John Key fades away, as legacy begins to harden

12:41 pm on 22 March 2017

Opinion - John Key remained a popular prime minister by never committing to anything, but leaves behind a backlog of neglect and deferred decisions, writes Finlay Macdonald.

John Key

John Key's singular ability to navigate the inevitable traps and obstacles of political life relied on reducing everything to a shrug and a variation on the theme that "most New Zealanders would be comfortable" with whatever it was he was shrugging about. Photo: AFP / RNZ

Into the mild blue yonder, then. Leaving parliament for the last time today, John Key will reportedly spend a little more time at his holiday home in Hawaii, take up a role as some kind of glorified equerry to a Japanese billionaire, hit the speaking circuit, and fulfil a promise to his wife, with some quality time in Italy.

Having risen largely without trace, it seems his final trick will be to disappear without trace too. Yes, his valedictory speech will be dutifully covered by all media, and friend and foe alike will rise to clap him from the chamber, but there appears to be little sense of history surrounding the occasion.

On reflection, it's entirely fitting. Key's singular ability to navigate the inevitable traps and obstacles of political life relied on reducing everything to a shrug and a variation on the theme that "most New Zealanders would be comfortable" with whatever it was he was shrugging about.

Even the latest allegations by Nicky Hager that Key's government ordered and then covered up a botched SAS raid in Afghanistan won't change much. His pre-emptive dismissal of Hager as "an extreme left wing conspiracy theorist" was all part of a well-rehearsed script. Fudge, dodge, smear and move on - and, in the end, enough New Zealanders were comfortable with that.

Key's base was always the critical mass of Kiwis who found his unremarkable okay-ness to their political liking. More than 30 years of conditioning to neoliberal orthodoxy by successive governments has seen the mass middle migrate ever rightward and ever inward, keen to protect whatever prosperity it enjoyed, not so interested in big ideas or looking too far into the future.

Key was a logical embodiment of that phenomenon. It was often remarked that he was a "non-politician", but what that really meant was that he was perfectly adapted for an apolitical age.

He weathered countless mini-scandals and squalid embarrassments largely because the partisan frothing of his detractors made them appear, almost by definition, extreme. More than enough New Zealanders were comfortable with that.

In many ways, Key was also a product of his lucky generation. A tail-end baby boomer, he is part of the massive cohort now in their mid-50s who enjoyed the fruits of post-war socialism and who entered the workforce still young enough to adapt to the new realities of the free market 1980s. From state house upbringing to merchant banking to the Beehive. From Key's perspective there wouldn't appear to be much wrong with the picture.

Unfortunately, his instinct for slow (or no) change - which we should also concede frustrated the far right as much as the left, though for different reasons - has bequeathed a backlog of neglect and deferred decisions. From housing to water quality, there's a sense that not even Key could have smiled his way successfully through the next political cycle.

So, as Key jets off and signs up for that cooking course in Tuscany, or ticks whichever box he's decided comes next, his legacy is beginning to harden into history: enough New Zealanders were comfortable with his leadership, and he was comfortable with that.

*Finlay Macdonald was editor of the New Zealand Listener magazine from 1998 to 2003, commissioning editor at Penguin New Zealand from 2003 to 2005, and a weekly columnist for the Sunday Star-Times from 2003 to 2011

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