Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Political roundup: The ongoing #Ponytailgate scandal

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Prime Minister John Key with his wife Bronagh and son Max. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key with his wife Bronagh and son Max. Photo / Mark Mitchell

#Ponytailgate is proving every bit as crazy as elements of last year's general election campaign. Unlike the amazing and colourful controversies that beset the Prime Minister and National Government, this one might actually do some immediate damage.

Already there are two major elements to this saga, affecting both John Key and journalists involved in reporting the story. The original post on the Daily Blog about John Key repeating pulling the ponytail of a café worker can be read here: The Prime Minister and the Waitress.

Will it hurt John Key and National?

The response to the revelations has been incredible - with blanket condemnations immediately suggesting this scandal was neither beltway nor fleeting. Quick off the blocks was the New Zealand Herald's political editor Audrey Young, who declared: "Today I'm embarrassed that John Key is Prime Minister. I have not felt that in the past six and a bit years he had led the country" - see: Today I'm embarrassed John Key is Prime Minister.

Today Herald political columnist John Armstrong has written a strong column reproaching Key - see: PM's behaviour 'fun and games' - pull the other one.

He says that "In the Court of King John, someone needs to tell the Prime Minister when he is behaving like a jerk".

One reason why the saga might be damaging, is that it goes to the heart of Key's winning 'relaxed' and down-to-earth persona. Armstrong explains: "One reason why Key is so popular is that he has sought to cut through the barrier between Prime Minister and public by being approachable, never talking down to people no matter their status, and never letting his high approval ratings go to his head".

Armstrong also suggests that the episode could be especially bad for his support amongst women: "the worry for Key and National is that this unseemly episode is of such magnitude and as something that forces people to take a position could severely jolt positive perceptions of Key, especially among female voters who flocked to National after he became leader".

Similar points are made by Tracy Watkins: "Key has long capitalised on his "silly" side to build a rapport with voters: the off colour jokes, the quips about his kids, and stunts like mincing down the catwalk have all contributed to his popularity as 'one of us'." - see: John Key's pony tail pulling risks making PM laughing stock.

She also says, "Given Key's popularity, public opinion is likely to be sharply divided. But National's worry is that it will also turn him into a laughing stock".

Matthew Hooton also raises this point: "Prime ministers can be hated by huge proportions of the population and survive, but they cannot become laughing stocks. That's the unmanageable risk faced by Mr Key" - see: Will #ponytailgate pull key down?.

Hooton doesn't think that the controversy will directly kill off the political career of John Key, but rather it might hasten Key's own decision to depart politics: "What it will do is accelerate a process where the fuel of public popularity that drives him is withdrawn, prompting him to reassess whether his heart is in the job, as he did over the summer of 2012/13".

Hooton argues that Key's "prime ministership is kept alive by his personal popularity and the emotional return he draws from it. If either fades, Mr Key will want to throw in the towel".

The NBR's Rob Hosking also addresses these questions: "Will it hurt him politically? Yes. Will it be the "walls of Jericho" moment many on the political Left, including some commentators, believe? No. This will be damaging but not fatal. This is Mr Key's version of Helen Clark's 'Painter-gate'." - see: The PM and the Ponytail: Why this will hurt National (paywalled).

Like others, Hosking wonders if #Ponytailgate will be especially damaging amongst female voters: "The biggest political damage here will come where Mr Key has been strong - women voters. Most of his predecessors, going back to at least Sir Robert Muldoon, have been less favoured by women voters than their Labour counterparts. Mr Key changed all that from when he became leader at the end of 2006: it is one of the most important reasons he keeps winning elections. Women who have been on the receiving end of this kind of boof-head male behaviour - and plenty have - are not going to like this. It will not be the kind of terminal wound many of the country's left wing activists and commentators are touting it as. It is, though, going to chip away further at his appeal".

Other particularly interesting commentaries on Key's ability to ride this out can be see in Danyl Mclauchlan's On the deep significance of ponytail-gate, Duncan Garner's Memo to Creepy John and Chris Trotter's Upbraided, But Not Undone: John Key Will Survive "Tailgate".

If this does come to be seen as a turning point or even a major blow for the PM and Government, then it will be a somewhat empty win for his opponents. After all, do Key's opponents really think this is the worst thing this Government has done?

In fact, Dita de Boni has written in the Herald today that even if the episode proves "to be the straw that broke the back of John Key's popularity...how ironic if a childish game of hair-tugging affecting one person counts for more than many years of neo-liberal dogma affecting thousands" - see: This hairy moment not Key's worst.

I've also made my own comments about the political ramifications in TVNZ's John Key will find it hard work to recover from ponytail saga - political analyst, and the Herald's Ponytail fallout: Is John Key destined for court?.

Other negative commentary on #ponytailgate

The international media reportage of the controversy has aggregated in places like Stuff's Ponytail-pulling Prime Minister John Key makes world headlines and Anthony Robins' blog post on The Standard: International laughing stock.

One of the most colourful versions is Elle Hunt's Guardian article, John Key: New Zealand prime minister's weirdest moments (so far).

But as Chris Keall points out in the NBR, Key gets off relatively lightly with international media.

The controversy has also proved to be Twitter gold, and the best aggregations of early tweets can be found on The Standard's Reaction to harassed waitress story, and Radio New Zealand's PM's ponytail-pull pilloried.

Few newspapers have directed their editorials at the matter (yet). But The Southland Times editorial is worth reading - see: Our occasionally puerile PM. It makes some good points, and concludes: "The consequences of his prattishness having at last become clear to him, he returned to the cafe with some wine as an apologetic offering. From this day on Key will need to be exquisitely careful in the company of the long-haired. It won't be easy to be the man famously tempted by ponytails".

"Glucina-gate"

A spin-off saga of scandal has now emerged with the New Zealand Herald's coverage of #ponytailgate. Gossip columnist Rachel Glucina landed the frontpage story today - see: Waitress: 'PM feels he's untouchable'. The article "outed" the previously anonymous waitress as Amanda Bailey, together with photographs taken with her bosses.

Bailey then responded with an must-read blog post challenging the article - see: The Prime Minister and the Waitress Part 2 - Dirty Politics?. In this, Bailey alleges that Glucina had obtained access to her and her comments under false pretences.

Herald editor Shayne Currie issued a full statement that has now been appended to the end of the Glucina article.

Glucina (@RachelGlucinaNZ) also tweeted this morning in reply to the allegations, saying "This is utterly not true, I did not, and I will be responding in due course".

Of course other media outlets are reporting on the Herald's dramas. See, for example, the TVNZ's Ponytail saga: Herald changes its story three times, 'suffers meltdown', Radio New Zealand's Newspaper responds to #ponytailgate claims, and Stuff's Newspaper defends ponytail-gate journalist.

Bloggers have been delving into the issue, too. See Jono Natusch's Rachel Glucina and journalistic ethics, and David Farrar's An issue for the Press Council.

Finally, for some humour on the issue, see Ben Uffindell's John Key calls me every morning at 3am and I can't take it anymore, and my blog post of Cartoons and images of #Ponytailgate & #Glucinagate.

Debate on this article is now closed

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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