The enduring popularity of New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.
The Key family must have been positively euphoric as they awoke in their plush Parnell mansion on the morning of 21 September, 2014.
The previous night, disappointed Labour-leader David Cunliffe phoned to concede defeat after it became clear John Key had the numbers to serve a third term as New Zealand’s Prime Minister.
In one sense, the victory was unsurprising. A weak Labour party had struggled with in-fighting for much of 2014. Cunliffe had failed to gain traction with the Kiwi public, let alone his own colleagues. All told - the opposition were simply no match for the confidence and perceived stability of a National Government led by Key.
Even so, the margin of National’s victory was a surprise. Throughout the year the Prime Minister and Government had survived multiple scandals and controversies. From the revelation they had illegally spied on giant German playboy Kim Dotcom and other New Zealanders, to the covert use of attack bloggers to undermine political opponents. It seemed as though John Key had expended his political capital.
The New Zealand electorate felt otherwise.
Far from dropping votes, the National party increased their majority receiving a whopping 47.04 percent and smashing Labour by an impressive half million votes.
Otago University politics lecturer Bryce Edwards said in spite of some recent problems, John Key's personal popularity is very high.
“This popularity would rival some of the most successful world leaders anywhere,” Edwards said.
Recent polls put Key at around 40 percent as preferred PM with Labour’s leader Andrew Little on just 10 percent. So what factors have helped Key survive and thrive through wide-spread public dissatisfaction with certain Government policies as well as serious scandals?
Key’s extraordinary back-story is an important part of his appeal and success. Born in a state-house to an Austrian-Jewish mother; his alcoholic father left when Key was 6. Excelling throughout school and university, Key went on to become a ruthless and highly successful currency trader, working for the likes of Merrill Lynch. He is one of New Zealand’s 200 richest people, a family man, not to mention New Zealand’s most popular Prime Minister in recent memory.
One of the main touchstones of Key’s personal appeal is his relatability. Spot him at any public or media appearances and he is completely at ease. Adept at small talk, media-savvy and thoroughly down-to-earth, Key casually strolls through crowds mingling and introducing himself. He’s often approached by young fans and will seldom deny them a chance for a selfie with the Prime Minister.
Victoria University of Wellington linguistics researcher Jay Woodhams completed his PhD about how 'ordinary New Zealanders' talk about politics and political issues. He says that in New Zealand’s political environment, "politicians who use elitist language tend to alienate a lot of people."
“Key doesn't come off as high and mighty or ostentatious, despite his personal wealth - which under the egalitarian mythology Kiwis tend to respect."
Bryce Edwards describes Key as “self-depreciating and “jokey”. “He may be worth 55 million dollars but still talks like a regular guy. What might seem like his poor and mangled speech is actually an identifier that he’s ‘one of us’,” he said. Being casual and relatable is just part of Key’s appeal. Perhaps his main strength is the ability to read public opinion and project himself and his government in line with that.
According to journalist, author and expert on inequality Max Rashbrooke, Key’s ideology is “middle of the road.”
“He’s economically right-wing and socially liberal“, he said. No position will ever please everyone but Key plays to the crowd and for the most part, gets it right. “More than any particular ideology,” Rashbrooke said, “Key is driven by being successful and popular.”
“Any ideology he has is dwarfed by his pragmatism.”
Budget 2015 was an example of Key’s pragmatism: he tightened work-testing conditions for solo parent beneficiaries (which played to the center-right base of the party) but also increased the level of state payments to beneficiaries by 25 dollars a week (which played to the center of public opinion).
33 year-old single mother of two Deb Stringer of Wellington describes herself as left-leaning and “not a fan” of the current government or neo-liberalism in general. Her statements, however, lend credence to John Key’s broad appeal.
Although she was negatively affected by the Government’s cutting postgraduate student allowances, she does like some of their policies. She gave examples of the free-doctor visits and prescriptions for all under 13’s and the extension of paid parental leave for new mothers from 14 to 16 weeks.
Support from his team
Key’s success does not come without some heavy-weight political muscle behind him. Key has competent support from the likes of Deputy Prime Minister/Finance Minister Bill English and senior politician, strategist and workhorse, Stephen Joyce. In addition, no successful modern Western government would be complete without a slick PR apparatus.
While off-the-cuff in his language, Key is no intellectual or media slouch. He works closely with Curia Market Research and long-time National party loyalist David Farrar. Farrar and his company undertake regular opinion polling on National’s behalf. This along with focus groups keeps Key in the loop as to what his polling numbers are as well as what his base and wider New Zealand are thinking.
While still an opposition MP, Key once said "you can measure a society by how it looks after its most vulnerable; once I was one of them."
Rashbrooke, who edited a book in 2013 titled: "Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis", said Key’s back-story is particularly powerful in the country with high levels of inequality. “It helps ward off attacks that Key is a wealthy person without empathy for people living in poverty.”
Rashbrooke also points out that Kiwi’s (usually overstated) belief in the extent of upward mobility makes them less concerned about income inequality.
“Key's story poses the question: ‘“If one can rise up the ladder, does it matter the rungs are so far apart?’”
In December 2014, the OECD produced a report showing that inequality had caused New Zealand to lose an estimated ten percentage points of economic growth between 1990 and 2010? So how is current government doing when it comes to inequality?
Key’s center-right National arguably place a higher emphasis on economic freedom than greater equality. Since 2008 Key’s economic priority has been on returning the economy to surplus. His government have pursued a program some described as “moderate austerity” with some spending reductions, a slight rise in the goods and services tax and the implementation of tough welfare reforms. Rashbrooke labels these policies unlikely to tackle inequality as they focus on “growing the pie” (economic growth) rather than looking how the pie is divided (equality).”
One of Key’s first actions after taking power in 2008 was to provide a long-promised tax cut. Top earners went from paying an already low (among OECD countries) 39% down to 33%. Workers on lower incomes (below 14,500 NZD) received a drop in tax from 12.5 to 10%. The extra weekly money was famously derided as being equivalent to one block of cheese. In Budget 2015, some provisions for lowest-income earners were made such as increasing the benefit by 25 dollars a week. However opponents have slammed the Government for failing to tackle inequality in any meaningful way.
“Over the years the Government’s attitude had shifted from denial that inequality was a problem, to an admission they could do nothing about it, to saying they are addressing inequality,“ said Rashbrooke.
Why would inequality not be a top priority for this Government? One reason could be that poor people are less likely to vote. Statistics New Zealand publishes data on those least-likely to vote in general elections. The main non-voters were those between 18-24, people with “inadequate income” and the unemployed.
Rashbrooke explains that while New Zealand maintains vestiges of our egalitarian past, our current system is a minimal/residual welfare state. He points out New Zealand’s benefit replacement rates (how generous they are compared to the average wage) are among the lowest in the developed world. This has consequences. According to the Child Poverty Monitor, an initiative by the University of Otago; in 2014, 260,000 Kiwi children lived in poverty. Poverty in the richer nations is about relative disadvantage and many Kiwi kids have standards of living that fall below what most families would find acceptable.
Natalie Piesse, a 24 year old recent graduate from Rotorua worked as a case manager for Work and Income during National’s benefit reform period. She said the reforms attempted to make becoming a beneficiary “not an option” for a lot of people. While the reforms delivered fewer people on benefits than in years prior, it came with a social cost.
The money that beneficiaries receive each week only just affords them the absolute basics.
“Good luck if you lose your job and had a lot of additional weekly bills!” she said.
She said the reforms suited some youth who needed “a kick up the butt,” but unfairly penalized other people who genuinely needed it. She remembers feeling very upset by one client, a 55 year old man diagnosed with cancer who had to leave work. The man and his wife’s total income had halved yet they still earned slightly more than the income threshold which would have qualified them for government assistance. They could no longer afford their rental property and had to move towns to live with family for support.
“Having a grown man cry at your desk who wasn’t much different from my own father was something I’ll never forget. It felt really unfair.”
As with any Government seven years into their reign, Key has faced some serious controversies. Just one month prior to the 2014 election a book named Dirty Politics was released by renowned investigative journalist Nicky Hager. The book provided strong evidence that staff close to the Prime Minister’s office and senior ministers had been feeding damaging information to vitriolic right-wing attack blogs to belittle the government’s opponents. Hager wrote in The Guardian after the election that Key’s “dirty tricks” had helped him win victory. He described Key’s ordinary-bloke-next-door image as “cultivated,” writing Key was in reality a ruthless politician and his party essentially one of big business.
“His government has worked systematically to close down critical voices: academics, scientists, media and more. Leaked documents in Dirty Politics show that a key tool was using National party-aligned blogs to launch personal attacks against hundreds of people.”
In interview after interview on the topic, the Prime Minister dismissed the book as “smear” and an “orchestrated attack by the left.” Bryce Edwards states that this sent the message to many voters that the book wasn’t worth considering.
“In retrospect, Key’s handling of the book was quite superb in terms of political management,” he said.
The fallout from Dirty Politics dominated the general election campaign coverage for weeks and it was therefore a surprise to many, including Edwards, when it had such little impact on the election result.
The pony-tail saga
In April 2015, the Prime Minister hit front pages around the world when it was revealed that he had tugged on the ponytail of a young waitress at his local café on about six different occasions after she had made it clear she was uncomfortable. Key apologized to the waitress and gave her two bottles of wine. He was heavily criticized by various groups and faced ridicule from comedians such as the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight’s, John Oliver, who dedicated a segment to the event. Following the incident Key was quoted as saying it was “a bit of banter” and “fun and games.” He also named himself “New Zealand’s most casual Prime Minister.” Although this incident hurt his popularity more than previous ones had, his drop in the polls was in the region of five percent and bounced back quickly.
The scandal survivor
Bryce Edwards said Key seemed more immune to political bad news than other recent party leaders and prime ministers.
“Again and again he’s had to deal with scandals, and again and again they don’t seem to negatively affect his popularity. So the term 'Teflon John' just becomes more and more apt.”
John Key’s resilient popularity is extraordinary. His personality, populism and ability to ride-out scandals are a winning combo. During the tenure of most the world’s leader, there comes a time when the public tires of them. The scandals will mount up and the calls of “time for a change” calls will be louder than those shouting to maintain the status-quo.
“Key has sufficient public goodwill to carry him through these sorts of things,” said Political linguist Jay Woodhams.
"There is no doubt that he is one of the most popular PMs in NZ history and I bet future leaders will use him as an example of how to appeal to the electorate at large,” he said.
Were Key to step-down as Prime Minister who would be his successor? Edwards said there is presently no logical PM in waiting. “There are some younger MPs such as Paula Bennett and Nikki Kaye that show some potential, but it’s very unclear that they have what it takes to replace Key.”
While Key continues to ride high in the polls, inequality continues to rise and large segments of New Zealand are being ignored or left behind by Key’s Government. The Labour-party and Greens fashion themselves as helping those at the bottom but have not yet rallied enough widespread popular support. Right now, Labour will be wondering whether Andrew Little, the former union man, has what it takes to compete with Key.
Bryce Edwards is not so sure: “With recent scandals there are signs of the media questioning Key and his Government to a greater degree than before, but no tipping point has yet come. Judging on what has happened in recent years we should not believe it will happen anytime soon."