Leader usually stays on message but sometimes forgets basic rules

One word jumped out when I read John Roughan's Portrait of a Prime Minister through the early hours into lunchtime yesterday.

That word is "disciplined".

It's not an epithet that Roughan himself appears to use much in his telling portrait of John Key; the politician who readily admitted at the book launch that the September 20 election is still on a knife edge despite National's commanding poll lead.

But Key's discipline was as much confirmed by the revealing asides (like how he played family man with the kids at the duck pond in London while a dealing room colleague spent the big bucks taking a Brazilian lap dancer on the Concorde to the US for a weekend) as it was by the way he has successfully implemented National's policy agenda.


Like many successful people, Key has an element of dualism. It's not the kind of opportunistic duality that reduces the credibility of his prime opponent Labour leader David Cunliffe when he ramps up the fire and brimstone while out campaigning, yet displays a measured and rather different emphasis on policy within boardrooms. Cunliffe will be recognised as a man of substance if he ensures that both approaches are two sides of the same coin rather than two coins altogether.

Key is much more disciplined about staying on message. But his brand of duality comes from the way he plays up the affable down-at-home aspect of his personality while out among middle New Zealand but reserves from public gaze the inner — and disciplined — steel which made him a force in the international business world and which he deploys behind the scenes to achieve his objectives within the Cabinet.

It is discipline, however, which will have to come to the fore if Key is to get his cherished third term as prime minister.

In Roughan's portrait, Key glossed over his own part in some failures during an eventful period in 2012 which caused him by year's end to assess whether he should bring his prime ministership to an early end. It had been obvious he was not on top of his game through all of that year. He not kept his own ministerial reins sufficiently tight and had allowed himself to be drawn into events through emotional responses rather than distancing himself.

It was lack of discipline when he recently fuelled the journalistic flames on the so-called Donghua Liu donations scandal from the comfortable distance of the US.

He appeared to have forgotten a basic rule of politics — don't fan the flames of scandal unless you are sure where it will finish up. It's understandable that Key was tempted to indulge in some gotcha politics himself after a torrid month where he had to put Judith Collins on Cabinet leave after the Oravida affair and ask for Maurice Williamson's ministerial resignation after he intervened in a police matter involving the Chinese business investor.

It must have been pure utu to watch while the proverbial was thrown back all over Labour after Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse informed Key there was an 11-year-old pro forma letter in the files that showed Cunliffe wrote to authorities on Liu's behalf over his residency application.

The Prime Minister wasn't the direct source of the Liu "revelations" (I use that word advisedly as many of the more hyperbolic Liu claims have since proved to be a mirage).

Herald investigative journalist Jared Savage, who broke the story which led to Williamson's resignation, had already sought Liu's immigration file under the Official Information Act. But it is instructive in that it was sources close to National who shopped the story of Liu's anonymous donations to Labour elsewhere after Woodhouse had accessed the file.

National has not played a straight bat on this story.

Woodhouse has yet to explain why he initially told porkies by denying he had informed Key about the Cunliffe letter — something that may have been literally true but skated over the fact he had told the prime minister's staff about the letter (and one from former Labour MP Chris Carter) and his office had provided both letters to Key's office.

While Cunliffe was obviously stitched up over the Liu letter, the political donor's subsequent "misstatements" have left thoughtful people wondering whether it was indeed Labour that had proven tricky — as National's meme invites us to believe — or the governing party.

As the prime minister heads into his pre-election party conference today he might consider that while Labour and Cunliffe have taken a hit over the Liu misstatements, the public will be more interested in what National has on offer for a third term.

Policy rather than "no finger-print" dirty tricks is what is needed.