English who doesn’t ‘just answer the question’. Ideologues never just answer the question. Ideologues always have a hidden agenda.

Edwards is correct that Bill doesn’t tend to just answer the question. Bill thinks carefully about his answers. He considers whether his answer is consistent with the past, and could it have ramifications for the future. Bill worries about consistency, precedents, ramifications etc. He sees pretty much every issue as complex (and they usually are)

Bill is not an ideologue. When he was Leader he pursued a very moderate agenda and when he was rolled by Don, the “ideologues” in Caucus were all very much in Don’s corner. And his record as a Minister was pretty much someone focused on what is practical, than the need for philosophical consistency.

This is why the Key-English partnership works pretty well. Neither of them are strongly ideological and Key’s spontaneity works well in the leadership role and Bill’s caution is well suited for a Finance Minister.

Key’s role isn’t unlike what David Lange’s role was – to be the palatable face of the government’s free-market agenda. His role is to be nice, just as Lange’s role was to be the lovable raconteur, the engaging comic, the avuncular Methodist defender of the welfare state. Nice, warm, not scary.

Key is and Lange was the frontman. Whether Lange knew it when he was first chosen as leader is open to question. I doubt that Key is so naïve.

I can see the picture that Brian is trying to draw, but I think the comparison fails. Yes John Key is the warm face of National. He is far more popular than National itself is. But he is not just a smiling frontman who leaves everything to his Ministers.

In fact his style has been more like Helen Clark’s. He intervens often in portfolios, sorting out issues when they begin to threaten the Government. He sorted out the S92A fisaco after no Minister wanted to touch it. He has over-riden his Defence Minister a couple of times. He got his cycleway of course. He also was intimately involved in big packages such as the Youth Opportunities.

I’d even venture an opinion that he may be even more hands on than Helen Clark. Clark would use Michael Cullen a lot to sort out the real thorny issues. So far Key has been doing most of it himself. He is also probably more engaged with coalition management than his predecessors.

So, as the Government slowly but surely rips the heart out of the welfare state, rewarding the rich and punishing the poor, Key’s job as frontman is to be the ultimate populist PM. His numerous U-turns on policy are a reflection of that. If he had an embroidered sampler above the desk in his Beehive office, it would read IF THEY DON’T LIKE IT, CHANGE IT.

Heh that is not entirely off the mark. John will do unpopular things, but sparingly and on his terms. And as I have said before he does not see a compromise as a sign of weakness. He comes from a commercial background where a compromise is normal. It is how deals happen.

The nonsense about ripping the heart out of the welfare state is Brian getting tribal. The Government is spending more money than ever on the welfare state. I wish it would take an axe to parts of WFF, but it won’t.

Despite all his protestations, I’m willing to lay odds that that will be the fate of the misnamed Anti-Smacking legislation. They really hate that.

People should read very carefully what he has and has not said. The reaction to the outcome will be very interesting.

The comments on the blog post are p very interesting, including one from David Lange’s widow – Margaret Pope who makes the case that Lange wasn’t just the smiling frontman that people now describe him as.

It is one of the things I love about blogs is that it allows people with direct relevance to a discussion, such as Margaret Pope on Lange, to easily add their contribution.

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