Politicians are routinely upbraided for behaviour befitting a schoolyard, but the New Zealand prime minister has now become embroiled in a controversy that centres, quite literally, on hair-pulling.
On Wednesday morning John Key apologised following allegations by an Auckland waitress that he had repeatedly tugged on her ponytail, a pattern of conduct she regarded as harassment.
Through a spokesperson, the prime minister apologised for the hair-pulling, saying it “was never his intention to make her feel uncomfortable”, but did not dispute the waitress’s version of events.
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Speaking to reporters at Los Angeles airport while en route to Turkey, Key repeated the apology saying that there were “a lot of fun and games” at the cafe and “lots of practical jokes”.
The hair-pulling had taken place “in the context of a bit of banter” and he had apologised to her “when I realised she took offence”. Key said when he gave her the wine and apologised, the waitress had told him, “that’s all right, no drama”.
In an anonymous blog post at the Daily Blog site, the waitress accused Key of acting “like the schoolyard bully tugging on the little girls’ hair trying to get a reaction”.
On numerous occasions over the course of about six months, Key had pulled at her ponytail during visits to a cafe he frequented with his wife, she said.
Despite her attempts to avoid his attention, “the game continued”, wrote the waitress.
“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’,” she wrote.
Despite her objections, in late March, Key again yanked at her hair, having approached making “scary, suspense sound effects, like the music from the movie Jaws”, the anonymous author wrote. She shouted at him, “Please STOP or I will actually hit you soon!” she said.
Shortly afterwards, the prime minister returned to the cafe, giving her two bottles of his personalised “JK” label wine by way of an apology and saying, according to her account, that he “didn’t realise” it had upset her. This remark “was almost more offensive than the harassment itself”, she said.
“I’m telling this story because I’m the only one who can and it seems he needs reminding that he’s not a god, he’s just a man,” concluded the anonymous author.
A spokesperson for the prime minister, who is travelling to Turkey for first world war commemorations, said the events took place at “a familiar cafe which he regularly visits with Bronagh and both have a good relationship with those who work there.”
She said: “His actions were intended to be light-hearted. It was never his intention to make her feel uncomfortable and he has apologised to her.”
Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei called the behaviour “bullying” and “weird”.
“New Zealanders know you can’t walk into a cafe and start tugging on someone’s hair, especially if they’ve told you they don’t like it,” she told media. “It’s a sign of how out of touch John Key has become when he can’t even monitor how inappropriate his personal behaviour is, and when people are not comfortable with how he is behaving.”
Martyn Bradbury, editor of the leftwing Daily Blog, accused the prime minister of “bullying”. He said the waitress had approached the site, which “did not seek her out or pressure her in anyway to write this blog” and she was not being named “so she is not punished by her employer or [subject to] social media victim blaming”.
He added on Twitter that he had a signed affidavit from the complainant, as well as video footage of the wine bottles being delivered.
The apology led news bulletins on Wednesday morning, while footage emerged on social media of a clip from the Campbell Live show on TV3 from last year’s election campaign in which the prime minister appears to grab a child’s hair.
Not everyone was giving the story credence, however. RadioLive talkback host Sean Plunket said he would not be discussing the hair-pulling controversy because it appeared to him “absolutely propaganda hate speech rubbish” and a “cheap little scummy political set-up”.
The Key-led centre-right National Party, which was returned to power for a third term last year, recently suffered a setback with a by-election defeat in the formerly safe seat of Northland.
The party maintains a healthy lead in polling, however. A recent survey for TVNZ put National on 49% support, with the Labour-Green combined support at 40%. Key’s preferred prime minister rating was 42%, a 31-point advantage over the Labour leader, Andrew Little.