John Key, modest constitutional innovator

Next Monday John Key is to address the Australian Parliament, a rare ceremony reserved usually for the likes of Presidents of China and the United States. Will he rise to the occasion or will the assembled Australian notables get John Key good bloke?

Will he do better than in his response to Julia Gillard’s address to Parliament here in February when he — and Phil Goff — meandered through matey footy jokes and platitudes?

The answer will lie in two competencies. One is in Key’s speechwriters, not yet really prime ministerial. The other is in Key himself: can he evolve into John Key statesman?

Australia can tolerate matey footy-ism because that fits with its popular culture. But the word back round diplomatic circles is that in other capitals Key and Foreign Minister Murray McCully are not top-drawer emissaries.

Key gets by because he is highly likeable and quick-thinking. Less so McCully, who has subjected his officials to sustained disdain and has earned despair and outspoken disaffection in return, far more than any minister in my experience. (There are similar tales from the rugby world cup administration.)

There is another difference between the two. Key develops and evolves.

He is not a stickler for constitutional propriety. He is still learning the written and unwritten conventions on which our system depends.

Warners and Sky City have discovered legislative concessions are negotiable in return for export jobs. In March Key told world media he expected Alan Bollard would cut interest rates after the February earthquake — he insisted there was no convention ministers kept off that turf.

The Reserve Bank board and senior management have a different view. This is not Australia.

But Key, like Helen Clark and Michael Cullen before him, appears to have got the message: coming up to last Thursday’s quarterly monetary policy statement he reverted to traditional prime ministerial discretion, including over the job-destroying level of the exchange rate.

And on the positive side Key has made two democracy-enhancing quasi-constitutional innovations.

On February 2 he set the election date for November 26, saying, “I believe it is in the country’s best interests to know the date early in election year.” That gave certainty to political parties, lobby groups and voters. It revived the once-common date of the last Saturday in November after Sir Robert Muldoon’s despairing snap election in 1984 (he lost in a landslide) and Clark’s opportunistic one in 2002 (Labour dropped 10 per cent from its pre-election opinion poll ratings).

A Prime Minister setting the election date (formally the Governor-General does but he must do what the Prime Minister tells him) is in effect exercising regal power. Many countries and some Australian states have the date fixed in law.

Key, like Clark, favours a fixed election date — but with the catch of a four-year term which voters have rejected in 1967 and 1990. Unlike Clark, he has gone partway by fixing the date very early. If he repeats that in 2014 he may just set a precedent for future Prime Ministers.

Key has also been developing another practice. More than past Prime Ministers, he has been unveiling a list of items he declares will go ahead only if he stays in power.

These are: selldowns of shares in Solid Energy, Meridian, Mighty River Power, Genesis Energy and Air New Zealand; changes to the KiwiSaver and Working for Families; competition in the ACC work account; some changes to welfare benefits, to be specified by a ministerial working group; and, added last week, more labour market deregulation.

There are two dimensions to this.

One is that Key will claim a “mandate” to do all those things if he stays in power. Actually, he will have a mandate to govern and a general mandate to go on as he has been. He will not have a specific mandate for each or any of those items. Only if he put them to referendums would he have specific mandates.

The actual test of the “mandate” comes later. If one or more of the initiatives turn out to be highly controversial, that will strip votes from his party. That happened to Clark over her “social engineering”, notably the anti-whacking legislation initiated by ex-Green MP Sue Bradford, now a Mana party enthusiast.

The second dimension is that Key is sticking to the operating principle National set before the 2008 election: to make some changes each term which are not earth-shattering in themselves but which the electorate can broadly go along with. After two or three terms of this pragmatic incrementalism the piecemeal changes add to a significant total.

The model is John Howard in Australia. Significantly, Howard took his controversial GST proposal to an election, as Key is doing with SOE sales.

It frustrates those, especially in business, who want Key to trade on his huge personal popularity to pursue a bold “vision”. But neither Key nor Bill English are bold visionaries.

Which may well give us our lead for Monday’s address.