The longer haul out of Christchurch's quake

The contrast between John Key the yet-to-become-statesman and John Key the one-of-us team-leader is striking. We saw both in two weeks.

Last week I said Key’s jokes and platitudes were inappropriate at the first address to Parliament by an outsider. I said Julia Gillard (she of the grating accent) demonstrated a much better sense of occasion. I said Key could do with a speechwriter and coach.

But Key needs no coach (as I said last week) when it comes to speaking for and with us after a disaster. He has now done this three times and every time got it right. A disaster is not the score anyone but a ghoul would write but in disasters Key scores.

This flows from an automatic empathy which he has in bucketloads and exhibits generously. That distinguishes him from, for example, Barack Obama, who can do soaring speeches but not unite a politically confused United States. Key has and shows feelings. No speechwriter is needed. He fits.

The result is likely to be, as last year, a lift in his popularity. This comes just as it was easing on both television polls from alpine highs to only very high.

A bit of the gloss had come off in the foreshore/seabed controversy (an email to me at the weekend said that on 26 November “National’s traditional support base will have their say”). A micro-scandal about car prices, signals of cuts in welfare, asset sales and public service staff cuts and restructurings had given Labour some lines to pitch to its 2008 deserters. (Phil Goff also got a lot of useful air time in Christchurch.)

None of that was cause to revise expectations that Key will be Prime Minister after November 26. The issue is less whether he will get there than what his support matrix will be. But the monster aftershock will give him more leeway for a time.

There is, however, a third dimension to prime ministership beyond gravitas on state occasions and one-of-us-ness in tough times: that of the executive leader. Christchurch requires that additional dimension.

This is a national event, not just a local one. Japan responded to Kobe’s devastating earthquake in 1995 with what David Edgington of the University of British Columbia described to the Royal Society’s media watch centre as a “national-scale, multi-faceted project”. That is the call for the Key ministry.

Initially, the executive leadership is to ensure rescue and services in the emergency, then to see to support for households and businesses which lose their incomes.

Then it is a matter of getting Christchurch up and running fast and deciding who can build what where. Those are hard enough decisions — complicated, let’s hope, by a big one-off upside opportunity: to learn from Napier and rebuild the CBD as a modern architectural showplace, for which the undamaged Art Gallery provides an excellent cue.

Then in behind the rebuild is Christchurch’s economic place. Kobe has never recovered its once powerhouse status as a port, shipbuilder and steel maker.

It is also a matter of convincing foreign tourists, students, investors and insurers that this country is not dangerous.

That will require a hard look at the building code and other regulations to test their adequacy, the degree to which architects, builders and owners have conformed and the city council’s oversight and enforcement. And after the hard look maybe decisions and action next year.

If a tougher code is warranted, it will involve a hard tradeoff: profits versus lives. Economics will push the first; politics, after last week’s big toll, will push the second.

The big (for New Zealand) loss of life comes a month after Nature magazine billed this country as the standout best in a correlation of low loss of life with low corruption and low poverty. The same correlation might not go quite as well this week.

That is the call for Key. When the foreign media question why some buildings fell down and killed lots of people, as the sober Financial Times did on Saturday, that is a risk to this country’s reputation. Reputations take a long time to build and a very short time to lose.

New Zealand, more than all but a few countries, needs its reputation because its open society and economy depend heavily on foreign trust and goodwill.

Key has to balance decisive action that convinces foreigners the country is not unsafe versus sensible limits to avoid stifling overkill. This will be diabolically difficult. And it is his call, a very personal one, one of the make-or-break calls of his prime ministership.

A year ago there would have been some doubt he could make that call. But over the past few months he has begun here and there to step outside the apparent (but over time illusory) safety of focus groups and take a lead. Asset sales is an example.

And Key is not a little New Zealander at heart. He has spent many years of his working life abroad in big cities. He is in that sense an internationalist.

So there is some reason to think he will be the executive leader. The next 12 months will tell.