Since John Key’s sudden and surprising resignation from politics last month it is almost surprising just how quickly he has become yesterday’s man. The uncritical mainstream media has shown no more tendency to question or analyse his motives than it did when he was in power. It has been claimed that he left when he was ‘on top’, that it was an unselfish move, I have even seen him described as ‘as always, honest’, forgetting that this was the man who claimed he couldn’t remember getting a text from his buddy Cameron Slater the night before, as well as a long list of lies and evasions that have been well documented.
Key’s unusual move was indeed a surprise to almost everyone, but even at the time also a relief to many. For a much longer time than many would have expected, a lot of us had been waiting for a sign that his popularity was finally eroding, that the public was finally seeing through him. I believe that time had finally come, when even the TV One poll said that a further drop of a couple of points, to 36%, seemed to indicate a downward trend in his personal popularity (while the National Party’s overall standing remained largely the same).
Whatever else Key is, few would deny that he is good at his former job as a money trader, which required him to make quick, sound, high-risk judgements about which way the market would react. Or that he used this ability to judge and manipulate the mood of the public in his political career, and made few missteps overall. As such he is virtually a political canary in a coalmine, usually able to sense emerging trends before the general public and decisive enough to act on them. I believe he saw his popularity was sliding, and that this slide would be irreversible, as it usually is when based on presentation rather than substance. (Look at Tony Blair, who was very similar to Key in the way he appealed to the public, who also remained ‘teflon’ for a much longer period than anyone would have expected even after the Iraq war, but once the larger public saw through him, the perception changed forever and there was no going back.) And that the housing crisis, which he had long denied and then called a housing ‘boom’, had gone far beyond his government’s ability to fix it, and would likely impact on the government’s popularity given another year. Add to that the growing uncertainty and unpredictability of a possible Trump/Brexit style upset given a growing anti-establishment mood, and the increased possibility he would have to work with Winston Peters as kingmaker if the gap with Labour and the Greens got any closer, and Key saw the writing on the wall and got out quickly, as he would have in his money trader days.
Since then there has been some talk of what Key’s legacy is. But even Key’s most gushing admirers have been strangely unable to put a finger on what exactly his legacy is. In a few years time, people will ask why he was NZ’s most popular prime minister, and it won’t be an easy question to answer. For in the absence of Key’s ever-present charm, for want of a better word, all we will be left with are his actions, which give a completely different picture of the man. Key’s real legacy is inequality, child poverty, unaffordable housing, tens of thousands of homeless, until National’s term unheard of in New Zealand. Hungry children, families living in cars, beggars on the streets, hopelessness leading to ever-higher suicide rates. Throwing poor people out of state houses in a housing crisis and leaving them empty so that property speculators can make a killing.
Even Key’s supporters, once distanced from his superficial charm, will start to see him in a clear light, and start to find something strange in his sudden exit from politics. They may start to wonder if they really knew the real John Key at all. Far from it being an unselfish move, Key has dropped the National Party in it, just as he has dropped the whole country in it, for John Key only cares about John Key. Devoid of the gloss Key was able to put on to obscure the most unpleasant things, the National Party will be seen in the clear, ordinary light as the nasty bunch they really are. Which is not to say that Labour/the Greens will definitely win, but it will be much more difficult for National.
Part of the relevance of this is that there is still room for Mana to be the party of the anti-establishment vote.. Mana is to New Zealand what Bernie Sanders is to America, and given the unusual and in some ways misguided upheavals that have occurred in other parts of the world, the potential is there to lead the anti-establishment movement in a true and effective way.