A year into the job — now for the hard bit for Key

New Zealand voters, like Australian voters, tend to go for in-command leaders. Kevin Rudd is that. Helen Clark is. Is John Key yet?

Key comes up to his anniversary as leader next Tuesday. He has less than a year now to acquire prime ministerial authority.

Being fresh, youngish, a charmer and a centrist has been the easy part. And he has help from the financial squeeze on households and slippage in Clark’s political management: smacking, tax cuts, David Benson-Pope and the bizarre drafting of the Electoral Finance Bill.

But now the polls have slipped a bit. There are some “buts”.

“But” No 1: the state of the parties. A Martian visitor knowing the two main parties only by their annual conferences would have rated Labour well ahead. Labour’s was big, energetically explored issues and policies and sprouted young people and national diversity. National’s was tight, white and slight on debate.

National has instability at head office chief level (though that is in part offset by having Steven Joyce, who nearly got Don Brash up against the odds in 2005, run next year’s campaign). Labour can still probably outmuster National on the ground. In cyberspace Labour is more inventive, as a YouTube spoof on Key at a Porirua growers’ market illustrates.

“But” No 2: Key’s knowledge base. Key was offshore from 1994 to 2001. That is a hole in his embedded understanding of what went on here. Only six years in Parliament, he lacks the ingrained knowledge of issues which comes by osmosis with years in active party and parliamentary politics. He has recently made mistakes. There are doubts about him in quarters that should be 100 per cent believers.

Contrast Clark’s lifetime in New Zealand and in politics and on the issues before becoming Prime Minister.

“But” No 3: grasp of government. Rudd was seven years boss of the Queensland premier’s office and, by all accounts, a centralising, finger-in-every-pie one. He knows how a government works. Clark made Deputy Prime Minister 10 years before reaching the top.

Key’s private sector governing experience is not training for governing a country, which is done with the media sniffing and hooting and the public primed to condemn. Key has an experienced and incisive chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson, and a deputy, Bill English, with high-level ministerial experience. But the voters don’t see Eagleson. English let policy development slip behind schedule this year.

“But” No 4: gravitas and the flash of steel. Key has an up-register voice which does not command. He has yet to show teeth in a dogfight. Clark is battle-scarred and battle-ready.

These “buts” give Labour hope and sometimes confidence. But there are buts to those buts.

First, Key has a disarming humour — a quality that escapes the public Clark. He can laugh at himself and poke fun at others, in a way that engages, not outrages. That could be telling in election debates. Clark recognises the risk one-on-ones pose: she has been pressuring event organisers to keep him off platforms she is on.

Key gets on with Tariana Turia. Clark doesn’t. There is evidence he is picking up some migrant support off Labour. His smacking initiative in April showed a coalition builder in the making.

Within the party Key has got his MPs more disciplined than they have been for 30 years — and he reciprocates with adjustments when he goes out of bounds.

That is in part due to highly sensitive antennae through which he also absorbs information and options from the wider world. Add that to instincts about what makes a cohesive society — “the future New Zealand must be a New Zealand that everyone has a stake in” — and you get a “one-of-us” leader. Watch him on his upcoming “heartland” tour.

He has cleared away counterproductive “extremist” (to use his word) differences with Labour and frankly accepted that New Zealanders prefer the state to provide for education, health and many other services. But Key is not “Labour-lite”. He projects a “philosophy” that emphasises the economic return from state interventions, including for the “underclass” and prisoners about both of whom you will hear more, and promotes a smaller state and a bigger private sector delivery role.

Key processes information quickly, reaches a decision, backs himself and acts — well demonstrated over the weekend a year ago when he dumped Gerry Brownlee for a resurgent, realistic English. Underneath Key’s affability is one of the most steely and decisive top dogs in National’s history.

And Key learns. He doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He is swotting policy –from a stack of constantly refilled ringbinders — as he never swotted at university (he didn’t need to, he says).

So, yes, Key is no Rudd, hard-apprenticed and ready to rule if the votes stack his way on Saturday. Key is not yet fully primed to be Prime Minister, not yet in-command. His real test is just begining. But he is focused and on track. He has a 10-point average poll margin. And he has time.