One of the stories about David Lange that has always stuck with me is how he was informed of the Rainbow Warrior bombing while lining up for the Tuckshop at Waiwera Hot Pools. As a young fella I guess I had a view of a PM as kind of distant, so I thought it was fantastic that Lange actually just stood in line with his gut hanging out like any other joker and, more than that, there no-one seemed to think it was odd to being lining up with the PM and he had no expectation that they would.
So, I was sad to see the story in the Dom the other day about John Key wearing a baseball cap pulled down low to hide his identity when in public on private business. It’s like something we expect from a Hollywood star and I think that he feels the need to do it because his interaction with the public is modeled on that of a star, rather than a politician or national leader.
While any politician has to be aware of their public appearance and behaviour (Tim), no other PM has had to feel that they are constantly needing to perform if seen in public. Helen Clark would pop down to the dairy or go watch the League without trying to remain inconspicuous or feeling the need to. A mate’s dad remembers from his paper-run that Keith Holyoake would come down the drive in his dressing gown to get his morning milk and paper like anyone else.
But Key, far more than any previous PM, is a celebrity first and a leader/decision-maker second. And, as part of that, he has invited the press into his private life more than previous PMs have. This is all part of ‘Brand Key’; his job is to be the likeable, smile and wave face, for a government that is pursuing the same old, unpopular, rightwing agenda.
Indeed, the decision to put this story in the press was part and parcel of that: ‘family man Key feels the pressure of fame, how human, etc’.
‘Brand Key’ is all about being an ‘aw, shucks’ ordinary guy just having a good time. But, almost paradoxically, it has put a distance between him and the public that is out of keeping with New Zealand tradition. When ‘Brand Key’ is on he’s out there high-five-ing kids all day long but the price is that Key the man can’t fit in like anyone else when going about his private business.
I think this is just another reason why, in future, we need to elect Prime Ministers for their actual ability to do the job, not in response to a manufactured ‘star’ factor.