Ask John and Bronagh Key what the secret is to their successful marriage and they both agree having a good sense of humour has played a crucial part.
“We can have a laugh together,” says the prime minister, who will celebrate his 30th wedding anniversary later this year.
“We like to keep a sense of humour and have a bit of fun.”
This is evident a few minutes later when they’re asked what first attracted them to each other when they met as teenagers in Christchurch.
Bronagh is carefully listing John’s attributes – “thoughtful, considerate…” – when her husband can’t resist chipping in.
“It was the Pierce Brosnan look,” he says, as Bronagh rolls her eyes.
“He’s a good person,” she continues.
“… and there’s the Arnold Schwarzenegger-toned body,” adds John.
“There were a few redeeming features.”
“And, of course, the obvious intellect. They’re just a few things you could have mentioned.”
“It’s okay, if you can’t remember, I can remind you.”
“Just being helpful.”
They’re a bit of a double act, John and Bronagh, when they get going. He may have the very serious job of running the country, but he finds humour is a useful antidote to the stress of the role, and Bronagh is only too happy to join in the light-hearted banter.
No slouch when it comes to the quick quip, she gives as good as she gets.
Here’s John talking about whether they ever argue:
“Well, there are things we don’t see eye-to-eye on.”
Bronagh: “Like the fact that I’m always right.”
For a guy with the top job, a lot of John’s humour is self-deprecating. The National Party leader says he and his wife don’t have flaming rows, he just “gets told off. I don’t answer back because I’ve learnt it’s not good strategy. I do as I’m told.”
Slipping into politician-speak, he explains, “They’re not really rows, but pointed discussions aimed in my direction – clear instructions about what behaviour and change is required on my behalf, delivered in a firm but fair way.”
At this, Bronagh (50) simply smiles her approval.
The endearing affection between the pair is obvious as they sit close together on the sofa of their Auckland home.
John (52) tenderly pats his wife’s hands several times and they address each other when talking about their relationship.
The John Key who has put aside several hours in his busy schedule to take part in a photoshoot and interview for the Weekly is understandably far more relaxed and down-to-earth in his own home than the suit-wearing politician we’re used to seeing on our TV screens. He goes off from time to time to make phone calls and read messages, but in between he offers to iron his shorts and chats to the Weekly team about everything from the music-sharing service Spotify to his lucky cuff links – white rabbits, given to him by his children Stephie and Max, and worn every day because they’re meant to be good luck and he’s very superstitious.
A question about whether he’s good at helping out around the home elicits hearty laughter from both of the Keys.
“He’s not Mr Fix-It,” says Bronagh.
“She will have a list of jobs for me to do,” says John.
“I wash the car. And I did the waterblasting the other day. It’s cool, waterblasting. I liked that.”
“We bought a waterblaster the other week and I had to limit his time on it in the end,” says Bronagh. “You could see he was loving it. I had to say, ‘Right, you’ve got another half an hour and that’s it.’ He was good with the waterblaster but you’ve got to watch him around hammers and screwdrivers.”
The couple say they try to be as “normal” as possible, which isn’t easy given John spends so much time away, either at Parliament in Wellington or travelling on official duties.
But when he’s back in Auckland they try to pop out to a local café or head to a farmer’s market. They’re always accompanied by his security team – the spontaneous trips “drive them mad”, admits John – and when he goes to places he’s never been before people do get in a “bit of a flap. But most of the coffee shops around here are really used to me just turning up. I wait in the queue like everyone else,” says John, revealing he also drops off his own dry-cleaning and returns DVDs the family has hired.
“I do that sort of thing way more than people think. My job involves a degree of being on show, but if we cocooned ourselves away the rest of the time it wouldn’t be much fun.”
The times they can truly relax are when in Hawaii, where they have a holiday home.
“It is literally just us there on our own and we can do what we want, when we want. We have the spontaneity we don’t always get here. There it’s shorts and T-shirts, going for a swim or a walk any time you want to. We are just a family having fun.”
They accept that the rest of the time family life comes with restrictions because of John’s work and there is an upside, such as attending the wedding of Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, as well as hanging out with the Queen and her family at Balmoral.
Bronagh, Stephie (20) and Max (18) are very supportive of John, who is fulfilling the dream of being prime minister that he has had since he was 12.
“I looked at the prime minister of the day and thought they led an exciting life and I wanted to do those things,” says John.
“When I became an adult I had this inner self-belief that I could make a difference. I wanted to give it a go.”
Leaving behind a lucrative career as a foreign exchange trader was carefully thought out.
“I used to say to Bronagh, ‘I don’t want to die wondering [if I could have gone into politics]. I don’t want to wake up one day and think, ‘Could have, might have, should have… too late.’
“Of course, there are pluses and minuses and there are stresses and pressures, as well as great fun and rewards, but I am going to go to my grave grateful that I had the opportunity to do this.
“I sat next to David Lange one night during my banking days and when I told him I was going into politics his whole face changed. He looked at me and said, ‘Don’t do it, it will be the biggest regret of your life.’
“I have the completely opposite feeling. It has been hard but it has been amazing.”
He’s quick to point out that he is part of a team working towards the same goals, and that he couldn’t do his job without Bronagh’s support.
Many years ago, when they were starting their family and John was climbing the corporate ladder, they decided that the children would be Bronagh’s priority. A former recruitment consultant, she became a stay-at-home mum after Stephie was born so that the children would always have one parent around full-time.
While John has tried to be there for his children as much as he can, it is not always possible.
“There is a huge number of things I have missed but Bronagh has gone to absolutely everything, which has given them stability.”
It has been hard at times having a husband who is often away, but Bronagh appreciates that he has done it to look after his family. While raising the kids has been her main role, being married to the prime minister is a kind of job, with official functions to attend and dignitaries to meet. Not as shy as she is often portrayed, she is nonetheless more reserved than her husband and not keen on being in the spotlight.
“I’m not the sort of person who would rush in [to an event] and start chatting to people. That doesn’t come naturally to me,” she says.
But she does accompany John to many functions and works with charities close to her heart, including the Blind Foundation and Look Good, Feel Better programme. The rest of her time is taken up with regular household tasks such as shopping and washing, and she regularly goes to the gym.
With Stephie doing a fine arts degree in Paris, and now that Max has started university, Bronagh is considering new challenges and interests.
“I’m not quite sure what I will do but there are a few things I’m working on. I know a lot of people who are in this situation, once their kids move on.”
Just as their family dynamic has altered, they recognise life will change again when John is one day no longer prime minister. But their relationship will stay the same, says John.
“We were an entity long before politics and we will be an entity long after. This is a really important point in our life and I am very grateful I’ve got to do it. But there is more to our life than me being prime minister. Our relationship is much bigger than that.”
Sweethearts from the start
John Key and Bronagh Dougan said “I do” in Christchurch on December 1, 1984, five years after meeting as teenagers. Although they went to Burnside High School, there was two years between them and they had no contact until an upset Bronagh turned up at a friend’s house one day. She’d failed an economics exam, as had her friend, Jenny.
As it happened, John was there tutoring Jenny’s sister in economics.
“He opened the door and I was crying on the doorstep. My friend was also upset and he ended up sitting with one of us on each side crying. But we got on straight away.”
Shortly afterwards John took his mum Ruth out to dinner at a local hotel where Bronagh was waitressing. “I was wearing a long maroon gabardine skirt with a peach blouse and a big kitty bow,” grimaces Bronagh. “Lovely!”
“Mum always maintained that I said, ‘Oh, that’s the girl I’m going to marry,’” says John. “Whether that’s true or not I can’t remember, but that’s what she said.”
Their paths crossed again when Bronagh, who’d hurt her leg, and a flu-stricken John went to the same doctor. Romance blossomed and John tutored Bronagh in economics. She went on to get a commerce degree, like him. They married two weeks after Bronagh turned 21 and a few days after her last exam at university. John was working in finance, but had told Bronagh about his ambition to one day be prime minister.
“Bronagh went, ‘Yeah, whatever,’” remembers John.
When it comes to John’s high-profile career, Bronagh has never thought, “What on earth have I taken on?”
“It was a gradual progression and by the time he got into politics we were already 20 years down the track, and it was too late!” she laughs.
When the subject turns to how they’ll celebrate their anniversary in December, John says something special such as a romantic trip to Italy would be nice but it’s unlikely, given the weeks before Christmas are usually very busy. Then he remembers there will be an election to get through first.
“Or it could be a very quiet time of the year,” he laughs.
“Now she might be tempted to vote Labour so she can have a really lovely 30th anniversary.
“Don’t get any ideas,” he says to Bronagh.