The Key to a Third Term?

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On Tuesday 12 August the express team headed to the National party’s head quarters in Greenlane to meet and photograph Prime Minister John Key. He talked to Oliver Hall about his time in power and what he will do for our community if he stays on top.

This is the third occasion I have interviewed John Key. The last time was for Citymix magazine in 2008 in the run up to the election that made him the most powerful man in New Zealand. Back then, he agreed to conduct the interview in our Newton-based office, sending my then boss into a spin, summoning cleaners to whip the place into shape for his visit. When I remind him of this, he admits to being aware of the ‘rarified environment’ that comes with his job.

“Inevitably you live in a world where every business you go to they clean it up, every school – they tidy it, you’ve got to realize it’s not exactly the real world,” he tells me, pointing out that it’s still closer to reality than the likes of Barack Obama or David Cameron experience. He says he tries to remain grounded by doing ‘regular things’ on weekends.

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He tells me he still loves his job and believes he is getting better at it. “Your knowledge base of NZ and it’s issues dramatically increases, as does your knowledge of foreign policy issues. Your capacity of how to lead on those issues definitely improves… I’m feeling more relaxed [in the job] now then I might have a while ago.”

Despite the polls he did not seem certain of a victory. Perhaps he had an inkling that a certain book launch that would take place in Wellington twenty four hours after our interview could change the tide. “If it all ends in 30 odd days, I’ll be reasonably happy with what we did in the six years, if you put everything in the context of global financial crisis, Christchurch earthquakes… we’ve done the best we can.” He says acknowledging his team’s efforts.

For a man who runs a country, his ego does seem in check. He has no greater air of arrogance or self-importance than he did in 2008 and even then it was pretty negligible. I’m guessing this is in part, why the people around him seem to adore him. “You guys will love him,” a press secretary had informed me when we were organising the interview. Now another sits by us recording our conversation and later shadows our photographer taking a picture on her phone every time he does. She seems genuinely protective of Key.

In his six years as PM, Key’s most significant support for the LGBT community came when he voted in favour of marriage equality. “Being Prime Minister and by taking that stance I was going to always be the most high-profile person to do that and I would essentially provide cover for other National MPs or right wing candidates that wanted to vote for it because attention was always going to be drawn to me and not them and I was more than happy with that.” He says.

This is one of numerous occasions he references his vote for marriage equality in our interview. At times, it feels reminiscent of a boss who in July is still dropping into conversation the bonus he gave you last Christmas. (Think Ricky Gervais’ David Brent in The Office.) But I am left in no doubt that he has genuinely come around on LGBT issues since he voted against the Civil Union Bill in 2004.

I ask him how he would react if one of his children came out. “I would love them just the same… It wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to me whether they are gay or not.” He tells me, pointing out he feels it is ‘extremely unlikely’ his children are gay, but, “as a parent I want my children to be happy and healthy and happy in their relationship whatever the sexual orientation.” Hence why he voted in favour of Marriage Equality.

He realises that coming out at any age can be tough. “I can see how challenging that would be through the high number of youth suicides and mental illness that are linked to people’s sexuality. The reality is not every family is going to take a considered view into these matters or be comfortable with it.” In an email following our interview he states that National has allocated $100,000 to support LGBT youth, “including $55,000 to help strengthen health and services.”

In this same email he points out that National are, “a centre-right party which has quite conservative roots,” and is pleased ‘on balance’ with the level of support the party gave Marriage Equality (50% in favour, 50% against). He is clear that Colin Craig’s Conservative Party is one National, “could potentially work with,” but does not believe this should concern LGBT voters. “The truth is if that happened, I don’t think that’s going to make any difference to gay and lesbian rights in NZ, because they are conscience issues… I have never detected any appetite to unwind gay and lesbian rights… I’m happy with the vote I undertook. I have no intention of changing it.”

So National would have no intention revoking our communities rights, but would they further them? Back in 2004 Georgina Beyer introduced a member’s bill in Parliament that suggested ‘gender identity’ be added to the lists of prohibited grounds of discrimination in Section 21 of the Human Rights Act. At the time it was turned down on the basis that gender identity was already covered by ‘sex’ discrimination. But a follow-up Human Rights Commission report on the issue disagreed. When Louisa Wall tried to get an amendment made to the definition of sex discrimination to include gender identity, Justice Minister Judith Collins again knocked it back labeling it ‘controversial’.

Key says that he cannot comment on specific details as he does not have the information to hand, but he would certainly hope, “they were protected already… I would hope in NZ that people aren’t discriminated against on the basis of their sexuality. In so much that we would make comment to make sure we protect them – yes we would do that. We want people to be treated fairly and equally.” It is a hugely positive answer for the transgender community, yet interestingly as I transcribe our interview I realize he never uses the term ‘trans’ in his answers, referring just to the ‘gay and lesbian community.’

Our conversation moves on to the Commonwealth games. He is clearly proud of NZ’s 45 medals. I ask if he feels as a Commonwealth leader whether he can advocate gay rights on world stage, pointing out that in 42 of the 53 competing countries homosexuality is still a crime. “I’m surprised that number is that high,” he says comparing the situation to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, where, “we stood up really strongly and said that was wrong and we would be sending our team, and people would be there on their merits in the sports they were participating in, and if he [President Putin] didn’t like it, tough luck!” He confirms he could raise this issue at the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. “If we are Prime Minister that’s an issue we could advocate for [sic].”

He notes that he has, “raised the issue of gay and lesbian rights at Pacific Forum Meetings,” before, though sadly seems unsuccessful thus far to have altered the views of other pacific leaders. “It’s only moral persuasion so we can’t force them to change their position, but what we can point out to people is that change has been [made] in NZ and it’s been a positive thing… If their political leaders deny that, they are free to do that, but it’s not reality.” Moving forward he believes change will come. “Over time I think you can make progress,” he says positively.

For express’ shoot he is completely obliging to every pose our photographer requests. During it he raises a few rather clunky topics of conversation with me: asking how many gay people there are in New Zealand? Asking me if AIDS in still a big problem and informing me of the number of pink shirts and ties he owns (red ones apparently don’t suit him). Again Ricky Gervais in The Office comes to mind, but I can’t help but think it’s quite sweet of him for trying.

Article | Oliver Hall.  Photo | Patric Seng.

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