Key the step-by-step changer

s the Prime Minister John Key the trader or John Key the manager of traders? In that distinction lies a clue to his prime ministership.

Last year was to have delivered, in Key’s own words in a Management cover story, a “step-change”. “We were elected on making a step-change for New Zealand,” he said in an interview for that article. He emphasised the strategic nature of his intentions: “What we do in 2010 will have some impact on our electability in 2011 but a much greater impact on our electability in 2014.”

Have we had the step-change?

Key cites tax reform — undoubtedly big — reorganisation of science and innovation, with an amalgamated ministry, rejigged funding priorities and Crown research institutes pushed to work more closely with private firms — widely approved but, Key acknowledges, still “too little money” — reprioritisation of $4 billion of spending — Key calls that “squeezing the lemon” — other structural changes such as parking the National Archives and National Library with the Internal Affairs Department and progress on trade.

He says there will be a “savings and investment” budget this year. Bill English adds: a start on welfare “reform”, though he also warns that is no quick fix.

That attests to a busy government. But some chief executives grump that more than busy-ness is needed: they want bolder regulatory steps and a visible strategy.

But, where those CEOs want leaps and bounds, National’s step-change sticks close to the ground.

Well before the 2008 election the leadership jettisoned policies which polling told it might cost votes. So interest-free student loans stayed and superannuation at 65 and indexation of Working for Families rebates. This was a rejection of radicalism — the plunge in polling that followed Ruth Richardson’s great-leap-forward “mother of all budgets” in 1991 is seared into English’s memory. It was also a reclamation of National’s traditional slightly right-of-centre liberal-conservative spot.

Instead, the leadership explicitly decided to make modest promises (do some things, don’t do some others) before each election and carry them out. The model was John Howard across the Tasman and Helen Clark at home: relatively modest changes term by term which build to significant but mostly sustainable change over time. Senior ministers and Key say that is the guiding principle for the next term as well as this.

Key says: “You have to keep your word.” He promises to seek a “mandate for some different things” this year. He won’t say what but he and English have as-near-as-dammit flagged partial selldowns of selected state-owned enterprises.

More labour law liberalisation can also be inferred from the fact that that has been an area where Key has gone further this term than his 2008 mandate.

But it doesn’t add up to what you would expect from a risk-taker. No crash-through-or-crash. Instead, a measured programme that amounts to step-by-step change.

But wasn’t Key a currency trader? Aren’t they risk-takers? And didn’t Key describe himself in last February’s article as a trader who took “quite large short-term risks” not one of those who took “smaller, long-term risks”?

The likely answer: Key became a manager of traders and made much of his fortune from that. The manager has a bigger game: to ensure the cumulative actions of individualistic risk-taking traders don’t crash the bus.

Manager Key wants to steer the National bus to a third term. He says he won’t quit next term, though he won’t stick around if beaten.

And he still wants as a legacy to have done better by disadvantaged kids, hence part of his reason for whanau ora. It comes partly from his history as an orphan which caused him a “bigger emotional impact than I would have thought” from the miners’ deaths in November: he shared families’ losses.

That human connectedness is a large ingredient of Key’s high poll ratings. It is also a key to his step-by-step version of step-change.