Is John Key any good?

Kerfuffle over the letter of support for an ACC claimant written by ACC Minister Nick Smith has drifted into questions over John Key’s political savvy.

Is John Key any good at this political stuff? The answer is yes, he’s good. But if politics was rugby, he’d be Jonah Lomu; great on the front foot, shaky in defence.

On the front foot he’s powerful. Anyone paying attention when he visited Wellesley College early in the week, in the heat of the Nick Smith crisis, would have seen how he has learned to connect with people. His speech to the kids was comfortable and his message relevant. He didn’t lecture or hector.

On the back foot he’s less sure, but very few politicians are. The common problem is that most of us face public derision with defensiveness. We never grow out of the childhood tendency to deny writing our name on the wallpaper.

Under political pressure, personal ego becomes a first line weakness. The want to be liked, and to like others, distorts decisions.

What Key did when the news first broke was admirable; he gave Nick Smith the benefit of the doubt, the chance to move on from a mistake, and the leader’s loyalty. The shabby connection of National Party stalwarts to the saga was undoubtedly a frustrating complication.

Key should have made those things explicit to the public right then; that the letter of support was a bad mistake, but that Smith was invaluable, and that team loyalty was important to him, so Smith would be staying.

Instead, ego forced him into denial that there was a problem at all. That got up the noses of most people taking an interest in the story.

By Wednesday it looked like Key had blustered his way through to safety. As many times before – like the “teagate saga”, the incident would wash off into the past.

Then Smith resigned, making all Key’s earlier positions look ill-considered.

The problem here is the myopia of political circles. Key bluffed his way through Teagate because he stuck to his position, because he was convinced the public did not care.

This time there was no public reference. Key was encircled by media, political opposition, his own colleagues, and the National Party itself.

As the layers in the story continued to unfold (they always do), Key would have begun to think that the only option was Smith’s resignation. 

If certainty is the basis of your authority, resignation is a huge deal. It admits fault and fallibility.

By Thursday Key was telling media they should “get a life” and “give me a break”. He explained that these situations under other Governments had always been messy and extended. He’s right about that. But despite claiming that he’d acted faster, the comparison ranked his performance alongside the messes of the past.

Key is a good politician. The Smith incident was all about Nick Smith. John Key’s handling of the issue was as ‘poor’ as most other leaders, but irrelevant.

Sacking Smith on Monday would have been callous, brutal, and selfish. These might be common political traits, but they’re not admired by the public.

If there really are more layers to the story, then the resignation came at the correct time. If they’re aren’t more layers, and the resignation only came off the back of three days of political circle pressure, then it was poorly judged.

The lessons of the Smith incident are:

  1. Don’t rule by relying on infallibility
  2. Assume there’s more than the colleague is telling you
  3. Be clear about the differences between right and wrong, political controversy, and public opinion. These things are rarely the same.
  4. Admit fault, don’t over-react, and be upfront

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