New Zealand’s PM John Key is resigning, and the Australian media are singing his praises. “Key’s success was his essential modesty,” reads the Oz. “The world has lost one of its most sensible and effective political leaders,” echoes the Fin.

If you want a substantive accounting of the man and his triumphs, we suggest you read those pieces. But here in the Crikey bunker, we’d rather offer a different account. One of Key’s bizarre habit of pulling ponytails.

You read that right. The lauded Kiwi prime minister repeatedly tugged on women’s hair, if it happened to be long hair gathered to one point and then allowed to fall in the arrangement commonly known as a ponytail.

The whole thing blew up in April last year when a waitress, in an anonymous account for a Kiwi blog, alleged the prime minister had, on at least six occasions in 2014, tugged on her hair while she served him:

“He would come up behind me when I was at the ordering terminal, tug on my hair and then pretend that his wife, Bronagh, had done it (much to her embarrassment), and she would tell him to stop it. As he rounded the corner behind me he commented ‘that’s a very tantalising ponytail’.”

The woman wrote that she objected to his “school yard bully” behaviour, but it didn’t stop. Instead, Key began to make “scary suspense sound effects, like from the movie Jaws” as he approached her to again yank her hair. Key, later being persuaded the waitress really didn’t like it, went on to present her with two bottles of his own JK wine by way of apology, saying he hadn’t realised the behaviour offended her.

The account swept like a hurricane throughout New Zealand. The woman was later revealed to be Amanda Bailey, a 26-year-old waitress. Key didn’t dispute the incident — a statement released in response said his actions were “intended to be lighthearted” and that he had apologised.

The incident was far from isolated — some of Key’s hair-pulling has been caught on TV cameras. At a school visit, Key was filmed pulling the braided pigtails of a young child, asking her, “the boys don’t pull it, do they?” (The boys didn’t, she responded, though clearly the prime minister did.) During another video from April 2014, of Key standing next to two young girls on the street near Key’s beach house in Omaha, a reporter knelt down and ask them if they knew who was standing next to them. “The prime minister,” one uttered, while a disembodied hand (presumably Key’s?) can be seen reaching for her hair.

Later, Kiwi PR operative Mark Blackman told the New Zealand Herald that while watching the footage on TV, his daughter piped up that: “That’s what the Prime Minister did at Te Papa to my two friends”. She had visited the Te Papa national museum on a school trip in 2014.

“I guess she was a bit amazed, she was just intrigued that it had happened to her friends as well, she was surprised,” Blackham told the Herald. “I think it puts a bit more perspective on it … I don’t know if it’s affectionate or what it is, but it’s clearly a thing he does.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey