Photo by The NZ Herald
A terrible feeling of deja vu appears to have come over
Prime Minister John Key. Here we sit, over a cuppa in a cafe in
the centre of the Epsom electorate. He's just realised the
recorder that has been sitting right in front of him on the
table for the past hour is actually on.
"God, it's a recording device. Last time I went to a cafe
with one of those it didn't end well."
That last time was the infamous cuppa with then Act leader
John Banks, at which there was also a recorder on the table
which went unnoticed. He swore off cuppas in Epsom after
that, yet here he is.
He has only himself to blame. The original suggestion was to
accompany him and son Max during a golf game. I even offered
to caddy. That was rejected. Instead I meet him and his wife,
Bronagh, outside the gates of their home in leafy St Stephens
Ave to play gooseberry on their regular weekend morning cafe
There are enough gooseberries to make a fruit salad.
There is also a photographer, a press secretary and Key's
three protection squad men, known by Bronagh as "the boys".
We are meeting in what were happier times for Key, before
Nicky Hager's book hit the shelves. Jonah Lomu had tweeted
nice things about him the night before, the biography on him
was into its sixth reprint, and Key had just had word the
courts rejected Graham McCready's bid to prosecute him
So on this Saturday morning Key is in a peachy mood, dressed
in pastel blue. It starts raining. Key just grins at this
minor annoyance and says "that's how come it's so leafy". A
neighbour emerges and waves. Key calls a greeting and says of
the neighbour "he's National as".
But not everyone is "National as" in this enclave. Down
Bridgewater Rd Key points to a house.
"They had a 'no deep sea oil drilling' sign chained to the
fence. They shook it at me every time I walked past." The
sign is gone. "Yes - I sent the goons over to whack it off.
No, not really. They obviously saw the merit of our logic and
took it down."
We go along the edge of the rose gardens and across the road
to Rosie cafe. There is a fish and chip shop nearby but Key
says he rarely visits. "Body's a temple. Write that down."
At Rosie they place him on the corner where he can be easily
seen from outside. He's good advertising. The Keys are
clearly regulars. Key asks a waitress about her upcoming
wedding and advises on dates. "Go for October. Snare him
The menu is a bit radical for Key. It has things like 'green
eggs' on it. Key orders the same thing every time: scrambled
eggs on five-grain toast. "Body's a temple."
Key still does his physical training drills, assisted by the
boys, at 5.40 several mornings a week. He's doing a bit of
boxing, flailing at a punching bag. He won't say who he
imagines when he's punching it. He's taken a vow of
abstinence from booze until the election, he has trim milk in
his coffees, and Diet Coke.
Their lives have been thoroughly picked over in the six years
Key has been Prime Minister. Bronagh has had to get used to
copping some of the flak her husband attracts. People often
recognise her, and if Key is at the centre of some
controversy, some confront her.
"It's easier now because the kids are more immune to it,
because they're older and can understand it a bit more,"
Bronagh says. "But it used to be much harder when they were
little and trying to explain to them why people were saying
stuff about Dad. That was always quite difficult."
They have a semblance of a private life. Every year they
escape with a few friends for a weekend, no children allowed.
Key won't reveal who they are: "They're friends. It doesn't
mean they're trustworthy."
This year they went to Waiheke where Key went to the markets
and was surrounded by Green Party supporters. One of the
friends has green leanings and he finds that highly
"I write to her quite regularly: 'Dear Concerned of Parnell,
today we've released an update to the national water
standards and you may be interested in it.' I send all sorts
of stuff. She loves it."
There are other critics Key is not so amused by. Among them
are the "muppets who don't like you" on social media. He has
a Twitter account but doesn't tweet himself.
"Hell no. It's dangerous. Dangerous for politicians. Politics
is a confidence thing, so why do you want to spend your life
with people whose sole purpose is to try and get inside your
head? People just hide away behind the veil of secrecy."
Key wouldn't be able to constrain himself to 140 characters
anyway. He is a prolific talker. He talks about the political
suicide that would come with tinkering with big-ticket
policies such as interest-free student loans or Working for
Families - the two big rats he swallowed in 2008 to boost
National's election chances.
He talks about a new candidate who has impressed him, the
evils of smoking, the merits of weight loss, golf. At one
point, slightly tongue in cheek, he randomly starts talking
about National Standards to divert attention from the story
Bronagh is telling about him. After I chide him for talking
over Bronagh, Key insists he can be quiet - he was quiet for
at least 10 minutes that very morning, watching golf on
But Bronagh can get her own back. After Key insists his body
is a temple for the fifth time, she says "more like a
warehouse". He laughs and says, "There's a reason she's
restricted to 600 words a day."
She also reveals what is possibly the real reason the Max
versus Key snr golf game idea was rejected. "Max can whip
him. The beautiful thing is Max doesn't really practise." Key
is highly competitive and doesn't like to lose. In an attempt
to regain ascendancy, he has a putting lesson lined up for
the next day.
Bronagh still hasn't forgiven me for making them kiss for the
cameras in front of the Taj Mahal in India in 2011.
"That was so embarrassing. I had the 'fro going on. My hair
was getting bigger and bigger."
Key chimes in "it was the Jackson Six".
The visit to the Queen's residence at Balmoral makes
Bronagh's list of highlights from the past six years, but the
things she remembers most starkly are domestic. She lists the
Pike River memorial service, and the visit to Christchurch
soon after the February earthquake. Both grew up in
"I remember standing in Cathedral Square, just looking. It
made me cry. It just felt really ... it was the icon and so
standing there in front of it was kind of sad, it sort of
summed up how wrecked the place was."
It turns out Bronagh also has quite the sense of humour. She
mimics a teacher they had at school dubbed "Screaming Skull".
The mimic emerges again when talking about Key's handyman
abilities. Key's mother warned her he was useless at DIY. She
puts on the late Ruth Key's Austrian accent: "John is USELESS
at fixing things round the house," she says. "He's going to
have to do a good job because he's going to have to pay
someone else to do everything."
The Rich List had come out the day before and by its
reckoning he can still afford to be a bit useless. It put his
worth at about $55 million - up from $50 million the year
before. I suggest the NBR doesn't think those in charge of
Key's blind trust are much chop if they only gave him a 10
per cent return. His theory is that NBR simply puts him up
every year to make sure he doesn't drop off the bottom
Key's assets include that house in leafy, pluvial Parnell. If
the election goes against Key that house could soon be yours.
The pair have already begun talking about "post politics".
When that time comes, they will sell up and build elsewhere
Bronagh has liked the area since they first lived in Auckland
in the 1980s - the trees on St Stephens Ave reminded her of
Christchurch. Daughter Steffi is in France and shows no sign
of returning. Student Max will move out of home at some point
to follow his father's footsteps into investment banking.
They want something a bit smaller than the 929sq m home, "a
lock and leave" that will let them migrate between Maui,
Omaha and Auckland at will.
The meals are eaten and Key turns to Bronagh. "Do you want to
share a trim cappuccino with me?"
I can't quite hold back a snort of laughter.
Bronagh eyes him: "No, I'll have my own latte please."
Key: "Not a big one though?"
Bronagh: "Yes, I'll have a big one."
Key: "That's a lot for you."
Bronagh: "Its all right, I'll cope."
Key: "I'll have a small one please. Because I know my limit."
When I ask Key later who gets which half of the cappuccino,
he replies, "I won't answer that on the basis your headline
will be 'Key likes a bit of fluff'."
In the cafe, nobody has bothered us, but as we leave Key is
stopped by a woman and then a group of schoolgirls looking
for selfies. He happily obliges, no doubt hoping some of
those muppets on social media will eventually be enraged by
- by Claire Trevett, NZ Herald