John Key opens election season with American jolly



President Barack Obama spoke for over five minutes without notes from his armchair at the press audience in the White House. The boom mics splayed below the pair like great grey ferrets jostling with each other. Obama was relaxed and reeling it off like the patter it was. He said a few times that NZ was small, which meant he didn’t have to state that the US was large – they already know that. Prime Minister John Key sat opposite, hanging on his every word, trying not to fidget, grinning incessantly. Waiting his turn. Key fluffs his first few words – they are incoherent. He clears his throat and starts again. The underwhelming impression starts there.

They had probably been in the Oval Office talking for half an hour and this was where they invite the press corps in for a photo op in front of the fire place and they give a brief summary of discussions. Oh happy day – bathed in the presence of greatness, Key was to close a little side deal he had been working on since their round of golf in Hawaii – a Presidential visit.

After Obama had concluded a wide-ranging, slightly rambling, set of remarks in a very cool, magisterially-paced delivery, Key spoke – after stumbling – for only a couple of minutes. He reiterating what Obama had said, trying throughout to suppress gushing adulation. Key expressed satisfaction at their talk, but was even more vague than Obama about what they had said or agreed upon. Trade good, war bad etc.

As with other media interactions, like press conferences and stand-ups, these fireside remarks between politicians have a peculiar etiquette of their own. The drawing room routine. New Zealand Premiers must have performed much the same formalities at No. 10 Downing St., if in somewhat more elaborate attire than our present day banal business suits.

When Britain was the top nation and parent to the colony the New Zealand Prime Minister would go from one station of the colonial pilgrimage to another around Westminster and Whitehall for instructions and inspiration for how he could better perform in service of the Axis of England. Now they go worship at the White House, the Capitol and the NSA in service of the Axis of America. Nothing has really changed for New Zealand Prime Ministers except they don’t have to travel quite as far in order to demonstrate their political dependency.

The reassuring cordiality and mutual appreciation translated then – as it does now – into electoral credibility at home amongst the insecure majority of Her Majesty’s New Zealand subjects, eager to percieve a singleness of purpose and to impute a guarantee of a continued existence on favourable terms. Thanks to these personal relationships NZ is thus believed to be safe from communism, the yellow peril, Muslims/terrorists, drugs and rappers.

Key’s mission to Washington DC is part of this military-ideological tradition and also part electioneering – and the nonchalant commitment he won from Obama to visit NZ during his remaining term of office is part of Key’s planned re-election campaign. The empty agenda and empty rhetoric belies the empty reason for the visit. As reassuring as the messages and signals are to the more conservative rump of the population no substantive business was transacted. All the journalists along for the junket were struggling for copy. It was – to quote Key when he unfairly criticised Hone Harawira’s attendance at Nelson Mandela’s funeral – a jolly.

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In the day the NZ PM may have even bought a new fob watch for the occasion of an Imperial Conference; now all the sartorial embellishments come down to whether to wear the silver fern lapel badge or the NZ flag lapel badge. No wonder other leaders forget Key’s name if that’s all there is to mark the man. If he is only half as dull in real life as he appears to be on television then who can blame dignitaries who mangle his name or – as David Letterman did during a humiliating episode on his show – forget which country he represents.

They must remember the Presidents with jaguar skin capes and zebra hats and so on – but which foreign regent could be expected to distinguish between the Prime Ministers of Canada, Australia and New Zealand? Which dry right wing white guy in a blue suit from which British country is this? How many awkward moments at international fora and cocktail paties have there been mixing up Steven Harper/John Key/Tony Abbot. They are all David Cameron clones aren’t they?

So now Key has got Obama booked in is he going to let him visit the Maori King, or is he going to snub him as he did with the Royal visit earlier this year?


  1. That image ? I’ve just vomited my toast all over the table because I know where jonky’s hooked nose has been . Uggghh !

  2. Key came to power before Abbot and Cameron (don’t know about Harper) so possibly for the first time ever New Zealand has lead these nations by being the first to have a pasty, bland faced, male as leader.

  3. You know I watched Parliament TV this afternoon because I was home on sick leave and decided to watch our politicians in action for something to do. What I saw was John Key repeatedly giving fatuous answers to any questions put to him. The man cannot give a straight answer to a straight question. To John Key parliament is a comedy show and opportunity to demonstrate his skills as a spin doctor

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