He is consistently the most popular leader in the western world — and probably its most inconspicuous.
He left his country for a decade, became a currency trader and cleaved a path into the upper ranks of Merrill Lynch’s London office, before returning home in 2001 to a New Zealand ravaged by a long, bitter recession that he had missed while becoming a multimillionaire. Within seven years, he was the prime minister.
Now up for re-election, Mr Key’s image as an inoffensive, avuncular and understated accountant has taken a battering from revelations that his government engaged in a sophisticated drive to smear opponents.
A book, Dirty Politics, by the investigative journalist Nicky Hager, revealed a trove of email exchanges between ministers and staffers and the country’s best-known right-wing blogger, Cameron Slater.
They showed how the government supplied Mr Slater with inside information to attack its critics. Mr Key’s justice minister was forced into an embarrassing resignation, and the spy agency watchdog launched an inquiry into possible abuse of official information. Mr Key’s attempt to dismiss Mr Hager as “a screaming left-wing conspiracy theorist” did not stop the book’s revelations from hijacking the first weeks of his re-election campaign.
Now, a week from election day, opinion polls suggest the prime minister has recovered and will be returned for a third term, albeit with the need for a coalition partner to gain a majority in parliament. Polls show his National party has almost 49 per cent of the vote, while the main opposition party, Labour, has less than 25 per cent.
His government has turned around New Zealand’s anaemic economy to the point where its growth rate, powered in part by surging dairy exports to China, is among the world’s highest. The improved economy has dramatically stemmed the flow of young New Zealanders to Australia, which was running at 40,000 a year when Mr Key was elected in 2008.
Mr Key’s most spiteful enemy in politics, the German-born internet mogul Kim Dotcom, rues the nation’s willingness to overlook the prime minister’s drawbacks. “He could probably survive shooting little kittens in his garden with a shotgun, even if there is picture evidence,” he reflected last week.