Key's biggest task: give all kids a good start

The election campaign guns having fallen silent, it is fitting to remember this is Armistice Day: 90 years ago, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the tribes of Europe stopped killing each other in the “war to end all wars”.

An idealistic American president tried to make that true but 20 years later the killing resumed, on a wider scale. Only with the making of the European Union did peace break out. Now another American president, elected to global acclaim amidst division at home and dismay abroad at his predecessor, has a resounding mandate to bring peace and unity.

And here a new Prime Minister has won resoundingly. His mandate is also a new unity. He starts with much promise.

Helen Clark divided those she dealt with into friends and enemies. Over time the number of enemies thus defined grew. By this year there was relief in quarters where you would not have found it in her early years.

Key’s instinct is to treat people as friends. His easy, engaging personal manner draws people to him. He is alongside you, not above you, ordinary but also extraordinary. That is the chemistry of the most effective welders of democracy. Clark was never ordinary.

So, with his majority and his mandate, Key has the opportunity to build consensus, unity and prosperity.

He starts with some obstacles.

One is this country’s pale version of the Palin factor: a conservative provincial and suburban small-word resentment at the urban liberal elite Clark personified. Sir Robert Muldoon represented those conservatives exquisitely. Peters took them over but couldn’t reach beyond them.

The good news is that Peters has gone. There is space for a new leader with an open mind to emulate Norman Kirk, who touched both social conservatives and cosmopolitan idealists. Those are big shoes but Key has shown in his rapid rise that he is not a small-shoe man.

A second obstacle, related to the first, is that his party is overwhelmingly European.

National has some profound misunderstandings of twenty-first century Maori, encapsulated in its abolish-the-seats agenda. It has yet to grasp, deep down, that a new Pacific culture is birthing here.

The good news is that Key has a two-way pipeline, through Georgina te Heuheu, to the paramount tribe and a new MP, Hekia Parata, with multiple linkages. There is also Denise Henare, Wayne Mapp’s wife. There is goodwill toward Key at high levels in Maoridom and in the Maori party.

And Key now has Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga, the impressive new Samoan MP for Maungakiekie.

If Key keeps his eyes, ears, mind and heart open, he has the potential to draw his party into the emerging Pacific New Zealand. For a guide, watch whether part-Maori Simon Bridges, who humiliated Peters in Tauranga, develops his Maori side.

The real point is not to win swathes of votes. The low average socioeconomic status aligns Maori and Pasifika more naturally with Labour. The point is for National to become more reflective of the society it governs.

And that society is also rapidly becoming more Asian. National’s conservative law-and-order and moral election campaign pitch to Asian immigrants is more a bridgehead than an occupation. It has yet to show in the sorts of large numbers you see at Labour functions.

The good news is that National now has three Asian MPs, with two quality additions, Korean Melissa Lee and Indian Sikh Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi.

A third obstacle is a skewed economy. The average household is deeply indebted. So is the country. To take a now-dirty word from Key’s previous occupation, we are very highly leveraged.

Deleveraging New Zealand will be painful, doubly so during a world slowdown. Taking the public through the necessary policy adjustments will be a test of Key’s unifying potential. In the election campaign he offered pain-free gain. That is not an option.

There is a deeper issue and this is Key’s biggest challenge.

A sad story ran side-by-side with the campaign: a terrible tale told in court of the torture of a toddler.

One response is to avenge such casual cruelty. That essentially was National’s campaign response, a daily diet of law and order, most of which was bottom-of-the-cliff posturing.

Another response is to ask whether those awful adults had awful childhoods.

Very early in his leadership, Key made a play of his brief state house sojourn. He took an underprivileged girl to Waitangi. That promised a restatement of National’s social policy.

Key talked of an “underclass”. An underclass is a class without real opportunity. Do children get good nutrition and cognitive development in their earliest years? Those who don’t cannot learn at school and often end up as the enemies of society and economic development. And they pass on their life start to their children.

Key’s challenge is to intervene to give those children a true chance at life, as he had, well parented. Whether he makes a real start on that will define how truly unifying his prime ministership is.