Is Key in the same boat as Len Brown?
There are significant differences, and also similarities, between Key's hair-pulling incident and Len Brown's infidelity.
In both cases, the story emerged as a statement by the woman concerned on a blog site, and not initially through mainstream media. In both cases, the facts as published online were not disputed by the man who was accused of inappropriate behaviour. And, in both cases, the blogger was obviously politically motivated, seeking to damage, if not pull down, their target.
Both stories involve a top political leader in his 50s and a much younger woman. And the public reactions to both vary greatly: from 'Disgusting, the man should stand down', to 'I don't really care'.
In both cases, Graham McCready got involved as a private prosecutor. The courts threw out his case against Len Brown, concerning alleged corruption. Mr McCready is reported to be laying a complaint of sexual harassment with the Human Rights Commission, but I would guess that that one will be declined too, if the parties concerned (Mr Key and the waitress) consider the matter resolved.
In both cases, the woman, as target (or victim) of an older man's attentions, has her name and image dragged through the media, and is ruthlessly used for political ends. We are left with questions about the subordination and exploitation of women.
Of course there are important differences too. Mr Brown's affair involved extra-marital sexual activity that went a lot further in terms of physical intimacy. This was apparently consensual, and no accusation of harassment was made. But it also raised deeper moral concerns about his trustworthiness as a married man, and many people drew a parallel with his trustworthiness as mayor.
In Mr Key's case, hair-pulling is hardly the height of sexual intimacy, but it was not consensual touching. That behaviour does, on the face of it, fit the definition of sexual harassment in the Human Rights Act, as it was unwelcome and repeated. 'Just joking' doesn't let you off the hook.
Both leaders have suffered severe political and personal embarrassment from these stories. So, the main political question is: What does this do to their reputations and political viability?
Despite the aims of the blogger who released the story of Mr Brown's affair, and despite demands from a sector of the public and from the NZ Herald, the mayor has not stood down. But he has suffered a lot of political damage, and financial and electoral support have declined. Mr Brown remains in office, but would not win re-election in 2016 if he stands again.
I have said in the past that it would be a pity if Mr Brown had stood down, as that would have been giving in to, and hence rewarding, muckraking and political blackmail. So, to be consistent, perhaps I should say the same about Mr Key as a serial hair-puller, creepy though that may be. Why reward the Daily Blog with a prime scalp?
It seems unlikely to me, at this stage, that 'ponytailgate' makes Key un-re-electable in 2017. It may make him reconsider his desire to stay on as PM, given the extent of international ridicule and invective arising from this incident. But this story does not evoke the same level of conservative distrust in him as a man, and hence as a leader, that the Len Brown story evoked. Hypocritical though it may be, sexual harassment is a left-liberal preoccupation, while marital infidelity (if publicly revealed) is anathema to the conservative right.