What’s in a legacy? Substance. Does Key cut it?

What’s in a legacy? For John Key it might turn out to be someone else’s.

Take some recent Prime Ministers.

Jim Bolger’s legacy is to have confronted the instincts of most in his party and to have continued Treaty of Waitangi settlements and the transition to a bicultural New Zealand.

Helen Clark’s is a more socially liberal country and an independent foreign policy, a key enabler of the China trade deal.

But some Prime Ministers’ legacies are those of stronger or more determined ministers in their cabinets: Roger Douglas’s legacy overshadows David Lange’s.

One Key legacy is the restoration (with Bill English) of strong moderate liberal (Key) and moderate conservative (English) blocs in the National party. That has given it stability and appeal.

It ended 30 years of schismatic diversions into populism and market-libertarian ideology. The party is now well-funded, with a broad membership that coos contentedly at conferences.

Add Key’s personal appeal and a fourth term is distinctly possible.

But this is a party, not a government, legacy — National, not national. Key’s government legacy has so far been written essentially by English, the strategic fiscal, public service and policy reformer.

A legacy is durable, substantive change. Symbolic gestures — the flag flutter and signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership in casino headquarters in Auckland next week — don’t cut it.

Key is a man of the moment, not burdened with a sense of history or strategy for the future.

Witness his short focus on climate change: too few trees planted to absorb carbon dioxide in the 2020s.

Witness his neglect of forward provision for health and superannuation, despite having said in 2003 that “the single biggest way to reduce that (future superannuation) liability is to raise the age of eligibility”. Now he blandly asserts future generations will afford the 2020s-2030s cost.

This fits his past occupation as a currency trader.

In finance a deal is finite and complete. Future impact is for others. “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone”, trading room operators say, according to Oxford economics fellow and Financial Times columnist John Kay in a searching, disturbing and challenging new book analysing the sector’s siphoning of the real economy.

But easygoing, blokey, shock-jock, light Key appeals. Though he can turn nasty under pressure, as in his “get some guts” Iraq speech and accusation that Labour backed rapists and murderers, and can be economical with facts (witness the Saudi slinter), he is usually genuinely affable — and, because of that, perennially forgiven (so far) by most voters.

Some insiders say he will this year reinforce that appeal by pitching to the “85%” who are doing well or getting by.

His affability is a plus in foreign affairs. He achieves quick personal rapport, diplomats say: Barack Obama made that point in his unintended public aside at APEC in November. That opens the door wider for others to work through the substance.

But light-touch symbolism can also waste opportunity.

His declaration of the Kermadec marine sanctuary at the United Nations in October blindsided the Pew Centre and other long-term campaigners for the sanctuary. He could have won big clean-green points: a puzzled United States Secretary of State John Kerry is said to have said that he would have come in behind.

Key turned substance into gesture.

Housing is substance. At National’s 2007 conference Key highlighted “home ownership” as “an economic problem, with obvious and important social dimensions”, which Helen Clark had not fixed. His plan involved tax, the consenting process, selling state houses and buying new ones and skills training.

After seven years in office tax rates are lower but eaten up by fiscal drag, regulatory changes have not yet opened up nearly enough building space and state house policy and training have been patchy.

And house prices have soared. Auckland is in the top league of unaffordability. This is partly due to Chinese shifting cash out of China.

To say that is not racist, as Key alleged. As a trader, Key knows a few cash-rich buyers affect marginal prices far more than their numbers imply, as the non-racist New York Times pointed out in a November 30 feature on Chinese house buyers in western cities. Quotable Value made a similar point this month.

So what could Key make his legacy of substance?

Key used to say he wanted it to be what he does for disadvantaged children. But the Children’s Commissioner tells us we are regressing, not progressing on that front, partly the result of wide, embedded inequalities.

Key has time. He has the Rebstock working group — and the 2013 Paul Hutchison health select committee report among many, including from chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman.

Key could drive substantive change — drive English to turn his narrow “investment” approach into real investment.

That would be bigger than being the likeable chap who fronted English’s building of his government’s legacy.