John Key and his failing instincts

Are the Prime Minister's instincts all they're cracked up to be?

Matthew Hooton on National Radio yesterday was singing the praises of John Key as the best instinct politician for a "very long time". But since he's been in government, those famed instincts have been causing a few problems.

First, let's test the thesis. Is John Key an 'instinct politician'. He certainly seems to act on gut rather than strategy. The beltway commentators I've spoken to recent weeks all note that this government so far seems to be operating off the cuff, rather than to a carefully considered plan. Oh, there's a long-term mission statement in a folder somewhere – I find it hard to believe that cutting the tax cuts and Super Fund contributions weren't discussed before the election and then there's the state asset sales, nicely ring-fenced until National can take the nation's pulse prior to the 2011 election. But that's piecemeal, hardly a Chinese-style long game or even a Sir Roger Douglas-type march towards a flat tax.

"Instinct" is a rather flattering way of describing that part of Key's character that evolved in the currency trading rooms of the world. I prefer to see it as Trader John at work – give me the data; buy, sell or hedge; move on to the next deal... Bing, bang, boom.

I'm not sure they're the skills that work best on the ninth floor of the Beehive. Risk is essential – is part of the buzz – when you're running a trading operation, but is surely to be minimised when you're running a country. Statesmen take risks, sure, but only after serious consideration and manoeuvring.

But ok, whether you call him Trader John or an instinct politician, let's agree that this man works a lot from his gut. The next question is how successful that has been for him.

Well, to start, he's Prime Minister. So it's worked pretty well. In Opposition he made a couple of big calls – first, he got himself involved in the child discipline bill, which was a huge political gamble. It was brave, decent and politically it worked. He got credit for being a consensus builder and yet National gets none of the stick from the pro-smacking brigade.

Second, he said he wouldn't form a government with Winston Peters. Another 20,000 votes and New Zealand First would have made him look a fool. But it worked. Third, he reached out to parties that have some fundamental disagreements with him. While I still think that could harm him in the medium-term, long-term it was the thing to do.

Those instincts haven't seemed to serve him as well since he took office, however. Learning from the likes of Keith  and Helen Clark, he has largely played to the centre of New Zealand politics so far. (Those of us who take a more liberal view of law and order, for example, might not like it, but the fact is that National's punative policies are pretty centrist when it comes to public opinion in this country). I'm told that when he and English had crunched enough numbers to ensure that the government would not have to cut benefit entitlements or Working for Families in this budget, there was much satisfaction and relief. For a tax cut-loving Nat, that again shows a sound instinct for the centre.

But in other areas he's been clumsy.

The Christine Rankin appointment is perhaps the best example of his instinct failing him. It was out of sync. But it's hardly the only example. In another time and place, his summer holiday in Hawaii at the height of an economic crisis would have been punished much more harshly by the media. His unpicking of the consensus on an Emissions Trading Scheme has sacrificed our nation's competitive advantage in trade and tourism (not to mention the harm to our environment).

He's committed himself to helping save the Hillary home (I'm sure it felt like the right thing to do), but nothing seems to have been done yet. He enthusiastically backed a cycleway that increasingly looks like a rich man's fancy. Long-term it will add value to our tourism, but it's hardly job-rich, it's not going to bring in a single extra tourist during this year's downturn and it's far from the best use of $50 million in the middle of a recession.

Key's handling of the Super City reforms has also been cack-handed. The mayors have out spun him and are forcing him to pull back on some of his intentions. He may make the changes behind the screen of the select committee process, but the initial Key/Hide plan will change. Then there was Melissa Lee, the Key candidate for Mt Albert, who has campaigned her way into a race for second with Russel Norman.

And finally, last week, there was the Richard Worth affair. From that first untenable press release saying that he would make no further comment through his claim he would have sacked him regardless of whether the allegations are proven or not to his confusion about whether or not to meet with the woman who complained to Phil Goff, it has been a mess.

Politically, voters have been forgiving thus far. They wanted fresh faces and they're prepared to allow for a settling down period. Even so, the Key brand has taken a few knocks. They can be painted over if he learns from his mistakes, but if this is a sign of how his administration will run – slap-dash, cost-benefit – then he may not be as impervious as we assume.

So, does John Key rely on his gut? Certainly. Is that gut especially talented? I'm starting to have my doubts. Jim Bolger, David Lange, Norman Kirk, Mike Moore... I think they might all argue that their instincts served them just as well, if not better.