Year six: time for Key to define Key the PM

John Key is an elusive Prime Minister. He goes in and out of focus, never quite in-charge but no amateurs-night drop-in either. This, his sixth year in office and second incumbency election year, is the time to define his prime ministership if he is going to.

A third term is usually too late. Sir Keith Holyoake’s third-term “young Turks” re-energised his cabinet but he flatlined. Sir Robert Muldoon defined himself well before he got to the top. Jim Bolger secured his legacy — entrenching the bicultural path — in his second term.

Key is clever, smart and quick. When he swots a topic he demonstrates detailed understanding — that’s the secret of a successful currency trade. Then next day he wings it on his blokey, matey one-of-us-ness, as if on the squash court back in university days. A true Prime Minister is also definitively more-than-us.

The smile and the flip self-mocking are infectious, a huge asset to him and his party. But the smile can flip into anger or put-upon-ness and then errors of judgment and action, when an event goes awry.

Insiders say he can be, and often is, forceful in cabinet meetings, a veritable chief executive. But he has characterised his management style as setting a “house view”, then letting ministers get on with their jobs according to their own lights, much as a dealing room is run.

A plus in that style is that he eases through the tribulations of ragtag minor-party support and that easiness will go a long way in post-election bargaining (including, maybe, a backdoor deal with Winston Peters). Another plus is that cabinet stars shine. The minus is that the stars define outcomes more than he does and the less able flounder and the wayward get offside.

Then Key shows another dealing-room disposition. Traders who get it wrong get the flip. Key frequently reshuffles ministers. A remarkable number of MPs and former ministers — flounderers, the wayward and the politically or chronologically aged — are leaving Parliament.

This cleanout, backed by Peter Goodfellow, an understated and therefore underrated party president, offers National scope to initiate into its caucus a match for Labour’s rising under-45s (themselves mostly the result of Helen Clark’s push for regeneration in Labour’s 2008 selections).

Key’s cleanouts and reshuffles have limits. One is the dark-force MP for East Coast Bays whom people cross at their peril. Another is Hekia Parata, who comprehends education and the need for reprioritisation better than most recent predecessors, but whose execution is suboptimal. Reshuffling her would upset the iwi leaders forum.

Parata’s positives fit a Key instinct: education gave him the opportunity to go from a low-income background to riches. Last week’s announcements, aimed at spreading round the nous of top principals and teachers to improve school and classroom practice and thereby lift some children’s learning, head towards a track some professionals have pushed for a couple of decades.

It is only a first step. Rose Patterson, the New Zealand Initiative researcher who has done two reports, with a third to come in March, points to the big step Key hasn’t taken: to “transform the teaching profession into high-status career” in order “to attract the best and brightest talent”.

And beyond that there is another big step: to transform the early life, and so lifetime opportunities, of “at-risk” children by investing state and not-for-profit skills and resources in their mothers before conception and during gestation and in the child’s first three years. Patterson’s high-status teachers could then make the best of them.

Labour took a first step towards picking up that “best-start” baton in David Cunliffe’s speech yesterday, finally recognising Jacinda Ardern’s work.

Key has repeatedly said helping disadvantaged children is the legacy he wants. Last Thursday’s step doesn’t yet amount to a legacy.

Key might also look at the other end of the pipeline, where Steven Joyce is forcing institutions to focus more tightly on today’s work skills — at a time when “work” is rapidly being redefined, by economic change and by under-25s’ instincts. Tomorrow’s work needs adaptable character more than rote skills.

It is a big ask of early-fifties Key to expect him to reshape the lumbering education system to fit a new generation of technologies and people so New Zealand can stay rich. But if he has really meant what he has said about his legacy, this, his sixth, is the logical year to hit the ball down the fairway.

His alternative is to be remembered for tight budgeting (Bill English’s doing) and a good economic year or two, as the earthquake rebuild peaks. (On a minor key, if he sets the election date soonish, as in 2011, that could establish a valuable constitutional innovation.)

Of course, there might yet be something big to come — in today’s Parliament opening speech or in the budget. Key always leaves the impression there is more to him somewhere. This year will tell.