Will Key “man up” on what counts for kids?

John Key told the Labour party to “man up” and back his Crosby/Textor flip-flop law change for an additional design on the flag referendum. Earlier this year he told Labour to “get some guts” and back his Iraq adventure.

But does Key “man up” under pressure?

Did he “man up” over his indiscreet comments to John Banks in the 2011 election campaign? Did he “man up” over unlawful spying on Kim Dotcom? Did he “man up” over his office employee’s conspiracy with Cameron Slater to slop dirt over his opponents?

Academic Jon Johansson (no Labour fellow-traveller) has distilled a “character-related weakness” when under attack, demonstrated in “three corrections to the parliamentary record, in the Dotcom and related cases”, his “frequent date-shifting to match new political information” and “his ‘brain fades’ … when he has self-servingly chosen a different hat to avoid accountability” (that is, John Key the person not John Key the Prime Minister).

Is Key the sort who can “man up” on the flag and do what Labour and most critics have asked: put a yes-no question in the first referendum?

What Key did do was to slide self-righteously above-politics Green co-leader James Shaw into the grime. Shaw has made a big play of seeking a cross-party climate change deal. Key enrolled him in one slagging Labour.

There are other “man up” issues for Key. One is to come cleaner on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, on which Tim Groser told a business gathering in mid-August we could not expect much on dairy but would have to be in the club.

(The real TPP aim is regulatory convergence. The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which may now be being revived from a two-year coma, has the same ambition. Together they would cover most world trade — and, tellingly, exclude China.)

Intergenerational issues are another “man up” matter for Key. He is not securing national superannuation on a sustainable fiscal footing. He shies from substantive action on climate change, including some initiatives which would not cost much.

A third such issue was back on the table last week — for the fifteenth time since 1988: how to rescue and nurture children under attack and enable them to become full citizens.

An “expert panel”, headed by the ubiquitous Paula Rebstock, has produced a 155-page interim report. (Rebstock also last week damned the Defence Force as a dysfunctional brigade, thereby lending poignancy to the opening words of the English version of the national anthem.)

Rebstock is the big gun on the actuarial “forward liability investment approach” in welfare and her report wants it applied to the children. This can generate co-benefits and appears to be doing so with some beneficiaries. But it is insurance rather than real investment.

Real investment of time, love, nurturing and nourishment of body and mind in children builds a real asset: a full member of society, self-supporting, paying taxes, bringing up the next generation well.

That asset is far more valuable than fusty avoidance of future welfare, hospital and prison fiscal costs.

The consequence, spelt out by Rebstock and Co in sad page after page, of not investing in abuse or neglected children is, to quote Bill English on prisons a few years back, a “moral and fiscal failure”.

Three things bring this back to Key.

One is Paula Bennett, whom he has promoted into line as a potential successor to English in finance and himself (eventually) as leader.

Bennett was six years Social Development Minister with, she said, a focus on disadvantaged kids. Her successor, tough-gal Anne Tolley, has, by commissioning Rebstock, essentially said Bennett failed. (Tolley stomped off into the blame game on Sunday by toying with tubal ligation for bad mothers.)

The second Key factor is that fixing the failure requires day-to-day whipping of patch-protecting ministers and agency chief executives to get effective, systematic, concerted, intensive-case-managed, child-focused action — plus a standover of English for the funds needed to invest in systems and staffs (though some say English is saying he will find whatever funds are needed).

Driving ministers and officials requires the overarching authority only a Prime Minister has — plus the Prime Minister’s personal attention.

Third is Key himself. He has said he wants his legacy to be what he does for disadvantaged kids.

He preened himself at budget time with his up-to-$25 benefit rise. But he has not driven urgent action on Paul Hutchison’s far-reaching health select committee report of late 2013, which might have been used to start fixing the mess Rebstock has been sloshing round in. That report, by the way, drew heavily on the world-unique longitudinal survey run by Ritchie Poulton, a Rebstock panellist and science adviser to Tolley’s ministry.

Seven years into his prime ministership, will Key now drive urgent action to get some guts into the legacy he has said he wants?

Or will flag-waving be “man-up” Key’s legacy?