John Key: Is it enough to placate (nearly) everyone?

John Key will be lionised this weekend at the National party conference, with reason. Will he be lionised this time three years hence?

Key was the third phase of National’s recovery of self-respect, delivering it back to power after Jenny Shipley’s 1998 divorce from a costly coalition with Winston Peters and Don Brash’s rescue from the 2002 nadir with the race card, personal attack advertising and large tax-cut promises.

Key did what Helen Clark did for Labour: trimmed off the rough edges. He restored the constructive tension between moderate liberal and conservative tendencies that gives National solidity. He won a landslide. He acquired a swag of Maori votes by proxy through the Maori party. He looks set for a second term. Delegates this weekend will revel in all that.

These days National conferences are tightly stage-managed. Dissidence and debate are deemed impolite. Stars strut in stagey setpieces and discussion is essentially confined to in-camera workshops. Party managers deeply fear controversy — which last year centred on the presidential race and candidate Sir Harawira Gardner’s non-election to the board, leaving some raised hackles.

But that is internal party politics. On the big political stage the polls, which guide Key (unnecessarily, for he has a nose for the political centre), are still running high, even if a bit off the peaks.

His is a very busy cabinet: regulatory adjustment and in some cases reform (mostly mildly business-friendly), tax reform (Nationalist-friendly), an accent on economic growth, fiscal constraint and a search for alternative delivery mechanisms, a push for more mining and dairying, “standards” in schools, a health system shakeup, lots of new law punishing criminals, supporting victims and streamlining courts, National-friendly electoral law, bans on cellphones while driving and driving at 105kmh and much, much more, including a cycleway and pandas, Key’s personal contributions.

But does this add up to what Key promised in 2008 when he said he was “ambitious for New Zealand”. If so, what is the ambition?

One ambition Key has said he has is to leave a mark as having made a difference for disadvantaged children. So far movement on that front, while visible here and there — Shine’s impressive support system for abused women and Sir Peter Gluckman’s academic group building a scientific base for new policy are examples — has been far less ambitious than building and filling prisons, which is where many disadvantaged children graduate to if unsupported.

This is an economic issue as much as one of equity and social cohesion. Wasted children don’t contribute to Key’s stated aim of catching Australians in wealth and income. They become a fiscal cost and a production loss.

We won’t fix off-the-rails kids or catch Australia during Key’s time nor make much measurable progress. So how is he to make his mark?

Here we run into two signal characteristics of Key as Prime Minister.

One is that he came to National without an apprenticeship in or around politics. He has no power base in the party. He has learnt his politics since winning his candidacy nomination in late 2001. That part-explains his deferral to the likes of Murray McCully and Steven Joyce and polls.

This is not a bother for now. But if he gets into difficulty, it might be.

The second characteristic is that he is likeable and widely agreeable, not just to National-leaning sorts but to many who dislike his policies. He makes gaffes and people laugh with him. An English or a Clark can’t afford gaffes.

In this Key is like Barack Obama. He takes the sting and anger out of edgy situations or groupings. He is nearly all things to nearly all people nearly all the time. He placates.

Reviewing David Remnick’s biography of Obama in the New York Times, Garry Wills noted Obama’s emphasis on “continuity” and “winningness”, working with antipathetic as well as sympathetic people.

Wills called this “omnidirectional placation”. You could say the same of Key. One day he woos the Maori party and iwi with repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act. The next he placates non-Maori: nothing much will change.

He has done this on many fronts — (not?) mining national parks and (not) selling down Kiwibank are examples. He weaves until he finds a safe place. When there were stirrings in his own party about a proposal to transfer the Urewera National Park to Tuhoe over time, he kiboshed it, then said, to Tariana Turia’s indignation, that she was OK about that — and still it all turned out sweet.

This works a treat, for now. Key is decent, plausible, well-meaning and disarmingly positive. But in a second term there is likely to come a time for hard decisions when charm won’t suffice: with the public if it gets confused or frustrated, with coalition partners who have to count wins and losses — and with his own party if there is wear and tear on his poll ratings.

Wills said of Obama: “The price of winningness can be losing.”