High-polling, agreeable Key has work to do

John Key’s government will be one next weekend. What will it be like at four or nine?

Will it get to four? Most likely. Key is popular, his opposition will take time to regroup fully, the economy looks likely to muddle through and, barring egregious errors, the cabinet is not likely to have made too many enemies.

Compare Helen Clark after a year. She came to office in 1999 with a coalition-in-waiting. Her aim was to “correct” what she tagged as the pro-market excesses of the previous 15 years. The analogy was with a market which had overshot. She wanted a new settlement, which in practice amounted to an essentially market-oriented economy with the rough edges knocked off and a larger role for state social services.

This went down well. Her poll ratings were high and so were the government’s. National in opposition struggled to reposition and to get heard. The 2002 election was a disaster for National.

Clark imposed an iron discipline on the cabinet through “H2”, Heather Simpson, her chief of staff. There were mistakes and errors by individual ministers — and some standdowns — but by the end of the first year there was reasonable coherence and consistency.

Clark was “strong” — too strong for some, especially men, who were relieved to see the back of her last year.

If there is a word for Key it is “agreeable”. He is a pleasant, congenial chap. And he is inclined to agree with people. The first is a huge political strength, especially after Clark who too often sounded the schoolmarm. The second is a strength, too — for now. It could be his Achilles heel.

Key’s ease with people, including his own family, whom he likes, locks in friends and disarms enemies. It is hard not to like him. Past colleagues speak well of him. When he encounters hostility his instinct is to front up and politely hold his ground. He thereby de-juices antagonisms even if he doesn’t banish them. Example: the Council of Trade Unions conference last week seething about the 90-day rule, low pay for teachers aides and ACC changes.

This ease is at the heart of his leadership style.

On the currency and interest trading floors, managers give traders their heads and then hold them to account. That way, in theory and practice, they give their best.

Key does that with his ministers. They are left to run their portfolios and then, in theory, are accountable for running them well.

Actually, politicians have to build constituencies and alliances. They work in packs called committees. And most are amateurs: Bill English described the cabinet to departmental chief executives in February as “a loose coalition of the self-employed”.

The result of Key’s decentralisation has been to convert the Beehive show too often to amateurs’ night.

So Rodney Hide whizzed super-Auckland off the rails. John Carter, who knows a thing or two about politics, national and local, was detailed off to douse the spreading brushfires. Meantime, National did as badly as it possibly could in the Mt Albert by-election.

Pita Sharples tested a Maori Television bid for rugby world cup rights with English, then dished out some money, to be countered by Murray McCully doing his thing to officials and getting a counter-bid launched. Key had to rescue that himself. Broadcasting Minister Jonathan Coleman, one of his more promising younger ministers, was left a tongue-tied apprentice.

Nick Smith announced a major reform of ACC without the numbers to get his bill past the first vote. Paula Bennett played ad-feminam with some uppity beneficiaries.

Key himself contributes to the confusion by shifting — or appearing to shift — his ground, though often he is exploring a line rather than stating one. Thus last week, while Smith was sticking to the pre-election policy line that his ACC reform bill would explore opening up the work account, Key, standing beside Hide who had given him a majority, said competition is a good thing and appeared to back across-the-board competition — a long reach from his soothing pre-election position.

There are two results. One is that his opponents can plausibly paint him as a neoliberal in moderate drag (though for now those opponents are only talking to themselves). The second is that he is not marking out a clear and compelling programme. Example: he says he wants a “world-class” tax system then all but douses some of English’s working group’s ideas before it even reports. He just does projects, as did Clark.

That is enough for another one or two wins. But no Prime Minister in decades has had the public goodwill Key has and thus the licence to remake the political language and, with that, the policy agenda. Maybe he yet will. But at year one he looks and sounds content to be Prime Minister rather than make history.

So will Key’s government get to nine? Only if he tightens the reins, if Labour takes a big hit in 2011 and takes too long to reposition and if the economy doesn’t stall.

What are the chances? Fifty-fifty. Key has work to do.