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Jafa of the Year: John Key

Dec 10, 2014 Politics

John Key, man of the people.

He invented the selfie. You don’t think so? Once every 40 years or so in New Zealand, along comes a politician who reinvents the way to use media.

Robert Muldoon did it in 1975, turning his unwavering beady eyes to the camera and speaking directly to us. Before him, in 1935, Michael Joseph Savage unleashed the partisan radio broadcaster Colin Scrimgeour as his potent electioneering weapon.

John Key has done it too, but not with radio or television. He disdains Radio New Zealand, preferring to broadcast to an echo chamber of like-minded souls on various commercial stations. On TV, he is invariably competent but rarely much more. Is inspirational oratory beyond him? We wouldn’t know because he doesn’t try.

But follow him into a shopping mall or a market fair and watch what happens. Everyone wants their photo taken with John Key, and he grinningly obliges, over and over. Other politicians try this but no one is half as good at it as he is. The result: over the past few years, selfie by selfie, Key has locked in a good-time memory of him with untold thousands of voters. And on the back of that, he has achieved the truly astonishing feat of increasing his party’s vote in three straight elections — two of them while in power.

Of course it’s about more than selfies. People want their picture taken with him because they trust him. They believe he is making New Zealand a better place, so they vote for him. And they believe that because, on the whole, he insists his colleagues pursue moderate policies carefully geared to the public mood.

Conventional but not radical free-market economics. Leavened by interventionist programmes wherever the “mood of the country” suggests the government should be “doing something” to fix a problem. A basically liberal social outlook. John Key has a bit of fun from time to time, sniggering with the blokes, but he is also capable of standing up when he knows it’s right to do so, and not always because the polls say he should. His vote for gay marriage may have been populist, but in 2008 he was also instrumental in helping pass the bill to stop parents hitting their children. To the surprise of many pundits, he played a decisive role in keeping Colin Craig’s Conservative Party out of Parliament.

At the end of the day, these things are not a biggie. We like to think we all get on, and John Key is formidably gifted at encouraging us to believe it. He creates confidence, which is something remarkably few politicians can do.

And unlike, say, the mayor of this fair city, he does it without singing. Some things, as John Key knows, are best left to Lorde.

Elle Hunt pays tribute to Metro’s other Jafa of the Year, the all-conquering woman of the world, Lorde.


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