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The (John) Key factor: grinners are winners

By Duncan Graham - posted Friday, 21 January 2011

He’s a self-made mega-millionaire in a multi-roomed mansion, leading a country of battlers struggling against low wages and high unemployment, many living in damp, overcrowded homes.

His country’s economy is slipping and sliding further behind the self-imposed benchmark of Australia and with no real rescue plan. While Australia spent its way out of the recession his solution was a cycleway. It’s still unfinished.

As Minister for Tourism he oversees an industry that jostles for top place as exchange earner, yet spends his holidays in Hawaii.


He wasn’t involved in the defining event of his generation that split the nation over sport and race. Instead he spent much of his working life overseas in big money dealing, a business few understand and many distrust.

The angry indigenous minority traditionally backs his opponents. He doesn’t need their support yet he’s brought them into his ministry.

In any other country, particularly one with a proud history of iconoclasm, New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key would be a one-term wonder, the butt of ridicule.

But in the election later this year the leader of the National Party, (the Kiwi version of Australia’s Liberals), is expected to stroll into a second three-year term, his mana (authority and influence) secure.

Labour has tried digging dirt and casting slurs, but nothing has stuck on Jolly John. He’s the man for all seasons who smiles his way through political winters, yet still finds the right tone to handle tragedy.

In 2008 he defeated Helen Clark, the feisty, no-nonsense competent but controversial PM for nine years. He succeeded not by trying to be tougher, but by being bland.


Key inherited a collapsing economy and volatile social issues. Labour, prodded by the Greens, had supported a bill to help diminish the national shame of child bashing, but opponents tagged it the Anti-Smacking Law.

Right-wing Christian groups who hated the agnostic and childless Clark saw this as interference in parenting. Huge opposition forced a referendum that collected almost 1.5 million signatures (87 per cent) against the law.

Had Clark remained in power and refused to budge the outrage would have been seismic. Key uttered a few smooth words, left the law in place and the electorate relaxed.

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About the Author

Duncan Graham is a Perth journalist who now lives in Indonesia in winter and New Zealand in summer. He is the author of The People Next Door (University of Western Australia Press) and Doing Business Next Door (Wordstars). He blogs atIndonesia Now.

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