Key Points:

People keep telling me what a nice man John Key is. The jovial Christchurch taxi driver told me the National Party leader was the nicest politician he's ever met. Key was so casually dressed and unassuming the driver almost didn't recognise him.

The perpetually grinning Lockwood Smith seems a nice enough man, too. But his comments last week about the smallness of Asian hands and the toilet training needs of Pacific migrant workers betrayed a world view that continues to prevail in the National Party, notwithstanding the odd Pacific Island MP and a cross-cultural marriage or two.

Ex-Prime Minister Jenny Shipley was nice, too, but similarly revealing in 2000 when she dropped a clanger about Pacific Islanders climbing in through other people's windows.

Ruth Richardson was so jolly nice she practically bounced. I interviewed her in the mid-1980s, when everyone was talking her up as a future Prime Minister.

I liked her, but that was some years before she unveiled her mother of all budgets, and cheerfully slashed benefits in 1991 - the social effects of which are still being felt by the most vulnerable among us.

Niceness isn't the issue, and neither, in my opinion, is trust. Like Richardson, Key seems to me an essentially decent and well-meaning person.

His apparent shiftiness and policy flip-flops betray nothing more than his inexperience, I think, and that his initial positions aren't always the result of carefully thought-out deliberation.

Some of his views have seemed to be as strongly held as the "mildly pro-tour" stance he's now admitted to on the Springbok tour.

Whatever, banging on about Key's trustworthiness isn't helping Labour. Although for some people this election may be about hating Helen and judging John, playing to that, as Labour has done, just reinforces the idea that this is about a change of face at the helm, rather than a significant change of direction.

That's fatal for any government facing an electorate not feeling any love after nine years.

The more important question is which direction we want this country to head in, and which government is likely to take us there. But figuring that out is a little harder than grumping on about showerheads and smacking, especially when the two parties seem so similar.

The Green Party took a close look at the policies and public utterances of both major parties and concluded they were more like each other than anyone else, but that on the whole, National would take New Zealand in the wrong direction, "in fact, many policies headed down a dead-end street".

The Catholic Church has advised the faithful to be "mindful of the common good" this election, but after two decades of free market worship and rampant self-interest, it's not always easy to work out what the common good means - Contact Energy's directors being a case in point.

And especially when politicians seem to prefer stoking fears and prejudices rather than appealing to the electorate's higher ideals.

Take Lyndon Johnson on why civil rights were in the interests of all Americans: "Should we defeat every enemy, and should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation."

Or Franklin Roosevelt in his second inaugural address: "In our personal ambitions we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up, or else we all go down, as one people."

The findings of a new OECD report, Growing Unequal? show how far we've strayed from a common-good approach.

It's not just that most of the benefits have gone to the rich, but that inequality is divisive, breeds social resentment and "stifles upward mobility between generations, making it harder for talented and hard-working people to get the rewards they deserve".

So it's become harder for poor kids to escape their lowly position. John Key was fortunate that he was poor before the 1980s, when we were a more equal society, and the welfare system was considerably more generous than it is today.

Government policy matters.

The policies of the 80s and 90s made New Zealand one of the most unequal countries in the OECD.

But since 2000, under Labour, that gap's been closing. Not enough, thanks to Labour's resistance to restoring benefits to pre-1991 levels, but progress.

A government that doesn't understand the costs of inequality and poverty, that doesn't frame its policies to reduce rather than increase inequality, isn't being mindful of the common good.

And it needs to be, now more than ever.

As Oxford University economist Dr Anthony Atkinson observes, public policy will decide how the recession will impact on the most vulnerable.

"There is a message for policy today. Government budgets are under stress, but citizens are going to expect that, if funds can be found to rescue banks, then governments can fund unemployment benefits and employment subsidies.

"Put bluntly, governments have to step up to the plate, as Roosevelt did in the Great Depression."

* tapu.misa@gmail.com