Waiting for John Key

On the surface John Key sneaked a win in last night's TV3 debate. Yet the National leader remains a mere outline, a stranger, a man who simply wants to get a job rather than lead a nation

The short reply to last night's debate, is to say that John Key was marginally superior. Whatever points he gained in the first debate for seeming to be more polite were lost, as he talked and talked and talked over the top of host John Campbell and prime minister Helen Clark. Towards the end there was so much Key talk that I could have sworn he was talking over the top of himself.

The content of that talk was little more than well-scripted slogans, but they were firmly delivered and he seemed stronger than in his first effort on TVNZ. On the surface he looked more forceful.

The longer response to last night's TV3 debate is that I'm still waiting; still waiting to see something authentic or unique from John Key. Clark, we know. We know her managerial skills, her decisiveness, her awkwardness on camera and her warmth in person, her stubbornness and her sometimes ruthless calculation. Key was the man who had to introduce himself to the country this campaign, to explain his world view, articulate what he stands for and show us where his gut will lead him - and us. What struck me after last night's debate was that even now, just a few days from the election, I'm still waiting.

Journalists have followed him around the country, the Herald devoted more than a dozen pages to his life story, he has been interviewed and analysed and critiqued. And I just don't have a sense of him. What plan is he offering, what policy would he die in a ditch for, what vision does he hold that is distinctively John Key's?

I'm hardly surprised that Mike Williams' ill-considered trip to Australia last week failed to find some revealing sin from his past. Nothing, neither good nor bad, seems to stick to Key. Nothing, neither good nor bad, ever seems to be revealed. Has ever so much been written about someone, and so little actually told?

Key is the outline of a capable politician, but the colour and features are missing. National MPs saw him as a leader in large part because of the power of his life's narrative. He grew up in a state house and went on to make his millions in the cut and thrust of the world's financial houses. But I have not seen any empathy for the working class, or any great insight into the current financial crisis.

As a former market trader there's a sense that he should be willing to take a risk, a man comfortable with high stakes. Yet the debate format, with its emphasis on preparation and not making mistakes, seems to suit him. On the fly, he's much less confident. It seems contradictory that a former market trader should be so risk adverse, but the evidence now is compelling and seems to go beyond mere strategy to the heart of the man – caution and calculation seem to define him.

It's as if he's lived these experiences without them having formed him. He's the words without the meaning, the music without the melody, an observer in his own story.

I have not seen anything in Key, either, that leads me to conclude he is especially devious or a right-wing schemer in wolf's clothing. The message underlining Labour's slogan that "this one's about trust" is that Key has a hidden agenda. There's little doubt that those around Key do. From Bill English to Lockwood Smith, you'd be naive to think that the National old guard has recanted on its previous ideology. With Key, however, there was nothing in the debate last night, and nothing that has been shown on the campaign trail, that reveals a similar zeal. Indeed, those who know their way around the free-market right of New Zealand politics seem to be sensing a frustration with Key that may drive some to vote for ACT.

Yet the trust concerns remain; not because he secretly wants to drive New Zealand far to the right, but because New Zealand simply has no idea where he wants to drive us. How can we trust someone we don't know? He's a stranger.

National has run one of the most cautious and bland campaigns in living memory. Key has hugged the centre, trying to scare no-one, and he clung to that approach again last night. Key from the outset has pinned all his hopes on the sense that New Zealanders want some kind of change. Any kind of change. His grand plan has been to win by default. Any true relish his supporters feel is for the defeat of the old foe, not for the victory of a new leader. Few voters will go to the polls on Saturday with a passionate desire to see Key as prime minister; he just hopes enough are bored or disgruntled after three terms of the incumbent.

Commentators have talked about this ploy as a strategy. Some have applauded it as astute. Others as a sign of the well-spun, passionless nature of modern politics. After last night I'm beginning to wonder whether it's more a necessity. Perhaps, just perhaps, this is all there is to him. Perhaps he doesn't stand for anything, he just wants the job. Perhaps he wants to lead for the sake of leading, but has no particular destination in mind. Perhaps "Prime Minister, New Zealand" is just another line for his CV that shows him to have been "a success". In both debates so far he has certainly looked more like a man in a job interview than a man on a mission.

Key's catch phrase is that he's "ambitious for New Zealand". It rings true. Key is an ambitious man. But to what end? Clark we know has a "win at all costs" reputation. That's because she wants to shape New Zealand after a fashion. Key seems to have made money for the sake of making money, and now he wants to win an election for the sake of winning. Is there a coherent vision of how he wants to shape New Zealand after Saturday? Not one that Key has been able to articulate. The left suggest that's because his true agenda is hidden. Perhaps it's just because he doesn't really have one. Perhaps there's nothing to Key except the CV.

That suggests to me that a National-led government would be one that had things happen to it, rather than one that led; that Key would be ripe for capture by the more zealous members of his cabinet and by his minor coalition partners. But given how little Key has shown of his true self, who knows? I get the feeling that John Key's gut-inspired vision for our country is like Godot, and that I'll be left waiting.