NZ POLITICS DAILY: Why is John Key so popular?

PLUS: Wai 262 report | Gender pay gap | India and free trade | MMP white supremacy row | Housing

The focus on John Key has been intensifying lately, as in the lead up to the general election the media and political commentators start to evaluate his first term as prime minister, and again try to work out ‘who he really is’ and why he’s so popular. Hence recently TV3’s The Nation has given him a reflective – but very soft – profile, and this month North & South magazine has published a cover story with few hard questions asked – see: Virginia Larson’s John Key – Saviour or spinner? (not online).

In his election year scene-setting feature – Game on – in the Sunday Star Times, Anthony Hubbard, also deals briefly with the question of Key’s incredible popularity, and quotes me in this section: ‘And that leaves National and its greatest asset, John Key. Why has he done so well? "I don't want to like him," says left-leaning Willie Jackson, "but I can't help it." Edwards finds the secret in his blandness, pragmatism and apparent honesty. "Key almost perfectly personifies our anti- political and anti-ideological age," he says’.

To elaborate on this argument, I’d point out that no other political leader of a major political party in New Zealand has been so able to convincingly display a lack of an ideological framework.

This is very important when the public is so thoroughly skeptical of the political ideologies. The very mention of the term ideology – which used have positive connotations – is almost abhorrent to many New Zealand. And if not ‘abhorrent’, it's simply boring to them. Hence, the political frameworks of all ideologies are not popular, understood, or even really spoken about amongst New Zealanders now. So it's very rare to hear terms such as socialist, neoliberal, free-market, feminist, or social democratic. Even the old analytical currency of 'left-wing' or 'right-wing' is decreasingly uttered or used.

Certainly few politicians will ever self-ascribe to these labels, and only ever use them as pejorative terms against opponents. Even the term 'politics' is now one that increasingly is seen as a dirty word relating to negative activities and motives (whereas once it had positive connotations). So the overwhelming ideological characteristic of our age is not leftwing, rightwing or any other ideology, it's 'anti-politics', 'anti-politicians', and suspicion of all ideologies. That’s the important context to understand this year’s general election campaign.

John Key fits this age perfectly. He has no real political history prior to be elected to Parliament only nine years ago - no real National Party background, no real prior views on landmark political issues such as the ‘81 tour, and an absence of involvement or alignment with any government. Instead his narrative is about 'getting things done' (successful international career), understanding people from all walks of life (state house background, business knowledge), arriving at all political situations with an open mind, and being willing to compromise and work with all political actors (the so-called anti-smacking legislation compromise, embracing the Maori Party). For most people he really does convincingly exude a sense that he is not your usual politician and is not driven by ideology. So when Key talks about his political principles, people understand him to be talking about rules of personal/political behaviour rather than ideology.

No other political leader has been so convincing in this regard. Bolger and Clark were relatively good at painting themselves as 'political managers', but the public was far from convinced that they were purely pragmatic and had no ideological worldview that they secretly or not-so-secretly wanted to pursue. And, of course, Key's public perception of being nice, 'relaxed', willing to laugh and indulge in humour or down-to-earth behaviour (beer in hand, bbqs, jandals, etc) fit in very nicely with that anti-politician and anti-elite brand.

So, while it’s commonly pointed out that John Key has pragmatic similarities with previously popular prime ministers such as Holyoake and Muldoon, he's actually seen as being even more ideology-free than they ever were, and in 2011 the public's desire for this is greater than it's ever been. Therefore the central dynamic for understanding John Key's popularity is his very close match with the ideological atmosphere in New Zealand. Key almost perfectly personifies our anti-political and anti-ideological age.

Another very useful article relating to John Key’s popularity is Jenni McManus’s Fairfax published article, The state of the nation (not currently online), in which 40 business leaders are interviewed for their assessment of John Key’s government. The collective verdict is incredibly poor – with a rating given of only 5 out of 10. The six-page article is full of quotes from captains of industry along the lines of ‘Where's the excitement? They're terrified that if they do anything dramatic, they may not get another term. The only strategy seems to be getting re-elected’. McManus sums up the business complaints about Key and colleagues: ‘The problem? A widespread perception that the Government has squandered the huge mandate for change it was handed at the 2008 election, opting for timid and incremental tinkering around the edges instead of tackling the big - and contentious - issues like tax reform, superannuation and welfare. Significantly, the business community said it had no confidence that the Government had a clear economic strategy or vision to guide its policy-making’.

The Labour Party, unsurprisingly, is written off by business: ‘Overall, the view of many businesspeople was that the Labour Party had become irrelevant. It was characterised as "hopeless", "pathetic", "lacking the vigour of Clark and Cullen" and "still doing Business 101"’. So with both Labour and National derided as ineffectual and mild, McManus says this ‘year's election is not shaping up to be iconoclastic’.

Today’s content:

Wai 262 report
RNZ: Govt needs time to digest major Maori report
Danya Levy and Kate Chapman (Dom Post): Government will consider whole Waitangi report
Marty Sharpe (Dom Post): Maori don’t own NZ’s wildlife
Lloyd Burr (TV3): Waitangi Tribunal report arrives after 20-year wait
Tova O’Brien (TV3): Iwi shouldn’t get special treatment with Wai 262 – Brash
RNZ: Increased iwi veto power inappropriate, says Brash
Joshua Hitchcock (Maori Law and Politics): Wai 262: Initial Thoughts 
Morgan Godfery (Maui Street): Release of the Wai262 report 

Gender pay gap
Victoria Robinson (Dom Post): EMA in bid to keep Air NZ on board
Catherine Masters (NZH): No secrets: bill to reveal pay gap
Catherine Masters (NZH): Building bridges across the gender pay gap
NZPA: Opposition welcome equal pay project
TVNZ: Govt will consider new equal pay law
RNZ: Pay rate transparency inevitable, says CTU
NZPA: Commissioner eyes gender pay gap
AP: Equal Pay Bill could reveal gender inequality
Judy McGregor (Dom Post): Confidentiality deals targeted for equal employment
Radiolive: Labour backs Green’s equal pay bill

India and free trade agreements
Patrick Gower (TV3): John Key turns pirate-hunter to nab Indian deal
NZPA: Child labour question ‘insult to India’
Kate Chapman (Stuff): FTA not right forum to discuss child labour – Key
Radiolive: India hints at lower free trade taxes with NZ
John Hartevelt (Stuff): Labour MP in outsource row
Editorial (ODT): To India with love
Editorial (NZH): Bolly good idea to woo Indian film-makers
Derek Cheng (NZH): Trade Minister refuses to rule out Pharmac changes
Fran O’Sullivan (NZH): Key woos India with his charm and eye for a deal

Shabnam Dastgheib (Dom Post): Supremacist claim against MMP critic
Anthony Hubbard (SST): A lineup of the usual suspects
Graeme Edgeler (Legal Beagle): Referendum Fact Check #2: Think Tank
Alan McRobie (NZH): Education on voting systems vital
Kate Chapman (SST): MMP mixed signals confusing voters, charges academic [Not currently online]
Deborah Coddington (NZH): No good moaning about MMP if you don’t vote
Derek Cheng (NZH): MMP foes expelling man over race views
Hayden Donnell (NZH): Bob Harvey resigns from anti-MMP group
Dave Crampton (Big news): On opposing an electoral system

Jenni McManus (Press): The state of the nation [Not currently online]
TV3: Unions bare teeth to National’s asset sell-down
Bernard Hickey (NZH): Help NZ by saving like the wind
John Hartevelt (Stuff): Nats to spell out their plans for spending $10b
Derek Cheng (NZH): Infrastructure plan out today

Damien Grant (NZH): Simply put, build more
John Armstrong (NZH): Nats riding tailwind on housing reforms
Kate Chapman (Dom Post): Locking the door to state housing [Not currently available online]
The Standard: Case for capital gains tax builds

Anthony Hubbard (SST): Game on
Virginia Larson (North & South): John Key – Saviour or spinner? [Not available online]
Danya Levy (Dom Post): ‘Dob in a beneficiary’ campaign feared
Nicholas Jones (NZH): Church billboard ‘Gay-Dar’ rage
NZPA: Defence doubts friendly fire claim
Derek Cheng (NZH): PM: Friendly fire claims ‘not the case’
Derek Cheng (NZH): SAS war kit blows away military fans
Matt McCarten (NZH): Time for Douglas to take a good hard look
Sarah Harvey (SST): Refugee doctors being fast-tracked
Jon Morgan (Stuff): New leader will engage townies
RNZ: Leadership style change signaled for Federated Farmers
Stuff: King of Tonga begins five-day visit
NZPA: NZ a destination for illegal prostitution – report
RNZ: Prostitutes Collective disputes trafficking claim
Jonathan Marshall (SST): Defence boss in porn fuss
Press: Value seen in red-zone community meetings
NZPA: Bhatnagar on National’s Epsom shortlist
Keith Lynch (Press): 32 men jump ship amid claims of ill-treatment
Bernard Orsman (NZH): High profile councilor cagey about bid for top job
Editorial (NZH): Alcohol views demand heed
Dom Post: Political briefs – Monday, July 4

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer with the Department of Politics at the University of Otago. He blogs at

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