There is no real mystery about much of Key’s popularity – he’s likeable and even his gaffes make him seem more approachable (National’s support went up after the infamous “soap” gag that sparked howls of outrage about its rape allusions, for instance), and when he makes a call like abandoning Waitangi, he is unfailingly in tune with public sentiment (helped along by National’s nightly polling, no doubt).
But his style of government is often also cited. When Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rolled Tony Abbott, he banked a huge amount of early political capital, in part by blatantly stealing from the Key playbook, by promising to run a more consensual government. He even spelt out that plan in his first speech as leader: “My firm belief is that to be a successful leader in 2015, perhaps at any time, you have to be able to bring people with you by respecting their intelligence in the manner you explain things … John Key for example, has been able to achieve very significant economic reforms in New Zealand by doing just that,” Turnbull told Australians.
As a mark of his admiration, Turnbull even reversed the normal order of things in trans-Tasman relations by flying across the ditch to meet Key as one of his first international engagements, rather than expecting Key to make the first move.
But it might be that Key just makes it look easy.
I think whoever is PM after Key will struggle to some degree. Key does make it look easy. It isn’t.
And that’s the other piece of advice Key would probably give Turnbull. The public really don’t sweat the small stuff in the same way that us Wellington insiders do. As long as they think the Government is moving in the right direction and they respect their overall management of the big stuff – the economy, health and education, roads and all the other things that touch on their daily lives – they’ll have faith that the Government is getting the other stuff right.
You need to listen to a wider audience than your colleagues, staff and angry people on social media. What galvanises Wellington is very different to what is of interest to people in Hamilton, Auckland and Timaru.
There are other factors at play as well of course – a souring economy will quickly stoke a mood for change. But international volatility aside, the election looks likely to be held against the backdrop of a largely benign economy, with things like low petrol prices, record low interest rates and an ongoing construction boom ($6 billion in the Auckland CBD alone over the next few years) likely contributing to a general mood of well-being, though the rural sector will still be hurting.
If the wheels start to fall off any of those things, that may be the day the wheels also start to fall off National. Because if there’s one downside of being such a popular government for so long, it’s that National’s bulging back benches are filled with MPs who have no understanding of what it’s like to be A) unpopular and B) facing the prospect of defeat.
Even Key barely knows that feeling. Only a few veterans like Bill English, Nick Smith and Murray McCully remain from those years when the electorate was well and truly out of love with National and that experience helped shaped the Government we see today. And as they would know, the real giant killer in politics is disunity.
That was clearly a lesson well learned, given that it is the area where National has been most disciplined for the last seven years.
While Labour once again is showing real divisions over the TPP, and wider.