National's bright young hope

John Key made millions overseas in investment banking. Now he aims for a new career in New Zealand as an MP. WARREN GAMBLE reports.

The new face of National is clean-cut, neatly dressed even in casual gear, and retired. At 40.

In his Remuera apartment with a Goldie on one wall and a swimming pool beckoning through glass doors, John Key will not put a figure on his millionaire worth from a stellar career.

But he will admit he never has to work again after leaving international investment house Merrill Lynch as its global head of foreign exchange last year.

It is not said boastfully.

Key has already been christened as one of the bright young hopes of the National Party. He looks to have a better claim to the brat label that leader Bill English, Nick Smith, Tony Ryall and Roger Sowry wore uncomfortably.

But he is certainly not approaching the Robert Downey jnr Hollywood version. His CV declares he has never tried illegal drugs, "but I am addicted to oysters".

So why doesn't he relax with a pottle, concentrate on his golf game and ease into family life with wife Bronagh, their children Stephie, 8, and Max, 6, and a newly acquired kitten?

Key says he has wanted to be a National MP since he was a boy growing up in a state house. He told his wife so on their first date, and planned it as his second career long before he ousted long-serving MP Brian Neeson for the Helensville candidacy last week.

It was an ambition nurtured despite, or perhaps because of, his childhood in the Christchurch suburb of Burnside, raised by his widowed and staunchly Labour-supporting mother, Ruth.

From an Austrian Jewish family, she fled Vienna shortly before the Nazis invaded, married an Englishman and moved to Auckland in 1950.

The couple ran a St Heliers restaurant but when Key's father died his mother repaid large business debts and moved south with three children to start a new life.

Key says they were poor by any measure.

Now without any financial worries, he appreciates the safety net a state house provided. "I really can't give the answer of what would have happened to us otherwise."

But he says his mother's example, holding down several jobs to save enough to buy their own house, helped push him towards National. It prompted lengthy dinner-table debates, particularly when he gave his mother Rob Muldoon's 1975 manifesto as a birthday present.

"I was always a National guy through and through.

"It's based on the fact that I had really strong aspirations and I wanted to do something with my life. I liked the fact National stood for freedom and self enterprise ... for the Government to play a role but really not to make decisions on behalf of people when they could make them themselves.

"You could exist on social welfare, but you could never get rich on it. I never wanted to live my life existing on it."

He says he realised some of his state housing neighbours were held back by lack of aspiration, not just lack of money.

Labour played another role in Key's advancement when the Lange-Douglas Government elected in 1984 deregulated the financial markets.

A television documentary on the day in the life of a foreign exchange dealer inspired him to take his accounting degree into the dealing room at the age of 24.

"Part of it was the pressure situation, the excitement, but it was also a real barometer of what was happening in the world."

It took him only three months to become the head trader in the Wellington dealing room of Elders Merchant Finance.

K ey's career spiralled upwards after he was headhunted by Bankers Trust New Zealand, then joined the venerable Wall St firm of Merrill Lynch in 1995.

Within three months he was appointed the London-based global head of foreign exchange. In two years under Key its foreign exchange arm went from making $100 million annually to $1 billion.

The rewards were enough for Key and his wife to buy a select home in the leafy London suburb of Barnes and holidays to their favourite part of Tuscany, "a bit like Kumeu with better pasta".

But despite the attractions of London, returning to New Zealand was always part of the couple's plans, cemented by trips back to their Northland bach - the expatriate appreciation of space, sea and bush.

Key says his toppling of Neeson has been portrayed as an out-with-the-old initiative of party president Michelle Boag, but it was her predecessor, John Slater, who fostered his political return.

In 1999, Slater introduced him to party leaders, including former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley.

Key says he did not tell Boag of his Helensville challenge until after nominations closed. But there is no doubt head office clout helped.

He says he does not feel the pressure of being a National poster boy. Rejuvenation of ideas and people was an inevitable part of political life and without it the party had no chance of winning the election.

That will be a tough ask, he admits, but not impossible.

National has the policies to distinguish itself from what he believes has been a wasteful coalition Government in areas such as Kiwibank and the superannuation fund.

He believes "some form of orientation towards privatisation" in health, education and superannuation makes sense. Giving firms tax breaks for employer super schemes is one example.

He says he has been deliberately up front with his business and financial success, attributing it to hard work, skill and luck.

"I think New Zealand needs to celebrate more winners. I think there will always be those who will knock me for the sake of the tall poppy syndrome, but I don't think a means test is appropriate for politicians."

Key does not believe his business feats will make him a successful MP, but sees a similarity in the unpredictable nature of the financial market and the uncertainty of politics. "You have got to have the personality that likes that."

Now he is concentrating on not taking the Helensville seat for granted despite boundary changes that on paper should beat Neeson's 4056-vote majority three years ago. He promises an intense campaign with as much public contact as possible.

He shows us through the security gate, and talks about heading out west to look at buying a house in his electorate.

A lifestyle block in Kumeu perhaps? Possibly, he replies, maybe with a small vineyard.

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