The Opposition, and the Labour Party in particular, always underestimated John Key. What they saw was no more than a genial glad-hander and a seat-of-the-pants chancer - at best, a populist adept at winning the centre ground. It was only a matter of time, they thought, before he came unstuck.

What they missed was a sharp political intelligence and a clear ideological commitment. The result - they were always fighting the wrong battle.

John Key certainly had important political gifts, likeability and the ability to communicate and relate to people. Much of the Opposition's effort was devoted to trying to negate those advantages, in the hope the feet of clay they were sure were there would be exposed to the public gaze.

They failed to understand that the battle was not one of personality politics, but real politics. The personality was merely the means by which a deadly serious re-making of New Zealand - along ideological lines - was being undertaken.


If we review the Key years, the trends are unmistakable. Business interests have been given top priority, social and environmental issues have been increasingly relegated to the second or third rank. Public assets have been privatised and the public sector and public spending have been subject to constant cuts, the law has been changed when required to suit the interests of overseas corporations.

Workers' rights have been reduced, employers have been given more power. Child poverty, and poverty more generally, has increased and life on benefits is tougher. The rich have enjoyed tax cuts. Homelessness has re-appeared in our midst and owning their own home is now beyond many young Kiwis; those already owning their own homes and property speculators in particular have made fortunes from soaring house prices.

It is John Key's politics, not his personality, that have produced these intended outcomes. They have been produced not by a relaxed middle-of-the-roader but by a dedicated ideologue. They are the result of a particular kind of neo-liberal politics, of a consistent and deliberate push from our Prime Minister to turn New Zealand into a "trickle down" economy (and society), one that clearly differentiates between winners and losers, where the top priority is to ensure winners do even better and losers get by as best they can.

Who can doubt he has succeeded in changing our country as he intended?
John Key was no doubt perfectly genuine in his belief this was a New Zealand that would be acceptable to most, but he was nevertheless adept at concealing his intentions in case they were not supported. He was on occasion quite open about this.

A few years ago, the then Premier of Queensland, Campbell Newman, was contemplating asset sales to raise cash. He sought advice from John Key as to how he could get away politically with what he knew would be an unpopular measure. Key's advice, as reported in the New Zealand media? "Do it in small stages," he said, "and people won't notice".

He was also pragmatic and cautious when it suited. A new policy would usually be floated in advance, then referred to focus groups so the public response could be judged. Depending on that response, the policy would be implemented or tweaked as necessary or simply abandoned.

Here, in other words, was a political operator who knew exactly what he was doing. It is no accident that he was highly regarded by his right-wing colleagues in other countries, to the extent that he has for some time been chair of the International Democratic Union, the global association of right-wing political parties.

He had, after all, achieved what so many of them had struggled with - he had sold a neo-liberal agenda to voters who would normally have rejected it as extreme and contrary to their values.


His easy manner and "nice guy" image meant, of course, that he was able to conceal the ideological mainspring of his politics not only from the voters but from his opponents as well. They were reluctant to accept that they were being confronted by a serious political operator and were so bemused by his image that their attention was distracted from the serious political purpose that was being served.

They were fighting the image, "a cheeky chappie", when it was the politics that should have engaged their efforts.

Key's departure and the arrival of Bill English in his place should make things simpler for the slow-witted. There will, one imagines, be less dissembling and a more clear-cut, no-frills political direction. It will in many ways be a relief to get back to clear political choices and a better chance of deciding the kind of New Zealand we want.