John Key's opportunity

Interviewed on television just before midnight on election day, Prime Minister John Key demonstrated why he is so popular.

His weariness was obvious, as was his relief after the battering he received through the campaign. He had just made his speech to the party faithful and in typical Key fashion his performance in front of the microphone was only so-so, for he is not an orator of great poise and power.

Much more importantly, however, he has a quality worth gold to politicians. He ''connects'' with voters.

There he was in a one-to-one interview, able to muster a joke, to appear sincere and to say the right things. After a victory the size of which surprised almost everyone, including himself, he seemed humble, showing absolutely no signs of gloating.

The bloke next door - the man who can not only share a game of golf with United States President Barack Obama but also a beer in a working men's club - acknowledged half of New Zealand did not vote for National.

He said, however, his would be a Government for everyone, including those who did not support him, and it would care for the ''vulnerable''.

No doubt Mr Key's critics would have been seething with mistrust. But to many in the middle, John Key was once again likeable, sensible and compassionate.

In National's dark days of the early to mid-2000s, neither Bill English nor Don Brash as leaders, both talented in their own ways, galvanised the country. The party was in the doldrums and Helen Clark reigned supreme.

Then, as the Clark government began to lose its shine, Mr Key turned up and won once, twice and now thrice. After Saturday night, only a foolish punter would bet on him failing in 2017.

Labour leader David Cunliffe, who acquitted himself well in the leaders' debates and who is able and dedicated, simply lacks the magic leadership ingredient: the magnetism that attracts widespread support.

Sir Keith Holyoake, comparable to Mr Key because of his government's centrist policies and his own pragmatism, won broad backing. Sir Robert Muldoon, much as he was loathed in many quarters, had a commanding pugnacious presence.

Norman Kirk inspired affection and respect and David Lange, for all his lack of stickability, was a leader of men and women for a period. Helen Clark, in her turn, was formidable.

Labour has been mauled and its failure cannot all be blamed on campaign distractions and a lack of air time for its policies, whatever Mr Cunliffe says, because voters have a general idea where parties stand.

Rather, in part, Mr Key's Government crowded out the centre, leaving its main opposition party floundering further left. But more urgently than policy plans, Labour needs a new political superstar, a leader who can tackle Mr Key if and when he tires, just as David Lange toppled a spent Rob Muldoon, and John Key edged past a fading Helen Clark.

Because genuine leadership comes in many guises, who knows where that person will come from. There certainly seems no such standout spearhead among the current decimated Labour caucus.

That, of course, will not bother Mr Key. But while he is rapidly becoming one of this country's most ''popular'' prime ministers, there remains a gulf before he can go down in history as a ''great'' prime minister. If that is Mr Key's ambition, he is going to have to show that his role is, indeed, to serve all New Zealanders.

He and his Cabinet will have to strive to care for families, to try to ensure the poor are supported and not consigned to a demeaning and destructive underclass future. As well, alongside pursuit of economic development, this Government is going to have to protect the environment.

At the same time, Mr Key needs to cease an apparent cavalier attitude to constitutional and proper procedure issues, including more clarity and as much openness as possible on spying and security matters.

All the elements that help preserve our precious democracy, freedoms and relative freedom from corruption must be respected and high standards demanded. All these concerns are now in Mr Key and his Government's hands.

As he begins his third term, he has the opportunity to build a legacy as one of this country's foremost leaders.

 

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