John Key and Donald Trump - worlds apart? Think again. Political commentator Geoffrey Miller looks at five surprising similarities shared by the New Zealand Prime Minister and the US President-elect.

Highly pragmatic - and willing to compromise

US website Politico identified 15 instances of backtracking by Donald Trump in the 15 days after the November 8 election - ranging from his much-vaunted wall with Mexico turning into a fence, to abandoning prosecution of Hillary Clinton over her private email server.

Like Trump, Key has a long history of pragmatism over ideology - dating back to his early days as Opposition leader when he replaced Don Brash.


Key immediately dropped National's opposition to the Maori seats in Parliament, promised to keep New Zealand nuclear free and pledged to keep Labour's flagship policy of interest-free student loans.

Since becoming Prime Minister, Key has kept in touch with public opinion and has not been afraid to backtrack when he senses the government is on the wrong side.

Increasing class sizes and backing down over allowing mining in national parks are just two examples of a willingness to compromise when necessary.

For both Key and Trump, it's all about the art of the deal.

Both are independently wealthy

Both men are secretive about their exact net worth, although the 2016 NBR rich list estimated Key's wealth at about $60 million.

Trump's personal wealth is assumed to be in the billions.

Whatever the exact figures, both men are clearly among the richest in their respective countries.

Just as significant as their fortunes is how the two men made them: Key gained his while working as a foreign exchange trader for Merrill Lynch, while Trump made his many millions as a property developer.

Donald Trump made his millions as a property developer. Picture / 123RF
Donald Trump made his millions as a property developer. Picture / 123RF

Both paths involved a high degree of financial risk and failure, as well as ultimate reward.

As high net worth individuals, neither Key nor Trump are dependent on politics for income or status.

Should things go wrong for either of them politically, a world of company board memberships, speech giving and above all money making awaits.

Neither are career politicians

Today, the vast majority of modern politicians in New Zealand and the United States enter politics at ever younger ages and overwhelmingly see public office as a career, not a calling.

Self-advancement is their primary aim - and as such, they prefer not to "rock the boat" or get offside with their party hierarchy.

Key and Trump both buck this trend.

Both men are inherent risk-takers - in business and politics.

In New Zealand and the United States, they have challenged and on occasions even mocked the established orthodoxy in their respective parties.

Key swiftly and sharply moved National to the centre after years of moving rightward under Brash - one of his first actions as National Party leader was to "eradicate" the party's spokesman for "Political Correctness Eradication".

Similarly, in his campaign to become US president, Trump repeatedly insulted Republican party establishment figures - from John McCain (for being captured as a prisoner of war) to Mitt Romney (for being a loser) and everyone in between.

Donald Trump told Mitt Romney he was a loser. Picture / AP
Donald Trump told Mitt Romney he was a loser. Picture / AP

As self-made, non-career politicians, Key and Trump can afford to take risks and define themselves in ways that conventional establishment candidates would shun, safe in the knowledge that they can walk away at any time.

Strange behaviour is part of their political brand

One of the hallmarks of John Key's enduring personal popularity has been his anti-politician style.

This has seen him mincing down the catwalk, "planking" and dancing along to Gangnam Style.

These are examples of relatively harmless self-deprecation, which have endeared him to his supporters and led opponents to shake their heads in disbelief in equal measure.

But at times Key has also got it wrong.

The most egregious case of this happened in 2015, when he was engulfed in the "Ponytailgate" scandal and was forced to make a rare public apology for his behaviour - after a bungled attempt at a private one to the waitress who was the major victim of his advances.

Trump has crossed the line more times than can be counted, although in a different way to Key.

Trump's unconventional tweets during the election campaign included attacking a former Miss Universe and sending out a picture of himself eating a taco bowl with the caption "I love Hispanics!".

But like Key, Trump was also forced to issue a rare on-camera apology for crossing the line, after the 'Access Hollywood' video revealed Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women.

One of the hallmarks of John Key's enduring personal popularity has been his anti-politician style. Here he parties at the Big Gay Out with Daphne Bush. Picture / Dean Purcell
One of the hallmarks of John Key's enduring personal popularity has been his anti-politician style. Here he parties at the Big Gay Out with Daphne Bush. Picture / Dean Purcell

In spite of these instances of odd behaviour, or just as likely because of them, Key and Trump have survived scandals which would have ended the careers of conventional politicians.

In fact, scandals have arguably become part of the political brands of Key and Donald Trump.

The obvious comparison can be made with a reality TV show.

For many voters, the question is what John - or Donald - will get up to next?

The answer is golf

John Key and his son Max famously spent time with Barack Obama over a round of golf in Hawaii in 2014 - gaining face time in a personal setting with the US president which is afforded to few others.

While Trump shares few other similarities with Obama, golf is at least one common interest.

However, for Trump, golf is even more of a personal obsession, allowing him to mix the business of golf course developments, his own personal relaxation and using a round as a way to size up new allies.

Trump recently said: "Golf is a great game for getting to know can never ever get to know people at lunch or dinner like you can on a golf course".

In this respect, Key is cut from much the same cloth as Trump.

Like Trump, he has recognised the function of golf as an elite pastime to cultivate connections with people who matter - as proven by his success in ultimate success in gaining a tee time with Obama.

Notably, golf was top of Trump's mind in his first phone call as President-elect with Key: Trump requested Key to pass on his regards to Bob Charles. (Key subsequently did just that.)

All things being equal, golf may well give Key an edge in building a personal relationship with Trump over the world's many non-golf playing leaders such as Angela Merkel, Malcolm Turnbull and Theresa May.

But with New Zealand's 2017 election year just around the corner, the question for deal-making Key will be whether associating himself with the ever unpredictable Trump is an asset - or a liability.

Geoffrey Miller is a New Zealand political analyst and researcher lecturing at Germany's Johannes Gutenberg-Universitaet Mainz.

Twitter: @GeoffMillerNZ