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The Great Reassurer: How John Key’s calmness was his greatest strength

‘He understands middle New Zealand in a way that is unparalleled.’ Political commentator Ben Thomas looks back at John Key’s prime ministerial career.

It’s easy to forget, after eight years leading a stable centrist government as the most popular Prime Minister in New Zealand history, that John Key’s political career has been built on surprises.

As a naif-ish finance spokesman he upset the feared Michael Cullen in argument on TV and radio. Three years later he conquered the formidable Helen Clark by showing a defter understanding of what it meant to “be rich” in a memorable debate. He welcomed the Maori Party into government and turned his back on Don Brash’s divisiveness and as a National leader raised benefits in real terms for the first time since the 1990s.

So like a schoolbook paradox, his resignation is totally unexpected – I claim no foresight on this – but utterly predictable in hindsight. Key leaves inarguably at his political peak. His favourability ratings are not quite what they were; the Mt Roskill by-election showed that his personal brand does not carry mediocre candidates on a tidal wave of affection. But he is the colossus of New Zealand politics.

Newly elected Prime Minister John Key arrives on stage to deliver his victory speech after his re-election as PM, September 20 2014. Photo: Phil Walter / Getty

Newly elected Prime Minister John Key arrives on stage to deliver his victory speech after his re-election as PM, September 20 2014. Photo: Phil Walter / Getty

The resignation is an extraordinary loss. In an age of resurgent demagogues preaching that everything is in crisis, Key is consummate populist for whom literally nothing has ever been a crisis. He understands middle New Zealand in a way that is unparalleled not only among politicians but also the army of world weary spin-doctors and consultants who seek to advise them. He is the great re-assurer, and during earthquakes across six years, Pike River and a Global Financial Crisis, this was his greatest strength.

In the long term it’s milestones that are remembered, not a she’ll be right shrug. But Key’s refusal to get excited (except when spending time with the All Blacks or meeting the Queen) belied the initiatives of his government that while now seeming inevitable were radical before he took the reins. History records that his government repealed the racist Foreshore and Seabed Act and restored the right of Māori to seek customary title through the courts; he reinvigorated the Treaty settlement process which was moribund under Labour (the crowning achievement was the settlement with Ngāi Tūhoe, removing Te Urewera from the National Parks Act, and constituting it as a legal entity). Key helped New Zealanders understand there was nothing frightening about redressing historical injustice; like clearing up rubble in Christchurch, it was just something that has to be done, and the work was in good hands.

He didn’t introduce the Marriage Equality bill, but he gave it his express approval, removing it from the realm of political controversy except on the religious fringe.

Key signalled he would like to be remembered for his economic work although, if he is succeeded by his loyal finance minister, policy architect and deputy, it may be picked over as Prime Minister Bill English’s legacy instead.

The immediate consequence is that all bets are off for the 2017 election. While National outpolls the Prime Minister himself currently, it is simply not the same party in the public’s mind without Key as its face. If English, the obvious choice, becomes Prime Minister, a new finance maestro will need to be found to produce an election winning budget. A new deputy – most likely to be the impressive Amy Adams – will further reinvigorate the leadership and signal renewal.