Planet Key, Jack Vowles

John Key: Portrait of a prime minister
John Roughan
Penguin Books
ISBN 9780143570752

The early to mid-career prime ministerial biography has become an established genre of publishing well represented in New Zealand. This is one of the better examples. The publisher commissioned The New Zealand Herald editorial writer John Roughan, and the book was written with the co-operation of John Key. But it is not an authorised version: Key did not see or comment on the text prior to publication.

First, when reviewing any book, there is always something to criticise: the opening sections describe Key’s meetings with Barack Obama and his visit with the Queen at Balmoral. The account and its placing in the book have a tinge of cultural cringe: surely we can gauge the extent of John Key’s importance and quality as a leader without this evidence of “making it” in the company of the great and good in the world outside New Zealand.

The book paints a sympathetic portrait. However, it is not hagiography: it contains criticism, though this is muted. But, of course, sympathy with John Key is something that Roughan shares with a majority of New Zealanders: Key is a phenomenally popular prime minister. Apparently regardless of potentially damaging political events, he continues to glide comfortably at high altitudes of public approval.

One would hope the book would go some way toward explaining this phenomenon, and it does in part. Key’s appeal lies in his ability to present himself and, to some extent, be an ordinary New Zealander. At school, he was closer to the top than the bottom of his class, but did not stand out, except as a debater. His confidence as an off-the-cuff public speaker stems from his experience as the third speaker in the debating team, whose job it is to demolish the arguments of the opposition. From the beginning, it was Key’s goal to make a million dollars and become prime minister: at school and university, he never displayed interest in politics, despite “kind of admiring” the leadership of Robert Muldoon, prime minister at the time: “a strong leader who was in control and stood up to stuff”. Yet Key never engaged in debate about Muldoon’s economic policies with his economics teacher, who was a strong critic. At university, Key was a “meal ticket” student, opting for a degree course in accountancy, taking his mother’s advice despite being more attracted to economics. With this record of political disinterest, Key seems a fitting prime minister for New Zealand to have at a time of increasing public disengagement from politics.

Knowledge about Key’s family background has been filled out by the publication of this book: his mother was a Jewish refugee from a formerly prosperous Austrian family devastated by the Holocaust. She separated from his English-born father when Key was only a small boy. Key grew up in an atmosphere that generated strong aspirations to achieve the former wealth and status of his mother’s family. Ironically, his mother was a Labour voter, disliking Muldoon, perhaps because of some of the same features that Key admired.

Yet Key himself does not have the personality of so-called “charismatic” leaders such as Muldoon, Norman Kirk or David Lange. As Roughan observes, Key is not a great speaker, nor an imposing figure, and does have not have a presence that makes everyone in a room aware of his being there. Key is “calmly self-assured”, and is modest about his former successful business career. It seems that this appeals to conservative New Zealanders, a phenomenon that opens up interesting questions about the voter psychologies that underpin it.

Roughan develops a plausible interpretation of Key’s own psychology that identifies both Key’s strengths and his weakness. As is well known, Key made his money as a currency trader with Merrill Lynch, an international stockbroking firm that was bought at a discounted price by the Bank of America in 2008, preventing its collapse. By then, Key was long gone, having left the company in 2001. During his six years with Merrill Lynch, Key was instrumental in moving the company into a greater role in currency trading than it had taken hitherto. He seems to have had little to do with the risky financial products which such firms began trading more heavily after his departure from the industry. While Key spent his early years directly trading, and continued to “keep his hand in” subsequently, he quickly moved into management, his skills in team organisation having been identified as of greater value to the company.

As Roughan points out, currency trading is about the present, assessing the market, but not paying much attention to the future. Key manages his politics in the same way, briefed by regular polls and focus group reports, assessing what matters to voters now, and what doesn’t, and adjusting both policy and presentation accordingly. As Roughan puts it, Key “is passing on to a future government the projected health costs and pensions of an ageing population, and an economy still on a narrow trading base, excessive property investment, and declining home ownership among the young”. One could add more areas of neglect, although also some achievement. But failure to reflect the longer-term consequences of short-term behaviour sent the global financial system into acute crisis in 2008, as we all know: one hopes the similar lack of reflection behind Key’s political judgements will not have as challenging consequences for New Zealand in coming years and decades.

Key has been compared to Muldoon and, indeed, there are some parallels in hints of a return to “picking winners” and his government’s attempts to shift the legislative framework of the Resource Management Act towards “national development”. Like Muldoon, Key has kept to the centre on most economic and social issues, responding to the effects of the global financial crisis much as a Labour government would have done. The best comparison to Key is with Keith Holyoake, who presided over a similarly centrist government that ran to four terms in office. On current indications, Key could well equal this, although our proportional electoral system makes such an achievement now more difficult than it was for Holyoake. Well-written and engaging, this book is well worth reading for anyone wishing to acquire more understanding of “Planet Key”.


Jack Vowles is professor of comparative politics at Victoria University of Wellington.


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