John Key's hair-pulling raises questions about just what kind of player he is, and his interview on The Nation reveals a worrying lack of judgement and understanding of power
John Key's pony-tail-gate controversy seems to have divided people into two camps. The vast bulk of New Zealanders (to purloin a Key-ism) can agree on the fact that it's weird... and out of order. But then there are those who shrug it off and say things like "no-one died, he was just being a dick" and "he didn't mean anything cruel by it". Others say it was repeated harassment and bullying and that the apology was 'too little, too late'. They draw comparisons to Roger Sutton and Aaron Gilmore, and say Key should resign.
Those positions draw a distinction between intent and outcome; some focus on what Key meant by pulling a woman's pony-tail (there's no evidence he wanted to make her cry and feel distressed) and others on the impact it had on waitress Amanda Bailey.
It reminds me of a common debate in football, about players who commit fouls that leave a player seriously injured.
As an Arsenal supporter, the case that comes to my mind is that of midfielder Aaron Ramsey. Back in 2010 Stoke City defender Ryan Shawcross tackled him so hard he caused a double fracture in Ramsey's right leg. It could have ended the then-19 year-old's career. Happily it didn't, but Ramsey was out of the game for nine months and took much longer to regain his form.
Huge debate ensued – with people tending to take a view based on their existing loyalties. Arsenal supporters focused on the terrible, almost career-ending outcome and said it was a thug's tackle; there was no place for it in the game.
Stoke supporters accepted it was out of order, but argued Shawcross didn't intend that level of harm. The oft-used phrase was "he's not that kind of player".
Shawcross' record since suggests he may indeed be that kind of player. But that's neither here nor there. The point is, if you cause more harm than you intend, how should you be judged? Because in this case both sides of the argument can be true at the same time.
It's the same for the Prime Minister. Key may not have meant to make a woman cry, but that does not excuse him; ignorance is no excuse in the face of the law, and surely that applies to laws of respect as much as the laws of the land.
I don't think it's a resigning offence. At least not as it stands. If Bailey lays a formal complaint that is upheld by an official body, that may get more difficult for Key. Still, short of a criminal conviction, the political reality is that he will fight this off.
But he should pay the price – in the form of a loss of political support from swing-voting supporters who will now see him in a different light. As John Armstrong shrewdly pointed out, the previous sins of this government have been committed by those around him or are of a political and policy nature. As Armstrong puts it "administrative flaws and failings - not personal ones".
The repeated hair-pulling directly undermines the affable, goofy persona Key cultivates and gives it a creepy edge. Those who vote on likeability and trust – and there are many – have been given pause for thought.
Those voters will be wondering now if perhaps he is "that kind of player".
What's more, it draws a clear line between Key and the more dour, straight-down-the-line style of Labour's Andrew Little. Voters may be starting to feel it's time for a change.
Key, who has always been a lucky politician, is blessed by the ANZAC centenary and the fact he has an overseas trip to force news in another direction... for a while. But questions remain over his judgement, especially when it comes to his apology and use of power.
Was it appropriate – or a bit cheap – to take two bottles of his own wine to Bailey by way of an apology? Key says his apology was accepted and Bailey told him it was "no drama". Bailey says she never accepted his apology. So who's telling the truth? And is Key's apology sincere, when in the same breath he keeps insisting it was a bit of fun and seems unable to recognise the abuse of power he committed?
Speaking to Patrick Gower on The Nation, Key avoided endorsing those supporting him and saying 'can't people just have a bit of fun any more'. But his other comments undermined his apology.
On one hand he said he took responsibility for his actions, yet he kept insisting that it was a "prank" Bailey "misinterpreted" and that "the majority of staff there" [at the cafe] understand that he likes to "kid around and have a bit of fun".
The Prime Minister says if someone was to pull his hair, he'd see it in context, "but I absolutely one hundred percent appreciate in hindsight she didn’t and I should have read that situation more accurately".
Translation: I misread the situation, but she did too. Same-same.
Key paints a picture where Bailey is not only misreading his hair-pulling , but she is unusual amongst the staff in not appreciating his light-hearted nature; in other words she can't take a joke. He repeatedly talks about a "counter argument", one in which he's not really done anything terribly wrong.
Not much of an apology then.
Given that framing of the matter, it's not surprising that he then goes on to reject that this situation was a mis-use of his power. For example, when asked if he'd like it if someone pulled his hair and he says he's see it in context, he seems oblivious to the context that he's Prime Minister, a wealthy pakeha man and is accompanied by security guards. His power is such that no-one would dare play such a "prank" on him.
But remarkably he goes further and says his hair-pulling shows "the opposite" of an abuse of power. Here's the exchange with Gower:
Gower: How would you lie it if someone pulled your hair?
Key: Well, ah, if it was in the context of the way that it happened there I would see it in that context, but I absolutely one hundred percent appreciate um in hindsight she didn’t and I should have read that situation more accurately.
Gower: Yeah because it’s not in the context of what happened there is it, the context really is about power. You’re the Prime Minister. She’s someone working in her job.
Key: Yes I understand that’s some people’s argument. There’s a counter argument…
Gower: Do you feel that you abused your power?
Key: Well I was going to say there’s a counter argument for that and I think yeah look by nature I’m a pretty casual person, and I do kid around and have a bit of fun, and I think one of the things that look you know that, look the majority of staff there have enjoyed is the fact that…
Gower: I guess the question is this…
Key: …the opposite, rather than the power sort of thing and me being a bit stuck up I’ve, stuck up I’ve been mucking around and having a bit of fun, now you know OK look in the end I got that wrong and I have to accept that.
Gower: Yeah and when you when you accept that you got it wrong, do you accept that you misused your power?
Key: No because I didn’t intend to do that, it was the opposite, I intended to try and be in a much more informal sort of setting so that I put people at ease and we could have a bit of a laugh and a bit of fun so it’s really the opposite.
But I accept that that’s an interpretation someone could get.
So Key is clear: No, he does not accept he misused his power by repeatedly tugging on a woman's hair over a period of months. In fact, his hair-pulling is "a bit of fun" and an attempt to "put people at ease", so is "really the opposite" of an abuse of power.
Which suggests Key thinks this is a woman exploiting his playfulness. Or, if that goes too far, his error is not in being careless with his power, but not being powerful (and serious and detached) enough.
That framing reveals a remarkable lack of understanding of his power as Prime Minister and a worrying lack of judgement. It also opens wide an avenue of attack for his opponents and should prompt many more questions from Gallery journalists when he returns to New Zealand.