Brian Edwards Media

“Photo-Op PM” (revisited)

Hawkes Bay Tribune

I have only met John Key once. He was either standing for parliament or recently elected. I can’t remember. A prominent television newsreader, whom we were helping to add ‘interviewer’ to his range of skills, had invited him along as a guest. It was usual for trainee interviewers to rope in politicians as interview subjects. The would-be interviewers could practise their interrogation skills and the politicians could practise fending them off.

We knew little or nothing about Key at the time, so the impressions we had of him were first impressions which, they say, are the most lasting. Key was easy, engaging, pleasant, a man seemingly comfortable in his own skin and a good listener. If he was indeed going places, he displayed neither arrogance nor self-importance. You would have said, as the country has been saying for two years now, that he was ‘a nice bloke’. We may have given him a couple of tips on how to improve his on-camera performance, but not enough to constitute disloyalty to our #1 client.

I was reminded of this occasion by John Armstrong’s column in the Weekend Herald,  ‘Politician of the year: John Key’, sub-headed ‘Get used to it, Labour, he’s the man the country wants in charge’.

The column was as much a critique of Labour and its leader Phil Goff as it was  a paean of praise for the Prime Minister.

The left dismisses the most popular Prime Minister in New Zealand’s recent political history as Smile and Wave John Key, Do Nothing John Key and Lucky John Key. The left’s fatal error has been to constantly underrate Key in terms of ability and the fact that though he is of centre-right disposition, he is firmly at the moderate end of that broad spectrum. Key does not fit the left’s mould, which assumes or even dictates that someone as wealthy as him must be an acolyte of the old New Right. In short, Key’s critics on the left still don’t get it. Maybe the Mana byelection will remove a few scales from a few eyes. It should. That result was a gruesome preview of the slaughter that may well be inflicted on Labour at the end of next year.

Armstrong went on to list Key’s achievements and Goff’s failings.

But has Key been as good a Prime Minister and Goff as bad a Leader of the Opposition as Armstrong – whom I regard as our most astute political writer –  suggests?

Goff, it must be remembered, faces the same problem as every other Leader of the Opposition – he has to work much harder to get coverage than the PM or even a middle-ranked Cabinet Minister. Governments act, oppositions react. And generally the reaction is carping and negative. Put slightly differently, governments do, oppositions just talk.

The advantage of being in power is never more evident than during times of national crisis. Though it may seem cynical to say so, disasters, handled well, are a boon to politicians in power, while their opposition counterparts are largely sidelined. Who wants to talk to Phil Goff about the Canterbury earthquake or the Pike River mining disaster? He can do nothing  about either beyond expressing his concern and sympathy for the victims and their families.  Key, it must be said, handled the two events superbly, both in terms of being there and offering his personal and his government’s support. Goff, through no fault of his own, was conspicuous by his absence from the media coverage. If anyone doubts the role which a disaster can play in shaping a political leader’s fortunes, they need look no further than Jim Anderton and Bob Parker.  

And then there is the corrosive influence of the polls themselves. Though the pollsters like to tell us there is no evidences that polls can amount to self-fulfilling prophesies, the idea that being on 6.8% as ‘preferred Prime Minister’ (Goff’s latest rating) while your opponent is on 54.1% (Key’s latest rating) has no effect on voter perceptions or voting patterns, simply defies logic or common sense.

Among the actual effects:

  •  Constant speculation that the leader will soon be dumped;
  • The leader having to constantly respond to and deny that speculation;
  • Internal party dissatisfaction with the leader’s performance, resulting in plots and rumours of plots;
  • Voters’ unwillingness to be associated with ‘a loser’;
  • Loss of self-confidence on the leader’s part;
  • Acts of desperation by the leader;
  • Limitless opportunities for the Government to mock the leader and predict his/her imminent downfall.

Which is precisely what John Key has just done. Responding to the latest TV3 poll, Key said that it was a great way to go into Christmas:

‘It shows that the public are supporting the direction we’re taking the country in,’ he said. Goff was facing ‘a real challenge’ and he wouldn’t be surprised if the Labour caucus dumped him in the New Year.

But did the poll really show that ‘the public are supporting the direction [National] is taking the county in’?

John Armstrong seemed to think so, but I very much doubt it. I very much doubt that if you asked a hundred people in the street what direction the government was taking the country in, you’d get a sensible or informed answer from more than 5% of them. The rest would effectively be ‘don’t knows’. Not because they’re stupid, but because a) most people don’t think in terms of ‘general directions’ and b) it would be extremely difficult to identify a ‘general direction’ in which this particular government is taking us.

As Armstrong himself observed:

[Key’s]  priority has been to build trust with voters so that in a second parliamentary term he can carry them with him as National tackles big-ticket items like welfare reform, the recommendations of the savings working group and possible part-privatisation of some state-owned enterprises…  The combination of Key’s positioning of National as a moderate centre-right party and the trust-building combines with a unique ability to strike a rapport with almost anyone at an individual or national level.

Not much evidence of ‘a direction we’re taking the country in’ there. Not yet anyway. That’s for later.

My own view is much simpler. Like most first impressions, the country’s first impressions of Key have proved lasting. And they precisely mirror how we saw him on that training course all those years ago:  easy, engaging, pleasant, a man seemingly comfortable in his own skin and a good listener, displaying neither arrogance nor self-importance. ‘A nice  bloke.’

Armstrong is probably right to criticise Labour for dismissing Key as a ‘smile and wave’ politician. I’ve been guilty of that myself. But he is both a popular and a populist prime minister. What the polls reflect is the Prime Minister’s personal popularity, his willingness to give the punters what they want, and his absolute determination not to do anything to scare the horses. Whether that can be described as ‘a direction we’re taking the country in’ seems debatable.

In an earlier post I described John Key as a ‘photo-op PM’, but that suggests premeditation and artifice. Key requires neither. He merely has to be himself.

Goff might well be able to articulate a much clearer idea of the direction in which he wants to take the country. It might even be a better direction. But to do that he needs to command the attention of the electorate. He is hindered in that ambition by being the Leader of the Opposition, by being Phil Goff and, perhaps most importantly,  by not being John Key.

, , ,

26 Comments:

  1. After reading this, the TV coverage of Labour’s 1999 victory comes to mind. I remember a Labour supporter at the election night party saying how “Labour was going to govern forever”.

    People seem to think the same of John Key (although the popular refrain is ‘but will he get tired of it first?’).

    Yes, John Key has managed his image well and shown strong leadership, but he – like all politicians – cannot hold off the eventual decline.

    The electorate tires of everyone eventually… especially when they’re making unpopular decisions (which he hasn’t, as yet).

    It will be interesting to see how Phil Goff campaigns during the 2011 election. He might not win it, but he could pull back some of the party vote.

  2. To be fair to Goff I think Labour would be struggling regardless of the leader; it is the nature of first term governments. In the natural course of events I would expect this National government to sail back into power albeit with the gap narrowing before the election. However I would have thought there were problems on the horizon for National.

    Both global and national economies are fragile and it is not beyond the realms of possibilty that there will be an economic crisis for which National will be blamed.

    The greater worry is Winston Peters and here I make three predictions. A month out from the election he will make a repeal of the so called anti-smacking legislation a pre-condition for his party’s support. He will also appeal to the red neck vote by promising to have no truck with giving Maori rights to the foreshore and seabed.

    His poll rating will shoot up and we will be faced with a ragbag coalition of God knows what.

    Mr Key may be the nice guy but it is Winston who holds the key to the election.

    • Mr Key may be the nice guy but it is Winston who holds the key to the election.

      You may well be right, Ben. May God have mercy on our souls.

  3. Brian
    Nice piece. I agree he is under-rated. I had the same first impressions when I met him in 2005 during his time as opposition finance spokesman.

    You’re right he has benefited from the crisis stuff.

    But they were largely not crises where he could be blamed or had to take tough decisions.

    The next crisis (let’s say a credit rating downgrade) may not be so forgiving. It may happen sooner than we all think.

    It’s worth remembering that pretty much every leader of a developed nation has struggled to stay in power in the wake of the global financial crisis. Labour’s John Brumby was the latest. Gillard too.

    I think the election will be much tighter than many expected.

    cheers
    Bernard

  4. I think you are largely right Brian but I hope not completely right. As a dealer JK had courage to back his instincts. I find it hard to believe that he has holstered that courage in the pursuit of power alone. I hope that what you are missing in him is patience and that in due course some of that political capital people keep talking about will be used to make the hard decisions. If not he is toast. The status quo is not a direction.

  5. Bryan you missed on the ‘list’ the low polling that encourages ‘poll driven fruitcakes’ from within the party to try and undermine/replace the leader. I won’t mention the recent crazy DC example, but Mike Moore toppling Geoffrey Palmer 12 weeks out from the election was a case in point. It doesn’t help.

    I agree John K may be all the things you say – but I don’t think he is a politician’s politician. Politics is life and I think he learned that well in the currency trader bearpit and elsewhere (nothing like a spot of OE), but like Brash he’s not a ‘professional’ politician. Unlike Brash, who failed (to old, to ‘comb over’, too public servant, too erm brash), John has so far succeeded.

    He’s ‘comfortable in his skin’ because he can afford to be – he’s already succeeded and has enough money to retire. He’s beholden to no-one.

    Came back to NZ because it’s a ‘great place to raise a family’, thought about a job to keep his hand in, PM was a goody, and when he is over that won’t it be great on his CV when he goes back into the trader world? Knows presidents etc by first name. CEO Goldman Sach’s anyone?

    His ‘popularity of course will not last. Every prime minister (like every all-black coach, on the day of his/her appointment (wouldn’t a female allblack coach be something?) he is one day closer to the day he gets the sack.

    What Key is facing next year, and none of the media is picking this up, is that he is CURRENTLY a minority government. He may have got a big vote but he is a MINORITY government.

    ACT has self-destructed, talk of Winston making an effective come-back is crap, every government has a better than average chance of getting a second term (BUT WITH LESS VOTES)

    So it may not matter how good/bad Goff is – he has a very good chance of becoming PM next year.

    Bye bye John Banks, Bye bye John Key.

    • Bryan you missed on the ‘list’ the low polling that encourages ‘poll driven fruitcakes’ from within the party to try and undermine/replace the leader.

      Interesting comment. Two significant factors in the coming election: what National decides to do in Epsom and the possible resurrection of Winston Peters. The TV3 poll has New Zealand First on 1.9%. Not promising, but you can never count Winston out.

  6. I cant put my finger on it but..
    you dont get to head Merril Lynch derivatives desk in Europe without being an incredibly good operator, to do that from a state house in Christchurch is nothing short of miraculous.
    He had to balance “masters of the universe” with their huge egos, the regulators, directors, shareholders, risk managers which is probably great training for running a country and a political party.
    Labour make him look good too by having a party full of feminists, unionists, policy analysts and frankly a party with such a narrow amount of real experience. Every time I hear Goff interviewed I just want him to shut up and stop droning without saying anything, with Key you get a straight answer warts and all, quite refreshing really.

  7. The sign of a good leader is during crisis.I have seen no evidence of this yet.With his personal fortune already amassed he has no need to suceed and can float past oblivious to the real effects of his parties policies.The henchmen(and women)he has around him point directly to the real direction of his party.Paula Bennett,gerry Browlie,etc do the donkey work while Key acts oblivious to it all.He reminds me of a cartoon of Bob Jone’s New Zealand Party.Who cares where we’re going its the style that we’re going in that counts,or words to that effect.I find our PM favours style over substance.

  8. I’m not convinced with the “comfortable in his own skin” assessment.

    [Key’s] priority has been to build trust with voters so that in a second parliamentary term he can carry them with him as National tackles big-ticket items like welfare reform, the recommendations of the savings working group and possible part-privatisation of some state-owned enterprises…

    A man “comfortable in his own (political?) skin wouldn’t be advocating – not yet anyway – four year terms between elections. If he had the courage of his – or others in his party and on the right’s – convictions he wouldn’t need four years to ram through the agendas he perhaps lacks the current courage to initiate.

    And didn’t we decide in a referendum more than just a few years ago that we didn’t want four year terms? When was that, anyone?

    • A man “comfortable in his own (political?) skin wouldn’t be advocating – not yet anyway – four year terms between elections.

      I don’t really see the connection. If a four-year term is introduced – a sensible change in my view – it will apply to any party that can form a government. I’m not so cynical as to think that Key’s motive is to secure himself four years after the next election.

  9. God may well have mercy on MY soul (I shall emigrate), Brian, but as an atheist I am afraid you will be well and truly stuffed. It is condign punishment reserved for non-believers.

  10. (1) Armstrong: Sub-Heading “Get used to it, Labour, he’s the Man the Country wants in Charge.”

    Confirms the widespread belief that Armstrong’s impeccably Tory. That sub-title sounds just a little too dyed-in-the-wool-partisan for my liking, the kind of banal crowing you’d expect from various nutjobs on the Right-wing blogosphere.

    Incidently, since when did 54% (Key’s latest preferred PM rating) equate with “the Country” as a whole ??? Does 54% = 100% ?

    (2) Armstrong: “Key’s critics don’t get it. Maybe the Mana By-Election will remove a few scales from a few eyes. It should. That result was a gruesome preview of the slaughter that may well be inflicted on Labour at the end of next year.”

    Confirms my feeling that Armstrong unceremoniously appropriated my detailed statistical analysis a week or two back. Immediately following the By-Election, I set-out comprehensive suburb-by-suburb vote and swing stats for Mana on Labour blog ‘Red Alert’ (under the name ‘swordfish’) – the result of slaving over a hot calculator for hour after hour. Figures for 21 suburbs divided into 5 broad sub-regions.

    Less than a week later Armstrong’s ‘Key Machine Pushing into Labour Country’ (Herald, November 29) seemed to be grounded almost entirely in my statistical analysis (acknowledgement ? Zilch). Mirroring my analysis, he (i) employed Suburb-by-Suburb rather than the usual Booth-by-Booth stats; (ii) took the 2008 Party-Vote as the comparative benchmark rather than the 2008 Candidate-Vote (in stark contrast to virtually every other leading journalist including the Herald’s other core Political writers) and (iii) aggregated everyone below the Greens into ‘minor party’ voters.

    And yet despite telling us that the Party-Vote was the “fairer measure” in Mana given Winnie Laban’s enormous personal popularity, he now tells us Mana may presage a “gruesome…slaughter” for Labour in 2011. If he truly believed – as I do – that the Party-Vote was the best benchmark by which to judge the Mana result then he certainly wouldn’t now be describing that result as “gruesome”. It certainly wasn’t a great result for Labour (based on turnout, 1700 would have been the expected majority), but it wasn’t the 6100 to 1400 freefall that so much of the media would have us believe.

    Seems clear, then, that Armstrong only pointed to the Party-Vote in that November 29 Op-Ed because he was relying entirely on my figures. Suppose I shouldn’t be irritated (given that the blogosphere’s essentially a free-for-all), but – to my great surprise – I still am.

    (3) BE: “Armstrong – whom I regard as our most astute political writer…”

    Much prefer the DomPost’s Vernon Small and independent journalist, Gordon Campbell.

    (4) BE: “And then there is the corrosive influence of the polls themselves.”

    Tend to agree with you here, BE.

    I could see quite clearly during the run-up to the Mana By-Election that by focussing on the 2008 Candidate-Vote as the supposed baseline and by so often allowing National Blogger, David Farrar, to do their critical thinking for them, journalists were essentially setting Labour up for a major fall, with all the debilitating leadership speculation and so on that this entails.

    Didn’t help that Herald journalists like Audrey Young and Adam Bennett made a complete mash of the figures, suggesting a 14 percentage point swing in Mana. The swing (if one uses the Candidate-Vote as the comparative figure) was, in fact, less than 7% (in the conventional sense).

    (5) Also agree with Gary Stewart’s underlying point that in the run-up to the next Election we need to focus on the support-gap between the Left and Right blocs as a whole. Too often in 2008, our leading journalists (Yes, Tracy Watkins, I’m looking at you) cheerfully placed almost entire analytical emphasis on the gap between the two main parties, thus greatly exaggerating the uphill task facing the Left (in turn, sapping the enthusiasm of ordinary Left bloc voters, more than a few of whom stayed home as a result).

    The percentage-point gap to be bridged between (i) Labour+Greens+Anderton and (ii) National+Act+UF was always far narrower than the one between the major parties.

    • (1) Armstrong: Sub-Heading “Get used to it, Labour, he’s the Man the Country wants in Charge.” Confirms the widespread belief that Armstrong’s impeccably Tory.

      Armstrong would have written neither the headline nor the sub-head. A sub-editor would have done that.

      Confirms my feeling that Armstrong unceremoniously appropriated my detailed statistical analysis a week or two back.

      Perhaps you should be flattered. Or is your compalint that he failed to attribute the research to you? Not sure if John reads this blog, but if he does, he might like to respond.

  11. “Armstrong: Sub-Heading “Get used to it, Labour, he’s the Man the Country wants in Charge.”

    Confirms the widespread belief that Armstrong’s impeccably Tory.”

    Markus,
    I don’t know how the Herald puts its stories together – but I reckon the chances are that a sub wrote the heading…and they’re all right wing nut-jobs. ; ) I feel Armstrong may have been tarred with one of their bitter and twisted brushes.

    • I don’t know how the Herald puts its stories together – but I reckon the chances are that a sub wrote the heading…and they’re all right wing nut-jobs.

      Interesting assumption, that those who work for a publication which you regard as ‘rignt wing’, must also without exception be right-wing themselves. Not at all the case in my experience. You’ll find a great deal of dissatisfaction with the paper’s direction among Herald employees. Pity that they should also be tarred as ‘nutjobs’.

  12. It’s simplistically reductive to dismiss Armstrong’s article’s heading as an indication of his political leanings. Some of you, here, have taken it to be an example of smug braggadocio and swagger; like he’s sticking it to the Labourites. It’s written in the vernacular; a kind of illustrative literary device to emphasise Key’s — own — confidence and his standing with the public. And it’s revealed vis-à-vis a second-person pronoun, being the author.
    Don’t be so friggin’ myopic!!!

  13. @ Merv

    To be fair, Merv, I’m the only one here guilty of that. Others, like you, have rightly corrected me. However, on Armstrong’s political leanings, I would have thought his Nact tendencies were common knowledge (much like Audrey Young’s impeccably Tory background).

    @ The Real Tony

    Thanks, Real Tony. Interesting wikileaks reading on Scoop about the US recruiting “agents of influence” in the NZ media. It seems US foreign policy will always receive a very, very fair hearing, here. Mind you, given the likes of Richard Long and Fran O’Sullivan, one wonders why they even bothered.

    @ BE: “Perhaps you should be flattered.”

    Yeah, but you fail to appreciate, BE, that I’m quite clearly suffering from delusions of grandeur.

  14. This post is a welcome reevaluation. I think John Armstrong hits the nail squarely on the head when he points out that the left have been unable to cope with Key’s refusal to fit the mould they expect and apparently need him to fit. He’s not a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He’s not a Chauncey Gardner know-nothing. He’s not a rich prick who doesn’t care about anything but the bottom line.

    Most importantly, he’s not faking it. He is actually a nice man. He is competent, supremely calm (apparently he never loses his temper – I really like that trait in a person), empathetic.

    He has the most refreshing habit for a politician of actually answering questions. He doesn’t talk down to people, he prefers to deal with people as intelligent adult peers. Compare his mature, measured way of engaging with Phil Goff’s perpetually sneering tone of voice (someone give that man some media training!), and edge of hysteria overreaction to every issue.

  15. And yet despite telling us that the Party-Vote was the “fairer measure” in Mana given Winnie Laban’s enormous personal popularity, he now tells us Mana may presage a “gruesome…slaughter” for Labour in 2011.

    Actually, if you are taking Mana as a measure, as Armstrong claims to have done, it could only prove poor to the current government.

    National increased its party vote percentage from 36.67% to 41.1%, Labour increased its percentage from 43.91% to 47.2%. Labour’s gained over half its boost probably from the Green party drop of 1.78% (8.38% to 6.6%). National gained two thirds of its boost from both United Future, who’s leader Peter Dunne endorsed Parata, and ACT. The remainer of increase for both parties seems to have come from the New Zealand First vote.

    It is the decline in the ACT party vote which is important. ACT stood a candidate, but it’s vote dropped from 2.36% to 0.6%.

    So, on the whole, National didn’t take votes from Labour – it got them from its support parties. While Labour can take votes from the Greens and the Green party will make threshold. These results suggest that even if National stands aside in Epsom, it is unlikely Rodney Hide will bring anyone else into parliament with him.

    Which is bad news for a National government.

  16. “…and they’re all right wing nut-jobs”

    I’m sorry Brian…I was Trolling for reaction and my emoticon malfunctioned.

    Subs are lovely balanced people.

  17. you dont get to head Merril Lynch derivatives desk in Europe without being an incredibly good operator, to do that from a state house in Christchurch is nothing short of miraculous.

    To be fair, it was a state house in Bryndwyr, close to one of the country’s best secondary schools, Burnside High. Key’s experience makes a very good argument for pepper-potting public housing.

    I went to school with Key, and it would be fair to say that no one picked him as a future currency trading star and Prime Minister. Most of the people I’ve asked can’t remember him and neither can I (it was a big school). But he took off academically in the 6th and 7th forms, and clearly had a trajectory from the moment he entered the workforce.

    Basically, he’s terrible at some of the things we expect Prime Ministers to do — like oratory. But he’s natively adept at the thing we expect in particular of modern Prime Ministers — management.

    • Basically, he’s terrible at some of the things we expect Prime Ministers to do — like oratory

      I’m trying to think of recent Prime Ministers who were good at oratory – Keith Holyoake, Jack Marshall, Norman Kirk, Bill Rowling, Rob Muldoon, Geoffrey Palmer, Mike Moore, Jim Bolger, Jenny Shipley, Helen Clark??? Norman Kirk had a certain presence; David Lange sounded like an orator, but when you looked more closely at what he’d said, it often didn’t amount to much. This isn’t a country which produces orators or, for that matter, where oratory is valued. Humility, our most prized characteristic, and oratory reallly don’t sit too well together. And the last thing Key needs is to be an orator. Completely at odds with the image that we seem to like so much.

  18. John Key gave the impression that he was the man for the moment at Pike River. The photo opportunities were wonderful and Brand Key benefitted.

    Suddenly the Smile-and-Wave bit is tarnished – he is seeking legal advice regarding the government’s liabilities. Isn’t he all heart and the right man for a crisis. Me thinks that the mask that John Armstrong says doesn’t exist is in fact there and it has just slipped a tad.

  19. @ BE. I’m not so cynical as to think that Key’s motive is to secure himself four years after the next election.

    Cynicism, Brian? I don’t see how you read that into the comment. I wouldn’t want to be that judgmental. The point is that NZers have twice, by a substantial majority each time, rejected the four-year term. The first was in 1967 and the second was barely 20 years ago – 1990. Nearly 70% were in favour of keeping the three year term both times. Perhaps you may think we are too untrusting (or cynical) as an electorate? Hence the question I raise. Why is Key trying to kick that dead dog back to life? My point is that a party – or PM – with the courage of their convictions (sell Kiwibank, perhaps?) would get on with it. And live with the consequences. Who knows? If it is good call, it doesn’t threaten the next term. My challenge is to the comment that Key is comfortable in his own skin. I’m still dubious (or, if you wish to judge me so, cynical – but I prefer dubious).