What's he up to, the old rogue? Sir John Key was all over the media on Sunday promoting his five-point plan for dealing with Covid. Except, that's not really what he was doing.
That plan, outlined in print, barely got a mention on TV and radio. That's because Key's big idea was to call the New Zealand Covid strategy "the North Korean option". He said we live in a "smug hermit kingdom" which is "ruled by fear".
North Korea is ruled by a brutal regime responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. The standard of living is shockingly low and dissent is punished with torture, execution and incarceration in mines. Leadership is exercised through paranoia and terror.
There are wingnuts on social media and among talkback callers who think that description fits this country, but it's hard to believe Sir John Key is among them.
He's not stupid. He knows perfectly well that democratic institutions in New Zealand are robust, freedom of speech is vigorously exercised and the economy has, so far, survived remarkably well in this Covid-ravaged world.
So why the North Korea comparison? In radio interviews yesterday he didn't describe it as a bit of hyperbole. He doubled down. Although he insists that he's worried about the politics of fear, that's an industrial-grade example of it, right there.
"The only urgency we've seen for months," Key wrote, "is an enthusiasm to lock down our country, lock up our people and lock out our citizens who are overseas".
Lockdown versus liberty. This is the Right-wing playbook, now, in the US and in Australia, and Key is not the only politician trying to make it stick here.
As for his five-point plan, it reads like nothing so much as a list hastily scrawled on the back of an envelope. As if it's there only to provide a veneer of respectability for the fearmongering.
Key called for Māori and Pasifika health providers to be incentivised to vaccinate more people. Odd. Does anyone think those providers are not doing all they can already?
The issue is not a lack of incentive, it's a lack of resources. Shot Bro and the other buses are great but how about putting 100 of them onto the streets? How about 200?
He called for a $25 voucher to be given to the vaccinated. Maybe that will work. Around the country, many organisations are already offering incentives. It'd be worth a bigger trial: pick a provincial city and go at it.
But according to the surveys, the main barriers are misinformation and inconvenience. That suggests getting past the 90 per cent target requires putting the chance to get jabbed right in front of people, wherever they are, with supportive information, and making it really easy for them to say yes.
Maybe 500 Shot Bro buses. Get them to every suburban street, every workplace, every school, every fast-food strip and entertainment precinct.
Key also proposed that only vaccinated people should be allowed into licensed premises like pubs and nightclubs.
He might be right about that one. Even if he is contradicting himself, because it would definitely be one of the "multiple restrictions on our civil liberties" that he complained about.
The Government might agree: Jacinda Ardern said yesterday it is already being looked at.
Vaccine passports are worth a serious debate, especially because there are complicated legal, ethical and practical issues to resolve.
They also go to the heart of why the existing Covid strategy is not fear-based or incompetent, and why Key has so egregiously missed the mark.
The cornerstone of the Government's entire pandemic strategy, from March last year, has been to build public support. To earn what they like to call a social licence.
This applies to lockdowns, wage subsidies and other business support, MIQ and its exemptions, testing and vaccinations. Everything. And few governments anywhere recognised this the way ours did.
It's why there is such an emphasis on communication. And it's probably the main reason we don't have a vaccine passport right now: it's not yet clear that there's a social licence for it.
So if the Government wants that passport, it will first try to create enough support for it.
The rule is very simple. If you have a social licence, you can take effective, population-wide measures to combat Covid. If you don't, you have construction workers rampaging through the streets.
With one approach, you might win. You keep Covid under control. How brilliant that would be. It's not certain but it's possible.
With the other approach, you lose. End of story. And you'd better hope that your ICU is really good.
Right now in New Zealand we're on a "knife edge". Covid modeller Professor Michael Plank used the phrase to describe our chances of beating the current outbreak. That feels true to me. The daily numbers have been worryingly high.
But we're also on another knife edge. The outcry about the current lockdown suggests there may not be a social licence to allow another level 4. This may be our last chance.
There's very strong public support that we should make the most of it. But that could disappear.
Countries around the world are giving up – Norway is the latest – but I bet not one of them thinks they're better off than we are right now.
I bet Gladys Berejiklian, the premier of New South Wales, would give us the Sydney Opera House if it meant she could return her state to the fighting-chance condition we're in, still, in New Zealand.
It's not that our Government is getting everything right about Covid. Clearly it is not. From MIQ capacity to Māori and Pasifika engagement, border controls to relations with the business community, it's constantly astonishing what isn't being done, or done well enough. But did Key contribute usefully to the debate about any of that?
He had other things to complain about. We've got too much debt, he says, although it's among the lowest in the OECD.
In his day, Key says, when they had to borrow heavily - $18 billion for the Christchurch rebuild – they ran tight budgets and paid it off. Sure. Those would be the same budgets that ran down the health system so badly that we're lucky we've been able to function at all in the Covid crisis.
Key's last two points are that the day when the border will be reopened should be named now - do it right now, a point he specifically reiterated to RNZ yesterday - and the Government should "stop ruling by fear". The fear thing is covered above. The border date demand is just stupid. Our own experience, opening up to Australia and then shutting down again, is surely proof of that.
As mentioned, though, Key is not stupid. So what's going on?
Jacinda Ardern won't mind that Key is mouthing off about North Korea and how we can't travel overseas. But Judith Collins will.
She's got her own pandemic plan to announce this week and he just conjured a bunch of soundbites guaranteed to steal her thunder. It's hard to see that as anything but deliberate sabotage.
Key, on the whole a party loyalist, is fed up. So he's signalled that National should stop waiting for a more propitious moment to choose a new leader. He's read the tea leaves that we've all read: if they wait much longer they'll find themselves chasing Act. Last night's 1 News Colman Brunton poll will only have reinforced that.
Remember what they called him at Merrill Lynch? The smiling assassin just went to work.