Swearing is not often a major factor in the political debate. Yet John Key’s alleged use of the “f-word” seems to have assumed considerable significance in the run-up to election day.
Students of politics will recall Duncan Garner’s recent account of what he heard when he listened to the recording inadvertently made of the conversation between the Prime Minister and John Banks over the infamous “cup of tea” in Epsom. They will also have noted Garner’s surprising assertion that, when he was repeatedly questioned by the Prime Minister as to what he had heard, John Key’s main concern seemed to be whether or not he had used the “f-word”.
There were of course other elements of that conversation that might, we are led to believe, have had a greater political downside for the Prime Minister. It is accepted, for example, that he and his erstwhile political friend, John Banks, made some disparaging remarks about their former colleague, Don Brash, and also agreed that older voters did not count for much since they would soon die off. On the face of it, therefore, it is surprising that John Key’s focus was on the particular swear word that he might or might not have used.
The issue has re-emerged in the context of the current controversy over the Prime Minister’s relationship with Cameron Slater, the eminence grise (or should it be noire?) behind the Whale Oil blog. John Key, it seems, telephoned Slater (is it just coincidence that the dictionary definition of “slater” is “a kind of louse”?) to commiserate with him over the storm that followed the blogger’s description of a West Coast victim of a fatal traffic accident as “feral”.
John Key apparently knew something of the victim’s mother who not surprisingly had objected to Slater’s comment. He put a figurative arm around the shoulder of his blogging colleague and, perhaps tempted by the alliteration, said – as reported by Slater himself – that the mother was “the same effing feral woman” who had heckled him at a public meeting. Again, it seems, the aspect of that reported comment that John Key is most keen to dispute is his use of the f-word.
Why, then, is the Prime Minister so sensitive on this issue when there are surely more substantial matters that are raised by these controversies? We do not need to look far for an answer.
John Key has invested hugely in the development of his image as a “nice guy”. His political future and the survival of his National government depend almost entirely on his ability to maintain that image.
But that is not easy. John Key is adept at changing his personality to suit the context. Chameleon-like, he can switch effortlessly from being the caring family man to being “one of the boys”, from the successful foreign exchange dealer to the All Blacks’ greatest fan. But each new personality requires a different language – and when he is talking to a Cameron Slater or a John Banks, the language of a “tough guy” is inevitably that of the gutter.
It is a difficult juggling act to keep going. If the wider electorate heard the language he uses in particular contexts, they might realise that what they see is a façade, and that they cannot be certain of precisely who the real John Key actually is.
We are helped in identifying the real John Key by reflecting that Slater and Banks and their ilk are his chosen colleagues – presumably the people he feels closest to and most comfortable with. What we learn from his exchanges with them, and his willingness to use what many people would still regard as foul language, is that he is not the amiable “nice guy” of his public image and that the person who is actually in charge of the country is a ruthless political operator.
His closest supporters would no doubt argue that a ruthless political operator is just what is needed, and that he has no need to apologise for being just that. The Prime Minister who supports and connives with a Cameron Slater, and who stands by a Judith Collins, might after all be acceptable to the electorate; but in that case, should we not know him for what he is, and not what he pretends to be?
The apparently trivial matter of the occasional use of a swear word therefore assumes a much greater significance; it could be seen as signpost to the truth. And if our Prime Minister is so concerned to conceal that minor transgression from the voters, what else is he hiding?
The whole carefully contrived image, in other words, could be threatened if the voters are allowed to hear what the Prime Minister really says to his political friends. And if that were to happen, the Prime Minister might find that he is “f……d” – that is, finished.
This was originally published on my blog here.