Beneath Key's fine veneer will we find solid wood?

Picture John Key the kid: restless, not keen on lessons but sharp at them when focused.
How do we know this? From his inaugural Jenny Shipley lecture in December.

“Lectures,” he said, “have never been my strong suit� When I was a student at Canterbury University � if I thought a lecture would be deathly boring I went off to play squash instead. There were many deathly boring lectures.”

He added: “If I am as successful in politics as Jenny Shipley was, you are far more likely to see a squash game in my honour than a formal lecture.”

Let’s deconstruct that. Alright, “deconstruct” is a word for deathly boring lectures or deathly boring articles. Squash-manics should leave now. Quietly, please.

First, note that the bored young Key did not go down to the pub. He sweated off his boredom.

Second, note he chose an individualistic sport, not a team game.

Third, note the self-mocking charm. Jenny Shipley was in politics 12 years, seven as a minister, two as Prime Minister. Is Key telling us he will count 12 years a success? Or two as Prime Minister?

Not likely. Key played squash to win. And, whereas Shipley has found high personal reward in business since politics, Key did that gig beforehand and on the world financial stage.

Fourth, note that Key is an action man, a fast target. A squash match has a beginning, a middle and, most important, an end: a winner. A lecture jangles a few neurons — not even that if it is deathly boring. It is a beginning. Sometimes there is no end.

All of which has the look and feel of veneer rather than solid wood.

Or does it?

First, what was his Shipley lecture about? Principles.

Key has had a bit of work put in on principles, going back to Sir Sidney Holland and Sir Keith Holyoake, National’s first two Prime Ministers, and deriving a set of principles from their pronouncements: individual freedom, a competitive economy, “a minimum of bureaucratic intervention, regulation and restriction” from Holland and, from Holyoake, wariness of too much power in politicians’ hands, toleration of differences and equal opportunity.

He approves Bill English’s line in the Weekend Herald on December 2: “People run their own lives and the government’s role is to provide clear rules, show respect and allow people to express their humanity collectively and individually.”

Add to that National’s self-proclamation as non-sectional by way of its choice of name in 1936 and Shipley’s assertion that “how we manage the vulnerable within our community and society is a clear reflection of how we view the worth of ourselves as a nation”.

Round it all off with an appeal to “balance” between necessary and desirable government activity and room for business and self-advancement to ensure economic growth.

You now pretty much have Key’s current political credo.

For a fellow still new to politics it scrubs up well, not least in his recognition of the importance of principles as policy lodestar and intergenerational guide. Few in National would cavil at it. And his policy forays so far have been pretty much in tune with the principles.

Nevertheless, principles are not detail, which is the “deathly boring” stuff of government. Key’s list reads more like overlay than underpinning.

His speeches and actions are quick dips into policy areas rather than knowledgeable scans of the territory, even on the economy. (Finance wizardry doesn’t need an economics degree.)

Even in his handling of politics, the Key show is more a rehearsal than a first night. Taking a little girl to Waitangi, cameras agog, was too easily readable as a publicity stunt, regardless of intent. Likewise the (quickly dropped) school breakfast idea. If Key comes to be read by the media as a stuntman he will risk denying himself credence later as up to the complexities of prime ministerial management.

For now this doesn’t matter — though opinion polls, for what they are worth, haven’t granted him the traditional honeymoon.

But as this year goes on will we still be seeing just a veneer?

Will Key be a David Cameron lookalike, the British Tories’ swish marketing-toy leader, or will he be a compelling alternative to Helen Clark’s local depth and international experience.

Key’s rapid climb to leader, his manner of assuming it and his conduct since have been top class, dream marketing material. Veneers don’t come finer. Clark’s own first years as leader were dim and grim.

But by the end of this year, if Key is to see off the probing and head-on assaults to come from Labour and maintain an upward trajectory, he will need to project broad and deep knowledge of principal policy areas and back that up with convincing policy.

This week Parliament reconvenes. Wisely in the end-of-the-year debate in December Key chose withering but light scorn and left English to do the heavy hitting.

That won’t do in December this year. Voters will need to see solid wood beneath the veneer — no matter how deathly boring the policy briefs. That’s his test, starting now.