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Honest John

Honest John

Prime Minister John Key was embroiled in a major dirty-tricks scandal and won a resounding victory on the back of it. What just happened?

This story was first published in the January/February 2015 issue of Metro.

 

The Prime Minister is winding up for the counter-attack. He doesn’t stand so much as jump to his feet. Chest out, elbows in, tensed and ready to strike, with a big wolfish grin and one forearm extended. The finger is crooked and pointing down, ready for jabbing. Is he excited? Oh yes. This is Question Time in Parliament.

John Key is excited because it’s their first week with the new Labour leader, Andrew Little — the fifth Key has had the pleasure of trying to humiliate, as his MPs never cease to mention. He’s excited because the topic for debate is the SIS and “dirty politics”, and Key knows that this topic is virtually certain to strengthen his popularity. The harder the Opposition come at him, the better he will look. That’s how it’s been since the publication of Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics, four long months ago.

But he’s also excited for a simpler reason than all that. He loves this stuff. The cut and thrust, the shouting and name calling, the opportunity to ridicule. Key loves getting the better of his opponents on the strength of his own wit. Most people here love doing that, although few are as good at it as he is.

He makes a quarter turn and looks down the chamber: the government MPs ranged along from him are an important part of his audience and he wants them to see his face. Then he starts in, declamatory, bellicose, intensely jocular. It’s the week an official report (by Cheryl Gwyn, Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security) has confirmed that staff in Key’s office used information from the SIS to enable political attacks against Labour, and that the SIS helped them to do it. The report also called the information “incomplete, inaccurate and misleading”.

This is a clear abuse of power by the two offices (the SIS and the Prime Minister’s), and Key has responsibility for them both.

His response? Nothing to see here. Despite what happened, the report does not explicitly implicate Key in any wrongdoing, and he’s good with that.

Andrew Little is enjoying himself, and yet he is careful not to suggest as much by laughing. Instead, when he speaks, it’s like he suddenly fills up with fury. From dull to enraged in a heartbeat, with nothing in between. He declaims loudly on the catastrophic seriousness of the situation. “Cut the crap!” he shouts at Key.

Key is mightily entertained. “This is going to be a great three years,” he shouts back. “We’ll start here and go to over here!” If you start shouty and sweary, he means, where on earth is it going to end? He’s got a point. The previous day, Little’s first in the debating chamber as leader, he accused Key of being in charge of “the dirtiest, filthiest, grubbiest, vilest operation we have ever seen in New Zealand politics”. Labour MPs looked almost as startled as everyone else: even in this circus of the absurd, there is such a thing as overstatement.

But if Little was having trouble moderating his enthusiasm, he was also signalling to everyone — especially his own MPs, the media and the country at large, in that order, and also to Key and the rest of the government — that there’s a new kid in town and the game’s about to change. Little’s going large, and on the whole he seems to be good at it.

Celebrating the Rugby World Cup victory with the All Blacks in 2011.
Celebrating the Rugby World Cup victory with the All Blacks in 2011.

 

The contrast of styles between the two leaders is telling. Key is a poor public speaker. It’s not just that he gobbles and slurs his words — and is still doing it 12 years after becoming an MP. (Given his skill in controlling everything about himself that affects his political appeal, we have to conclude he has chosen to keep the terrible diction.)

Worse, his rhetoric is flimsy, he presents no big ideas and never tries to capture the imagination of his audience. Even the phrase “ambitious for New Zealand”, which was his 2008 attempt to do those things, has long disappeared. Instead, his speeches are commonplace: lists of achievements expressed in very simple language. In those speeches, as in everything else he does, John Key is determined to make us feel good about where we are now. He is determinedly not trying to lead us anywhere.

Andrew Little, in contrast, speaks in whole sentences and is experimenting with rhetoric. In Parliament that week, he even used the phrase “this great country of ours”, which is the sort of thing American politicians are obliged to say. Yes, it’s a cliché, but it signals an intent.

And yet, in Parliament, Key is the better speaker. Little’s voice is too deep and too lacking in inflexion: he has a tendency to rumble. Key, in contrast, has a sharp tone and a ringing tenor. He cuts through the noise and you can always hear his voice.

There are differences in body language too. Key is the showman, playing to his own MPs, thrilling to the fact of having a supportive audience. He loves performing.

To Key, Question Time is a backyard game. The boy bubbles out of him.

There is even an echo of that infamous moment in 2011 when he minced down the catwalk to show off the Rugby World Cup volunteer uniform. New Zealand’s Next Top Model‘s Colin Mathura-Jeffree tweeted at the time, “I wouldn’t begin to know where to fix that mincing strut,” and you can see it now in the way Key points, the way he presents his wrist and shoulders. He hasn’t fixed it.

Little, in contrast, doesn’t have gestures, isn’t given to any kind of flamboyance, let alone an adopted idea about what performance is.

To Key, Question Time is a backyard game. The boy bubbles out of him. Powerful adults usually suppress their inner child — it’s supposedly a mark of maturity. But Key’s maturity isn’t at stake, and he knows that flashes of childlike pleasure link him to the rest of us. We all like ice creams.

Not that this makes him an anti-politician, despite the way he stokes that idea at every opportunity: is he an honorary member of the All Blacks or does it just look like that?

In fact, John Key loves politics. It’s obvious in everything he does and it’s telling that he shows no sign of giving it up.

There’s another thing that happens in Question Time and the general debate that follows it on Wednesdays. Almost all the MPs turn up at the start, but they don’t stay. When Key has finished flinging abuse at the Opposition, he slumps back in his chair. Suddenly he looks bored. He spends a few moments checking his phone (texts? tweets?), then leaves.

This is the form. You attack someone on the other side, then you’re out of there. On that day, Andrew Little was forced to direct his response to an empty seat. Then he left too, and the next speaker on the government side directed his response to Little’s empty seat. And so on. By the end of the debate, barely 25 MPs were left in the chamber.

It is, in every respect, a highly ritualised parade of power, and John Key is very, very good at it.

John Key in 2008 and 2014
Left: John Key in 2008, at the swearing-in of his first government. Right: on the campaign trail in 2014.

 

The general election on September 20 was a vote for democracy. Cue: howls of outrage. Didn’t Nicky Hager show that Key had subverted the democratic process? Yet for a great many voters there was a simpler democratic impulse in play, and that became blindingly obvious when Kim Dotcom staged his so-called Moment of Truth, five days before the election.

Nobody likes being told how to vote, especially by foreigners.

Try a thought experiment: forget about who was on the left and right, and think of it purely as an event in which we were lectured to by some Americans and a German about what was wrong with our country. For good measure, they sneered at and made fun of some of our political leaders. And why? Not because they had some thunderbolt of “truth” about wrongdoing by those leaders. In fact, although there were some murky allegations, clear evidence of wrongdoing was missing altogether.

This kind of thing — patronising, arrogant and deceitful — stoked the fires of left-wing discontent in this country right through the 60s, 70s and 80s. Nobody likes being lectured to by cocky bastards from somewhere else who treat you like a simpleton. Nobody likes being told how to vote, especially by foreigners.

And while most of us had long realised Kim Dotcom was a political buffoon, it was a shock to discover the Pulitzer-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald was also happy to treat us like this.

After the election, National Party campaign manager Steven Joyce confessed that going into the last week his party was down to 44 per cent. That meant the result was wide open.

On election night five days later, National was back to 48 per cent. National pollster David Farrar says he knew as early as the Tuesday morning the Moment of Truth had locked in a victory for National.

But what about all those accusations against John Key and his office, and against members of the National Party? They didn’t matter. What mattered was that voters believed the election was being subverted by those accusations.

Journalist John Roughan, in his post-election update of his very popular hagiography John Key, quotes the campaign adviser Mark Textor as saying voters felt “deprived of an election”.

Key himself believed, says Roughan, that “the country was going to vote with a vengeance”.

If the last week firmed up that mood, it had been many more weeks in the making. Farrar says he got an early indication of it from the advance voting, which ran at 50 per cent for National. People would say to him, “Now I can turn the radio off.” They didn’t want to hear any more about it.

Read more: Simon Wilson on John Roughan’s John Key: Portrait of a Prime Minister. “A book that will cause his supporters to admire him all the more and his detractors to renew their dismay.”

 

John Key rode the wave of discontent brilliantly. His consistent message was that New Zealanders would far rather discuss “the issues that really matter”: jobs, growth, economic and social wellbeing. At the same time, he and other party leaders did their best to keep dirty politics in the headlines.

Before Dirty Politics was published, their bogey of choice was the Green Party. But when the book came out, National quickly refocused on Hager. Their claim that he’s a conspiracy theorist not only belittled him and distracted attention from the accusations in the book, it served to smear anyone else who asked about dirty politics: were they part of the conspiracy too?

By the time the last week arrived, even Hager had been sidelined. National had just two messages: a vote for any of the Opposition parties is a vote for Kim Dotcom; and the only way to ensure a National-led government is to party-vote National.

New Zealanders might well have wanted to hear about “the issues that matter”, but the “issue” John Key dropped into every interview was Kim Dotcom. And the true target, of course, was not Dotcom, but Labour.

After the election, when that damning security report was released, National continued to invoke the “dirty politics” smear. In Parliament, minister Paula Bennett gleefully encouraged Labour to “do your dirty politics”. In her world, “dirty politics” had become something Labour does when it’s desperate.

Is there a time bomb in this for John Key? He and Bennett are right that the public don’t like dirty tricks and other attacks on our democratic processes,  especially when we’re trying to vote.

But the underlying truth of the whole saga hasn’t changed. Dirty politics isn’t about the Labour Party. John Key is the politician who will not dissociate himself from blogger Cameron Slater. Confronted by the muck, he has chosen not to clean it out but simply to ignore it, in the belief that the rest of us don’t care.

So, the public voted for Key as an endorsement of democratic principles. If that’s true — if it was a way of saying, “We don’t want our election stolen,” as Mark Textor believes — won’t that same sentiment undo Key in the end?

His opponents say, “Yes. One day the mud will stick.”

His supporters say, “There you go again. You still don’t get it. When will you learn we are not going to stop trusting John Key just because you don’t like him?”

At Te Tii Marae in Waitangi, 2008.
At Te Tii Marae in Waitangi, 2008.

 

The room in which New Zealand prime ministers deliver their regular Monday afternoon post-Cabinet press conferences is like a small lecture hall, with a walkway of shallow stairs on each side leading down to the stage. You have to take little steps, two per stair, or do them in bounds. John Key does them in bounds. He’s looking effortlessly well dressed today, in a sleek grey suit with a silver blue tie that, in this light, picks up the colour on his upper lip. Four o’clock shadow.

Andrew Little has also held a press conference today, to announce his front bench, and he was also smartly dressed — in a suit so black and formal it looked like he’d come from a funeral. Key’s suit fits him perfectly; Little’s was a little too big.

Key talks quickly and quietly for five minutes about the day’s Cabinet decisions and then takes questions. At the first chance he gets, he refers to Labour’s “seething backbench of misery and discontent”. It’s a well-prepared soundbite, albeit a touch overblown. Can misery seethe?

Politics is always like this: the constant search for the phrase that will define an issue. Little’s “cut the crap” came from the same wellspring: a cleverly crafted piece of rhetoric that’s easy to remember, shocking but not too shocking to be repeated in polite company, or on the news.

When Key answers questions he doesn’t talk to the journalists, but straight past them to the public at home.

When Key answers questions he doesn’t talk to the journalists, but straight past them to the public at home. The journos ask him about Iain Rennie, the State Services Commissioner, because Rennie has just enabled Christchurch Earthquake Recovery boss Roger Sutton to put a positive spin on claims of sexual abuse that are forcing him out of his job. The issue involves principles of government and the exercise of power, and can be a little abstract.

John Key keeps it real. His language is simple and his message is reassuring. Is Rennie on his last chance? Key says he has had a long record of service and is “a very bright guy”. He calls the episode a “complete botch-up”, and concludes with, “In the end, from time to time people make mistakes.”

There’s a whole lot going on here. Key’s tone is serious but his words are chatty. He’s accepted that a big mistake was made but now that’s clear, he’s asking us to move on. Common sense has prevailed, just as you would want.

The deeper message is, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.” With John Key, whatever the issue, the deeper message is always, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.”

 

John Key is not the only politician in the world who operates like this. The outstanding example — who, as it happens, has just been in New Zealand on a courtesy visit — is German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Merkel, a scientist who grew up in East Germany and is reportedly about as charisma-free as is possible for a human, enjoys a popularity rating of around 75 per cent. That’s even better than Key, who has consistently been in the 50s and 60s.

These figures are truly remarkable: most leaders in developed countries right now are unpopular. Merkel’s support is commonly put down to her ability to stay extremely close to public opinion. “I’m going to be all things to all people,” she has said, and according to the New Yorker, “critics and supporters alike describe her as a gifted tactician without a larger vision”.

Merkel has also said, “I am regarded as a permanent delayer sometimes, but I think it is essential and extremely important to take people along and really listen to them in political talks.”

This is the complete opposite of the approach of Roger Douglas, the crusading reformer of the fourth Labour Government. Douglas believed you could never win an argument for major reform, so the trick was to do it fast and hope people appreciated its value before they had time to complain.

Key is like Merkel, not Douglas. Ironically, he approves of what Douglas did to the New Zealand economy. But he refused to have him in his Cabinet in 2008, and he wouldn’t dream of instituting Douglas-style reforms himself.

Key leans heavily on polling data in order to know what the public is thinking. Roughan’s book contains a fascinating account of the closeness between Key and David Farrar, and Key’s ability to divine the meaning of “any two numbers”.

It’s tempting to think that Farrar is now so good at polling and Key is so assiduous at following what it tells him, that the best way to find out what New Zealanders are thinking is to listen to what Key is saying.

King of the selfies: On the campaign trail in Dannevirke in 2014.
King of the selfies: On the campaign trail in Dannevirke in 2014.

 

A political life driven by polls, rather than political purpose. There’s a name for this: it’s called transactional politics.

Deciding John Key was not that man would diminish not just him, but us with him.

You fight each battle as it comes, doing the deals, taking the wins as you find them, treating all that as an end in itself. You manage expectations and above all do your best to stay popular. Your goal is not so much to advance a strategic political purpose as to retain power.

Helen Clark was a transactional politician, although she did not start out that way. So was John Howard in Australia. Barack Obama did not start out that way either, but he has been reduced to the status of one, and struggles with the fit.

John Key is a masterful transactional politician. The skills required are close to those of a financial trader: knowing when to go long or short, hold or quit, being able to decide each of those things dispassionately and act ruthlessly when you need to. Living in the moment and — perhaps above all — deriving intense enjoyment from it all.

Transactional politics often goes hand in hand with an understanding that commanding the centre is essential to success in politics today. In fact, they don’t have to be linked: you can stand in the middle and still have a political strategy to move in a particular direction, taking people with you by actively fostering public opinion.

But commanding the centre has become essential, whether you’ve got a programme or are just interested in the power. It’s staggering the number of commentators, especially on the left, who don’t understand this, but Clark knew it, and Key knows it too.

John Roughan says Key is finely attuned to risk, and will often, when he reads Cabinet papers, spot political fishhooks other ministers and advisers have missed.

That may be true. But Key also knows something else: we judge character by looking and by listening to tone of voice, far more than by digesting what is said. Once we have judged, we are not likely to unjudge. He may also know this is especially true of educated people, who are susceptible to the arrogant notion that they have special insights.

Key understands that we judged him early on as trustworthy, capable, successful, a rich bloke you could talk to, a man comfortable in himself with little need to prove anything to anybody.

That’s an appealing set of character traits. Why would we be looking for reasons to change our view of him? Deciding John Key was not that man would diminish not just him, but us with him.

Read more: Matthew Hooton on the 2014 election. “John Key’s mandate gives him a chance to be a truly great prime minister.”

 

Angela Merkel, it has been said, “took the politics out of politics”. Her genius is that she has “made party lines senseless”.

In 1992, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama provoked a storm of controversy when he wrote about this. He called it “the end of history”. What he argued, with a cocky confidence inspired be the fall of the Berlin Wall, was that among developed countries (at least) there was only one option: secular liberal democracy with a free-market-oriented economy.

This, he said, would prevail because all major political forces had already formed a consensus to ensure its success. And, he added, the consequence of this “liberal consensus” was a political system focused on administrative efficiency rather than the outdated notion that there should be a great clash of ideas. The best leaders are the best managers, and that’s really all there is to it.

This is now the strategy of most centre-right parties, despite the impact of crackpot aberrations like Tea Party Republicans, and transactional politics is essential to the process. John Key has just been elected chair of the International Democrat Union (IDU), a grouping of 54 such centre-right parties. It’s an honour, and a recognition among his peers of his skill as a transactional leader.

Taking the politics out of politics is not just an accident of historical timing. It’s planned, and it has at least four distinct components. One is the decline of organised political activity — most obviously in New Zealand the collapse of union membership over the last 30 years. It’s now less than 20 per cent of the workforce.

A generation earlier, over half the population belonged to organisations that negotiated wages and conditions for them every year, and sometimes took industrial action. Because of that, people understood they were part of a larger group, with their own particular interests which could be advanced through the group.

Unions gave their members a sense of community and an engagement with civic life. They dislocated people from the paternalistic idea that they did not need to worry about political matters because their interests were being looked after for them — quite often by a father figure.

A second component is the change to political and civic institutions and structures. The public service is now required to protect the interests of government ministers in ways that were not considered appropriate a generation ago. The Official Information Act no longer functions as well as it used to, as a conduit to open government.

Third, there’s the wider culture. John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of The Economist, is fond of quoting Churchill: Democracy is the worst system of government except for the others.

“He was right,” says Micklethwait. “Democracy is still more flexible and fair than any alternative. But that is not an excuse for failing to tackle its imperfections.” We need to engage with it, he adds, not disengage. It’s not robust enough to be left to its own devices.

We’re lucky in New Zealand. Our democracy is not the travesty of gilded principles now overwhelming America. We do not have a Tea Party, or an equivalent of Britain’s Nigel Farage and his UKIP, or of France’s National Front. In fact, our elections tend to deal serious blows to any party that engages in fear-mongering populism.

But that’s not to say we are free of darker forces. The fourth component of “taking the politics out of politics” is corruption.

Nicky Hager’s book details the way in which Cameron Slater and Hawke’s Bay activist Simon Lusk have worked covertly within the National Party to ensure safe-seat selection of favoured candidates. Many in the party will have been extremely concerned by those revelations.

The book also contains allegations about Katherine Rich, a former National MP and now head of the Food and Grocery Council. Her job makes her a paid lobbyist for the alcohol and tobacco industries, yet Hager alleges she has engaged in covert advocacy against the Health Promotion Agency— even though she sits on its board. She has yet to deny the allegations.

As commentator Bernard Hickey says, “It’s the things they do when people are not watching that matter. That’s why Dirty Politics was so important.”

Transactional politics and the liberal consensus, it’s worth remembering, are not part of some right-wing plot. Andrew Little is a transactional politician — unlike the hapless David Cunliffe — and he learned how to be good at it in the union movement. Those skills, and that outlook, are what could make him the first serious opponent John Key has faced.

With the Duchess and Duke of Cambridge in Wellington, 2014.
With the Duchess and Duke of Cambridge in Wellington, 2014.

 

He’s got a tell. When John Key is under pressure, his eyebrows go up. Today, he’s standing on the “bridge” connecting the Beehive with the old Parliament Building, answering journalists’ questions in what’s called a “stand-up”. This is another ritual: in the 10 minutes or so before Parliament convenes for the afternoon, journalists can waylay MPs on their way to the debating chamber and ask them whatever they like.

Today’s questions are all about the SIS and his office, and Cameron Slater. Again. Key’s eyebrows are up because he and his advisers have decided he is not going to accept any of the obvious implications of the critical Gwyn report. He’s just going to bluff: he did nothing wrong and there is nothing to worry about.

He knows it’s wrong. He must know. But does he?

A new narrative has arisen: he’s the leader who has tirelessly answered every question put to him about dirty politics, because he believes in openness and accountability.

He stands there, eyebrows high on his forehead, lower jaw pushed forward a little, and answers the same questions over and over. No, he did not use SIS information inappropriately and nor did his office. No, he does not accept all the findings of the official report. And no, he can’t remember the last time he was in contact with Slater.

He deflects attention onto Phil Goff, who has stupidly released details of the embargoed security report early. Key finishes with a declaration that comes out as a dismissive sneer: “In other words,” he says about Goff, directly eyeballing a camera, “he was a politician talking to the media.”

Key’s doing more than diverting attention from himself. He’s also saying his political opponents and “the media” should not be trusted because they hobnob with each other. The message is: they’re in a silly world of their own, while I talk to you.

When he finishes, he closes his mouth tightly, his lips stretched thin and wide. No longer on the defence, he now wears a slight but definite sense of exasperation.

A new narrative has arisen around John Key and “dirty politics” since the election: he’s the leader who has tirelessly answered every question put to him about all this, because he believes in openness and accountability.

Employing the old adage that if you’re going to tell a whopper, make it a really big one, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman rose in Parliament that week to call Key “quite frankly, the most honest prime minster this country has ever had”. Later the very same day, Key was required to return to the debating chamber to apologise for giving a wrong answer in Question Time. This is very rare. He’d been asked, again, if he’d been in touch with Slater recently, and twice said, “No.” But he had.

Both Steven Joyce and Finance Minister Bill English have extolled the patience Key has shown in answering endlessly repeated questions about who knew what and when.
John Roughan, in his post-election update of John Key, explains at some length how much he admires the Prime Minister for this patience.

The reality is much simpler. Key gets asked the same questions repeatedly because he gives unsatisfactory answers to them repeatedly, and if he refuses to answer at all, he really will risk being seen as having something to hide.

John Armstrong, the Herald’s senior political correspondent, got remarkably angry about this. He wrote that Key’s response to the Gwyn report revealed “new depths of arrogance and contempt”. The report, said Armstrong, “should be cause for a full prime ministerial apology to Parliament — at the minimum”.

Yet, English told the House, “John Key is doing what no one else has done: introducing transparency to the SIS”. True, except that this transparency is the very thing that has exposed the wrongdoing Key is now brazenly denying.

 

John Key is a lucky guy, according to former Labour Party president Mike Williams. He rose just as Helen Clark was falling; there was the Pike River tragedy and the Christchurch earthquakes; there was a global financial crisis.

Disaster, in Williams’ playbook, is good for politicians. It enables them to portray empathy, hope for the future and decision-making confidence — and to benefit from the recovery.

Others say Key’s support is founded more on his personal attributes. Political commentator Matthew Hooton notes his “rare ability to make everyone he meets feel like he’s their friend”. He’s the King of the Selfies, and every selfie turns the people in it into besties 4eva, complete with a souvenir to remind them of the fact.

David Farrar says Key has carefully built his reputation for trust and integrity. It’s rarely added that this reputation is not based on consistent behaviour, but on a few highly symbolic policy planks: he said he would sell down some state assets, and he did; he said he would not raise the age of super, and he has not.

Business people have been “a bit dismayed” at his cavalier attitude to dirty politics.

We forget he has also introduced legislation he did not tell us about when we voted: raising GST, for example, and introducing charter schools, limiting employee bargaining rights and widening the powers of the security services.

John Roughan says Key’s major contribution to New Zealand is confidence. He makes us feel good about ourselves, and that’s an invaluable precondition for economic growth and a positive community spirit. Which is true.

I asked Roughan what he thought Key would like his legacy to be, and he suggested it might be “international connectedness”. Key, says Roughan, is deeply committed to New Zealand making the most of its opportunities in the world.

Are things changing for him? Herald business commentator Fran O’Sullivan thinks so. She reports business people have been “a bit dismayed” at his cavalier attitude to all that dirty politics stuff.

David Farrar says National may quietly decline a little in the polls next year and Labour may quietly rise, but there won’t be anything sudden.

Key will refresh his Cabinet: by the end of next summer, Murray McCully and Tim Groser, and probably Gerry Brownlee too, are picked to lose their jobs as Key turns National into the party of Paula Bennett and Simon Bridges. Behind the scenes,  Key is and always has been ruthlessly unsentimental about such things.

Is it really about luck, as Mike Williams suggests? Of course not. “He had the luck” is another one of those stories people on the left console themselves with. If Key had been a poor leader, he would have been undone by any one of those “lucky” events, and his supporters would have been bemoaning his bad luck. “He didn’t stand a chance because of the mine/earthquakes/GFC…”

Key knows how to ride his luck, which is another thing that endears him. At the end of the day, who doesn’t like a guy who can do that?

And one more thing. It’s been said of Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, two transactional politicians, that when they are together they are like “two hit men in the same room. They don’t have to talk — both are quiet, both are killers.”

Sound a little bit familiar?

 

ELECTION 2014: 6 THINGS THE COMMENTARIAT STRUGGLED TO UNDERSTAND

1.    The strength of National in Christchurch. It’s fashionable everywhere else in New Zealand to sneer at Gerry Brownlee, but he has been triumphantly successful among Christchurch voters.

2.    How resistant Key’s support is to charges of “anti-democratic” behaviour.

3.    How to address that, if you think those things matter.

4.    The toxicity of Kim Dotcom, and probably also Laila Harré. Russel Norman and David Cunliffe both knew, but were powerless to do anything about it.

5.    Voter wariness of the Greens. As David Farrar puts it, we want them in Parliament, but we don’t want them in government. Shouldn’t they have benefited from Labour’s disarray?

6.    The quality of Andrew Little. Almost everyone (including this magazine) said his ascension would be disastrous for Labour. On the contrary, to date he has shown himself capable of being the leader they have longed for. Why wasn’t that expected? Probably because he did not shine in caucus. Union supremo Helen Kelly says there’s a history of leading unionists failing as MPs, so we were all right to be wary. And he does lack charisma.

But Little has never been questioned on his integrity and he successfully projects himself as someone with a strong core of beliefs. He has led two large and fractious political organisations (NZ’s largest union, and the Labour Party), and has highly refined negotiating skills. He always speaks articulately and clearly, he’s smart, he has no political debts to pay and he has his own ego well in check. And he appears to relish being on the political battleground. All this was well known, but somehow no one thought it would be enough to make him a successful political leader. Actually, it is.

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