Taking stock after ponytail pulls

5:56 am on 24 April 2015

Politics in this country just gets weirder and weirder.

When a Prime Minister hogs international headlines for repeatedly pulling the ponytail of a waitress, you might be forgiven for thinking it is Australia's Tony Abbott.

But to Australians' relief, this time their leader has not embarrassed them.

John Key

John Key Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Instead, it is New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key, a politician who has previously deftly avoided most of the pitfalls that lurk in the murky world of politics.

Now, however, he embarks on a range of international meetings and the centenary services at Gallipoli while almost universally being mocked by international news media.

It has been a long time since New Zealand featured so strongly on the main international networks and in the newspapers, and all because the Prime Minister has been pulling a ponytail.

There is a humourous side to this story and one which international media have been quick to pick up on. It hardly shows New Zealand in a good light.

But there is a much more serious aspect, that raises questions about the nature of prime ministerial power and how a young woman serving in Mr Key's favourite cafe was treated in a way she should never have had to tolerate.

Mr Key says it was lighthearted fun.

How would he feel, however, if a public figure had done the same to his daughter?

Questions about power

As Prime Minister, Mr Key carries a lot of power. He is, as he was to the cafe, always accompanied by diplomatic protection squad officers.

It is unlikely serving staff at a cafe would feel confident about challenging him.

Tugging a woman's hair is simply wrong. Yet even now Mr Key does not appear to recognise the gravity of his behaviour. While he has apologised to the woman, named by the New Zealand Herald as Amanda Bailey, he has laughed it off.

It is no laughing matter for her and she now faces attacks on her character and suggestions this is part of some political ploy.

The owners of the cafe she works at have been quoted as saying she has strong political opinions.

But whether she has strong political opinions or not does not matter.

Mr Key has not challenged the facts. He has accepted that over several months he repeatedly pulled her ponytail.

That is the only thing that should interest people when making a judgment whether that is acceptable behaviour for any man, let alone the Prime Minister.

Mr Key is responsible for the behaviour of his ministers and the Cabinet Manual is clear about how they should behave in their ministerial, political and personal capacities.

"In all these roles and at all times, ministers are expected to act lawfully and to behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards," it says.

Did Mr Key's behaviour uphold the highest ethical standards?

Next steps

Former National Party MP Marilyn Waring says Mr Key acted unlawfully by breaching the Human Rights Act.

Her opinion might encourage some to make a complaint to the Human Rights Commission.

If that happens the complications for Mr Key multiply.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peter believes there is a prima facie case for assault, given Mr Key's approaches were not welcomed by the waitress.

Mr Peters and Labour's deputy leader Annette King say they do not understand why police officers guarding Mr Key did not step in and stop his misconduct.

Some people, most likely National Party supporters, are rubbishing coverage of what has quickly become known as ponytailgate. But had Labour Party leader Andrew Little engaged in this behaviour, there is no doubt he would have been pilloried by his political opponents.

Remember, too, National's relentless pursuit of former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark over paintergate and speedgate.

There is no reason for Mr Key to expect he should get an easier ride.

For the moment, though, he and Opposition MPs hope the matter will die so that for this weekend, at least, the focus can shift to the Anzac Day services.

But when Mr Key returns to New Zealand, and almost certainly before, he is likely to face more scrutiny about his ponytail pulling conduct.

And he and New Zealand will remain an international laughing stock for some time to come.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs