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.


Comments (14)

by Andrew R on April 27, 2015
Andrew R

Tim your argument may have validity if it was a once off. But this was several times over several months with severL complaints from the victim. Key abusing his power.

by Andre Terzaghi on April 27, 2015
Andre Terzaghi

If this was just "what he does, it's how he has a bit of casual fun" wouldn't we have heard by now from other service staff at Rosie's and elsewhere that get the fun coming out to support that? The deafening silence on that front makes me think that Ms Bailey was specifically targeted for harassment.

If he genuinely regretted the distress he caused to Ms Bailey, wouldn't he publicly call off his attack dogs Hosking et al? To minimise further distress to Ms Bailey?

And the repeated fondling of little girls' hair is simply creepy.

by Shaun on April 27, 2015

If Bailey lays a formal complaint that is upheld by an official body, that may get more difficult for Key.

It appears that this is what Bailey meant when she said 'no drama'.  She did not want to take that further, and just wanted to do her job without the attention she was receiving.  There is an obvious power imbalance, so how is she meant to respond to what is happening, especially when it is repeated several times?

It was inappropriate and cheap for Mr Key to take the wine as an expression of apology and downplay this as 'a bit of fun' due to a casual, easy-going nature, and the informality of the workplace.  There are still expectations for how people will treat you, and this would make it difficult for Amanda Bailey to interpret what is the most appropriate response in the situation.  Mr Key should understand this beforehand.

Reflecting on comments by Auckland Law Professor Bill Hodge, a 'Key' injustice is that for it to go further, it is up to her to lay a civil complaint via the District Court.  Her (repeated) experiences have been downplayed, and the protagonist appears to get off scott-free.  It's unfair to her when prevention is better than cure.




by Kevin Moore on April 27, 2015
Kevin Moore

Tim, you say "there's no evidence he wanted to make her cry and feel distressed".

I'd disagree. The waitress' account is presumably classed as 'evidence'? If so, in that account the description of the Prime Minister's behaviour from an 'eye-witness' shows quite clearly that he was aware of the upset he was causing. What else would be the reason for his holding his arms aloft and doing 'scary sound effects'? He must have known that he was being seen as threatening by her.

There were also other described behaviours on her part such as her facial expressions and gestures and Key's smiling comment "defence against what" that strongly support the claim that it was part of his intent to cause discomfort and dominate her.

Of course, you may think that the waitress' account is incorrect in this regard or for some reason likely to be flawed. But to say that there is 'no evidence' just seems wrong.

By the way, I think the idea that 'intent' is some psychological state sitting privately inside people's head is just poor conceptualisation - but I accept that it is also very common to think like that. 'Intent' is in the action, not in the head. The criteria for it are public, not private. But that's getting too esoteric.

by Tim Watkin on April 27, 2015
Tim Watkin

Andrew, I'm not sure what you think my argument is. I've been pretty detached in my analysis, but inasmuch as I'm making an argument, it's that Key was abusing his power and his lack of insight into that is very worrying.

Andre, we have heard her bosses come out and say just that. And given the numerous examples of hair-pulling that have come out since Bailey blogged, it seems pretty clear she wasn't targeted specifically; it's a weird (he's argue, playful) thing he does all over.

I think your framing of Hosking as his "attack dog" is suggesting a level of coordination that doesn't exist. Hosking is certainly a huge fan and clearly has no sense of perspective when it comes to Key, but they're hardly on the phone all the time conspiring. And tbf to Key, he has repeatedly said he was wrong and even in this interview, didn't take the opportunity to side with Hosking and others who are saying this is a sign of PC gone mad etc.

What bothers me is that while he's saying he's sorry, it seems insincere when you see his repeated "but"s and "counter argument"s. If you're truly sorry you don't really keep trying to pass your error off as a prank or try to get the victim to share the blame.




by Tim Watkin on April 27, 2015
Tim Watkin

Kevin, I'm not sure whether I agree with you about intent. There has to be some will to cause a certain outcome for there to be intent, and despite Bailey's blog I think you're drawing a long bow to say he intended to upset and dominate her.

I've no reason to disbelieve Bailey at all, but also no reason to assume your framing is the right one or assume the worst about Key. The behaviour you explain could be malicious, but it could just as easily be gauche teasing and a joke gone way too far (ie being a dick, rather than being a psychopath).

For me, the most worrying thing about that is that he lacked any insight into the hurt he was causing and how that was an abuse of power.

by Andre Terzaghi on April 27, 2015
Andre Terzaghi

Tim, it's the owners of the café describing it as fun and games. Not other wait staff there or anywhere else (that I'm aware of). It's not hard to imagine why the owners would have an immediate impulse to try to minimise what happened, that's the least painful of a bunch of no-win scenarios. The only other hair pulling I've seen reported is the creepy stuff with little girls. So at the moment I haven't seen any evidence that the hair pulling is something he generally does with hospitality staff to create a friendly jokey atmosphere. So to me it really looks like it was special treatment for Ms Bailey (at least as far as adults are concerned). Opinion subject to change on receipt of further evidence of course (which you're more likely to have than me)...

Hosking, Henry, Glucina, Farrar, Slater....attack dogs are still attack dogs even when they're off the leash. They've been busy trying to make it Bailey's fault, somehow. I agree, there's unlikely to be any specific direction from Key on that. It's just what they do. But if Key was genuinely remorseful and wanted to minimise further distress to Ms Bailey, he would also make it clear that grubbing around by anyone to try to smear Ms Bailey was not on. But no, the messages of "harmless fun", "Bailey has strong political views" "obvious lefty smear since she went to The Daily Blog" seem to be pretty consistent between Key and his usual messengers, even if Key is more circumspect about expressing them. He may not have openly embraced the lines run by Hosking et al, but he didn't repudiate them either. As you say, it's insincere when all the buts and counter-arguments come out. 

Plus the way the Herald covered itself in disgrace with multiple edits and seriously ambiguous weasel wording for the statement about Glucina's piece ...

I agree, it's worrying about Key's lack of sensitivity to the abuse of power on a personal level. Agreed, it's most likely him just being a dick (and how). But there really is enough there to at least raise the possibility of something that goes a bit further.

Nice innuendo in your headline, by the way.



by Anne on April 27, 2015

Cutting and pasting is the only way I know to provide a link, so if it doesn't work maybe someone can correctly link :

John Oliver's succinct and very funny take on Ponygate.

Andre Terzaghi  thanks. You hit the nail on the head. It's called victim blaming. I sincerely hope the young lady, Amanda Bailey has the fortitude to lay a complaint with the Press Council over the NZ Herald's handling of the case.  



by Tim Watkin on April 27, 2015
Tim Watkin

Andre, I take your points but am wary of making too many assumptions. I've no more information that you, except from memory the owners talked about Key being popular with the staff. And Bailey doesn't seem to have any issue with the owners, although to me, yes, they did seem to minimise it in the Herald article.

I don't like the "attack dog" line because it in many of those cases they will be genuinely held views. I may not agree, but that doesn't mean they're "trying to make it Bailey's fault". When someone on the left argues in favour of a left-wing leader, are they an "attack dog"? ... that's my point. Same with the Herald. I know from repeated experience that things from the outside can look very different from how they play out on the inside. It's very easy to say "well obviously X happened", when actually it just didn't.

I don't think anyone can say the Herald's handling of the situation is in anyway best practice and, again, you may disagree with their politics. But from the editors (and there are more than one involved in any situation) to the photographer to the subs, these are professionals and they don't all think alike or are purposefully trying to denigrate Bailey. I'm not trying to justify their approach, but neither are they The News of the World.


by Andre Terzaghi on April 28, 2015
Andre Terzaghi

Tim, I think you made an assumption that the "fun and games" line was an accurate depiction, when closer examination shows the only people claiming that had a real interest in minimising what went on. In other words, I think you bought the spin, which surprises me. I'm interested in understanding exactly what kind of WTF behaviour Key indulges in, whether he's a routine utter dick to hospitality staff, or whether he singled out Bailey for a special dose of harassment. I fully agree with your argument that even if it was fun and games to Key and everyone else present, the fact that Bailey wasn't enjoying it made it a shocking abuse of power on Key's part. Which Key has acknowledged, even while continuing to minimise and excuse it.

Attack dog seems to me to be a pretty good shorthand for trying to smear someone critical of or wronged by the powerful. For what it's worth, if you (can't see it happening) or Andrew Geddis (neither) or mickysavage (unlikely, and gawd that's a pretentious handle) or Bradbury (maybe) or john Campbell or lefty/greenie media type (are there any left?) indulged in the same smear the victim/messenger stuff, I'd use the attack dog label just as quickly.

Blindly supporting and praising on the other hand is being a sycophant, suck-up, brown-noser...better stop there.

Calling someone a brown-nosing attack dog isn't suggesting there is any insincerity in their views, it's comment on how they promote those views.

by Alex Stone on April 28, 2015
Alex Stone

Good day Tim -

Thank you for your well-written post. I find it difficult to accept one thing, however.

You write:

"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"."

This does not bear scrutiny. Armstrong is simply wrong here.

The many times Key has knowingly lied, in matters both big and banal (I only own 20,000 Tranzrail shares; Standard and Poors said; I didn't text Cameron Slater etc, etc), or his previous lapses of judgement (character support for Rodney Hide right up to the point of corruption proven; giving generously of his time to Tony Veitch, etc) are surely failings of a personal nature.

Perhaps the most clear illustration is in the Jason Ede affair. While it may be accepted, at a stretch, that Key did not know what Ede was doing while working in the PM's office, Key's later assertion that it was OK for his staffer to steal other peoples' credit card details, reveals a disturbing amorality. This is certainly a personal flaw, and attributable to only himself.

Alex Stone

by Peggy Klimenko on April 29, 2015
Peggy Klimenko

@ Tim Watkin: "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."

I completely agree. Over the last 6 years, many commentators have claimed that Key's political instincts are finely-honed and he's been very sure-footed in his dealing with political issues as they've arisen. So his harassment of Ms Bailey, and his reaction when it was made public, are puzzling.

Either he's reached the point of believing his own publicity, and thinks his adoring public will uncritically accept any old pile of bollocks he cares to come out with, or he actually never could walk on political water, but was simply getting (and following) very astute strategic advice, which is no longer available to him. Or at least, wasn't available to him when this story broke.

@ Andre Terzaghi: "...I haven't seen any evidence that the hair pulling is something he generally does with hospitality staff to create a friendly jokey atmosphere. So to me it really looks like it was special treatment for Ms Bailey ..."

A very good point: so far, no other waitstaff, at that or any other cafe, have gone public with accounts of similar treatment at his hands. Which does indeed suggest Ms Bailey was singled out. And he called her ponytail "tantalising": jokey schmokey, if it looks like sexual harassment, it is sexual harassment. One's hair is an extension of one's person; nobody should touch it without permission. Had he repeatedly slapped her on the derriere, I don't think there'd be any argument about his motivation, yet the same principle applies to her ponytail.

Here's the thing: the whole Key-is-the-most-popular-PM-ever schtick is beginning to look like a Stalinist personality cult. On the one hand, it's ludicrous, and on the other, potentially risky: this is supposed to be a democracy, after all.

I want a Prime Minister with the gravitas that the office demands; I'll take that over charisma any day, thanks.

by Rich on April 29, 2015

I think its more that Key gets buffered mostly from criticism and is very sensitive to it when it breaks through.

I recall he said in an interview a while ago that he thought of resigning at some stage in the various spy scandals, having had enough of criticism. This is probably another "shall I fuck off to Hawaii now" issue, much more, and we might be hearing of a planned retirement.

Maybe, Helen Clark could step aside from her plans to become UN Secretary General and allow another former NZ Prime Minister to move up to that role?


by Missi6 on April 29, 2015

John Key is bad news for NZ, and Kiwis really need to Wake up to this fact and act upon it!
Key is selling NZ assets and premium land (farms and Gulf Islands) to Chinese and foreign interests; has opened NZ to a record annual net migration gain of 56,275 migrants - 75% higher than the 31,914 gain the previous year which is set to peak at around 60,000, and this is adding MORE heat to Auckland's housing market where prices are rising at the fastest pace in 11 years, and has prices rocketing by as much as 20 per cent!! ... IT'S INTENTIONAL
At the same time, house building is slowing and dwelling consents nationwide fell more than 6 per cent in February, the third month in a row, making the gap between supply and demand even wider. In meantime John Key and National Party representatives keep denying that problems exist or try to maintain that these are issues irrelevant to struggling Kiwis around the country! ...
Key is not working to resolve Auckland's rising housing crisis or the record migration numbers - instead he intends to kick poverty-stricken New Zealanders out of state houses so that they can be sold to bolster government coffers - wtf!
To add insult to injury he's also sending our military to Iraq without NZ or Parliamentary support!! while our West Papuan neighbours are being oppressed, abused and murdered by Indonesians mining and pillaging West Papuan land. OVER 500,000 killed - women, children, men - INNOCENTS...
Thousands of New Zealanders and Australians/ANZACS have sacrificed their lives defending the rights and lives of innocent peoples in the Pacific, and New Zealand's and Australia's Prime Ministers sit at Gallipolli representing our nations yet are intent on ignoring what is is happening in Western Papua! GTFO - the HYPOCRISY HERE IS OFFENSIVE - IT'S INSULTING to the men who gave their lives defending our nations and the Pacific in WWII and their families; insulting to the People of Western Papua, New Zealand and Australia - INFURIATING! - and this isn’t even getting NZ media coverage!
The Western Papuan people saved lives - they helped Kiwi and Aussie servicemen during the war! Shutting down corruption and oppression in the Pacific should be our priority and focus - not training operatives against Obama’s U.S. funded/CIA trained bs!!
... and in addition to all of this, we have John Key behind the scenes, working to influence NZ media - shutting down Campell Live via his connections with National Patsy Mark Wheldon - and check-out the misleading Pony-tail pulling editorial from Rachel Glucina, NZ Herald journalist – identified via Google as someone who has a close working relationship with John Key. This is sickening NZ and it needs exposure!!! ...
Deceiving the nation, conspiring against Kiwis with a $25 million flag-change that would enable Key to invalidate NZ's Constitution/sovereignty in preparation for the TPPA/Corporate domination and controlling NZ media!! SICK.
... John Key is not concerned about NZ - he's a sick cunt, and clearly his only concern is himself, his personal agenda! (and I don't use the c-word loosely!) ... He needs to be brought to account - his conflicts of interest, backroom deals with Maori behind closed doors - his behaviour, actions and alliances need to be put under the spotlight and investigated because ALOT of Kiwis believe that our Prime Minister may be guilty of Treason/High Treason! ...
New Zealand deserves a HELL OF A LOT BETTER than the likes of John Key corruption and Dirty Politics - NZ used to have Global respect!!
Come on Kiwis!

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