Dear Malco,

Can I call you Malco? I wanted to keep this informal, but wasn't sure which nickname to use. I see the Chinese have taken to calling you Sugar Bomb and Sweet Dumpling, while the Australian media record as you having been called The Silvertail and even Satan. None of these sound very prime ministerial so I'll stick with Malco.

Prime Minister Malco, no less! Congratulations! Tumultuous times over there. In the last few years you've had as many prime ministers as test series wins in the cricket.

Here in plucky New Zealand, we emit a collective "squee" when mentioned pretty well anywhere overseas, so it was a delight to hear you, in your first speech as PM, give a shout-out to our man John Key, the wind beneath your wings sort of thing.


Strange to think that when Key came to power in November 2008, the Aussie media reckoned he was in the mould of Australia's opposition leader, which happened at the time to be you, Malco. The Brisbane Courier-Mail headline: "NZ PM-elect John Key is Malcolm Turnbull's clone".

But a year later - and sorry to bring this up - you were toppled as Liberal leader by that renowned feminist Tony Abbott. I'll bet revenge this week was sweet as a pickled onion.

As you celebrate your fourth day as PM, Key has eyes on a fourth term. On Sunday, he marks a year since his third election win, and he continues to ride a largely unbroken wave of popularity.

In short, Malco, today you're the one who would clone Key.

You've already got a lot in common. Mostly humble, non-nuclear-family upbringings. Merchant banks ("He was Goldman Sachs, I was Merrill Lynch," said Key this week). Millions in the bank. And a philosophical affinity: comparatively socially progressive, pro-business, and situated at the centrist ends of your parties.

What then can you learn from your cross-ditch human template?

My first instinct is to say, ignore the performance of recent weeks. The craven and laggardly action to take extra refugees showed a distinct lack of moral leadership. Then there was the mealy-mouthed refusal to support Sue Moroney's paid parental leave bill. The adolescent politicking around the flag shortlist.

I'd say all this, coming after defeat in Northland, the fallout from Dirty Politics and scandals such as the Saudi sheep farrago, suggests that John Key's honeymoon has come to an end.


And in saying that, I'd almost certainly be wrong. Over there you have weekly rumours of leadership challenges. Over here we have weekly pronouncements that John Key's honeymoon is finally over. Time after time, the polls say the opposite. In truth, the Prime Minister has enjoyed the longest honeymoon in the history of lazy political metaphors.

Probably it's better described as a happy marriage: a happy marriage between Key and the electorate, or at least Key and half the electorate, whose loyalty is dimmed neither by scandal nor tantalising hair-related issues. No need for Ashley Madison here, thank you very much.

How, I hear you wondering, does Key, or Keyo, let's say, command such fidelity? Let me count the ways.

For starters, he doesn't try to be too Grand Leader, Malco. Douse any lofty oratorical aspirations. Eschew overt ideological noises. Be pragmatic, incremental, moderate. Don't frighten the horses. Horses are frightened by wolves in lambs' clothing. Don't be a wolf. And people who call you a wolf in lamb's clothing will be left looking like yapping terriers.

If Turnbull plays his cards right he could end up sitting in this very same upholstery. Photo / Claire Trevett
If Turnbull plays his cards right he could end up sitting in this very same upholstery. Photo / Claire Trevett

Do lots of media, but avoid long boring stuff. Go where the people are. Talkback, breakfast radio, breakfast TV. Answer pretty much any question, about sport, about celebrity, about the gestation period of a gerbil. Also answer political questions, but not necessarily the one you were asked. Sometimes don't answer at all, but don't run, just stay there, smiling, until they can bear it no more.

Be yourself. But choose which bit of yourself depending on the audience.

In Parliament, seethe at the infighting opposition; rile them up, all cutting jibes and sick burns. Outside the house, tone it down a notch. Remember there are always a range of views. Remember there's a good chance it's the last government's fault. Blame them. Remember to be relaxed about things. Remember that reasonable people don't always remember.

If the issue is complex and detailed, it may be necessary to assert that grass is orange, the sky is green and oranges are blue. Invest in a large cupboard to store all your hats.

Don't be aloof. Don't be slick. Be a bit of a dork. Be the dorky, lovable uncle, though preferably not in a hair-pulling way.

Build a loyal group around you to keep the caucus in line. To stay ahead in the polls you need to tame the fringes of your party. The best way to tame the fringes of your party is to stay ahead in the polls.

Keep renewing. A quarter of the National caucus stood down before the last election - some because they'd had enough, others because they were invited into a dimly lit office, poured a stiff cognac and given The Talk.

Get a good pollster. On election night last year, Key lavished praise on "the best pollster in New Zealand", David Farrar. You'll have the Crosby-Textor super-duo to call on, but it might be helpful to get someone who also runs the country's biggest political blog, viewed regularly by the national media.

Blame the last government.

Pray that a wild and polarising German tycoon being sought by American prosecutors will denounce you in a town hall spectacular a few days before the election.

Use the polling and focus group data but don't depend on it. Press the flesh. Spend half your week visiting factories, shopping malls, A&P shows. That's your most reliable focus group. Listen to what people say.

Borrow agreeable policy from opposition parties.

Think: What would John Key do? What John Key does is to think: What would John Howard do? So maybe just call John Howard.

Hang out with your national sport heroes like an eager little boy. Only yapping terriers attack eager little boys.

Blame the last government. Delete your text messages routinely. And probably best just leave the flag alone.

Good luck and all best,