Malcolm Turnbull shouldn’t look to John Key for tips on managing reform (Sydney Morning Herald 12/11/15)

Malcolm Turnbull shouldn’t look to John Key for tips on managing reform (Sydney Morning Herald 12/11/15)

Despite the Prime Minister's comments it is unlikely that Malcolm Turnbull would be satisfied with John Key's limited policy ambitions.

Malcolm Turnbull said his New Zealand counterpart John Key was a role model in his first press conference as Prime Minister. He described Key as "achieving very significant economic reforms in New Zealand … by taking on and explaining complex issues and then making the case for them".

Turnbull has got this completely wrong.

What he can learn from Key, however, is how to stay in power. Key is a highly skilled political manager who is focused on winning elections not implementing major reform. He has deeply disappointed some on the right of New Zealand politics by, as they see it, refusing to risk any of his considerable political capital on real reform.

He did achieve a modest tax switch in his second budget in 2010, increasing GST from 12.5 per cent to 15 per cent and dropping tax rates including the top tax rate from 38 per cent to 33 per cent. There was no great effort to explain why. Key had promised not to increase GST in the 2008 election.

His boldest move since, the partial privatisation of government owned energy companies, was undertaken with a keen eye on the politics of the issue by leaving the government in majority ownership. The policy went by the uninspiring title of "mixed ownership model".

Key bails quickly if it becomes clear that any proposed policies are not running well with voters. Far from attempting to win the political argument he is unashamedly in the "explaining is losing" school.

There are, of course, some obvious but superficial similarities between the two men. Both are riding high in the polls. Both currently are out of sight in preferred Prime Minister match ups with their Labor opponent. Both are wealthy.

But there are really more differences than similarities.

The younger Key has massively more political runs on the board. He easily disposed of a hapless predecessor in 2007 and had a reasonably easy run as opposition leader through to victory in 2008. He has already won three elections. Turnbull lost his first contest for leadership to Brendan Nelson after the 2007 election. He did knock him over pretty quickly but proved a poor opposition leader and was dispatched without even getting a chance to contest the 2010 election.

Key is also in charge of a much more unified party. There is no New Zealand equivalent of the 30 hard-right MPs who voted for Kevin Andrews in the deputy leadership contest in an obvious signal to Turnbull that he should not indulge his perceived left-wing tendencies.

Key likes surprising commentators and discomfiting Labour in New Zealand by unexpectedly introducing seemingly left-wing policies such as increasing benefits in this year's budget. That political ploy is not as available for Turnbull.

Key's political style is also completely different from the much more patrician Turnbull. He engages easily in banter with tabloid radio jocks, is quite prepared to make a fool of himself in photo opportunities and make sometimes quite breathtaking personal revelations. Despite his wealth and penchant for Hawaiian holidays, Key is well protected against charges of being out of touch.

Turnbull is clearly much more interested in high culture and has always been vulnerable on the "silvertail" front. It is entirely likely that this vulnerability will be in play when his currenthoneymoon fades.

Turnbull's pre-political career was much more varied and, in the face of it, much more substantial. He was a journalist, high-profile lawyer, built and ran businesses and was a merchant banker. Key was a foreign exchange trader.

Key's trading skills though almost certainly help explain his skill at politics. Traders make quick decisions on the data in front of them. They may sell the peso and an hour later be buying it back. Key has shown similar considerable adeptness in politics and zero embarrassment at making what would for conventional politicians be humiliating U-turns.

An anonymous National party insider description of Key is "having a thousand antennae but no compass". One example: in 2006 he voted against civil unions and then in 2013, as the public mood shifted, supported same-sex marriage.

Turnbull has had to back off his stirring 2010 Churchillian rhetoric on making a stand on climate change but the impression still remains he is much more interested in policy than Key is. It is highly unlikely he would be satisfied with a political career that marked him as a skilled political manager rather than a great reforming Prime Minister.

If he wins the next election Turnbull is almost certain to try and do things. He has already started in the electorally dangerous territory of taxation. Doing anything that leaves even a small number of losers is not easy in modern politics. Key's relaxed style and limited policy ambitions is a much likelier formula for long-term political success.

Stephen Mills is executive director of UMR research and has worked on about 50 federal and state elections and New Zealand general elections.