Next time the circus is in town, Prime Minister John Key might want to slip in to brush up on his tasseomancy.

When dealing with revelations he had pulled a waitress' ponytail, he said he had misread the tea leaves so had not picked up on her frustration.

It is not the first time he has claimed to have consulted the tea leaves. In fact, he could save some money by replacing advisers with tea leaves. A search through the archives reveals the trusty leaves have been called on for a number of decisions. Alas, his results with them have been patchy.

His reading was spot on the day after the 2014 election when he said of NZ First leader Winston Peters: "The reality is, just reading the tea leaves, I think it's more likely that Mr Peters will say: 'I want to try to fulfil the role of being leader of the Opposition now."'


It was a more mixed result the night before when said he had read the tea leaves and it was unlikely David Seymour would be a minister. The very next day he was recanting: "the tea is less clear." In March 2009, he deployed his trusty leaves to predict whether the US would ask for a further contribution in Afghanistan. "If you read the tea leaves it is likely that the Obama Administration is going to ask all of the [Nato countries] to consider upping their contributions to Afghanistan," he told the Herald. Six weeks later that reading proved accurate.

It was a different reading on a similar issue last year when Key was asked on Newstalk ZB whether Obama had asked for New Zealand to contribute to the fight against Islamic State. Key responded that he didn't expect to hear from the US. "I think they can sort-of read the tea leaves that New Zealand's sort-of a dependable country." As we speak, New Zealand troops are sort of on their way over.

Key is used to being right. Key often declares that New Zealanders will not care about various incidents. It infuriates the left when Key passes this "most New Zealanders don't care" verdict. It infuriates them even more when he is right. And, whether it is by tea leaves, polling or just instinct, he usually is right.

Subsequent polling (and election results) showed he was right when he said it about Dirty Politics, about the teapot tapes, about Judith Collins. More recently he has said it about the surplus and will likely be proved right on that too. By tradition, governments die deaths of 1000 cuts. Key is like the Wolverine - all those cuts heal straight back up again. Many of his "don't care" calls are based on polling. But when it comes to matters relating to his personality and interactions, he is left relying on pure instinct and experience.

Recent events have put the reliability of his instinct on a less sure footing. He hasn't dared to say New Zealanders don't care about his ponytail pulling. Key has said he will change his campaign style and the way he interacts with the public. It has effectively made even the most innocent of touches taboo.

I have watched Key fairly closely for eight years and how people react to him.

In 2011, I noted that Key touched almost everyone he met - a casual thing aimed at reinforcing the connection. He did the same in 2014. There was nothing remotely inappropriate about it and no such implication should be cast on such things in retrospect. Nor was it one-sided.

During a visit to the Christchurch races in 2011 any number of people launched at him for a kiss. At Gallipoli in 2010 one young bloke high in the stands at Chunuk Bair yelled out for a hug and then leaped down to get it. The Turkish media were astonished and slightly envious, saying their own leader never did such things.


New Zealanders often have a thing about personal space. So it spoke volumes about Key's confidence and also the perception people had of him that nobody raised an eyebrow. The barrier that usually lies between people in power and the public was almost invisible. Key's informality was natural when he started in the role in 2008. Now the gaffes and artful blunders are fewer. He has inevitably evolved into a far slicker politician and maintaining the informality is a more conscious effort.

This might explain why Key "misread the tea leaves" when it came to the waitress. He was not accustomed to people reacting badly to him and his confidence was overweening.

He has argued, rather tortuously, that it was the opposite of an abuse of power. What I assume he means is that he thought they were in on it together, that he had put aside his Prime Minister-ness and was just ordinary old John, novice tasseomancer. He has now learned the first tag is not something that can be shed at will.