The Prime Minister doesn't think Helen Kelly should be put back on the shortlist for 2017's New Zealander of the Year.
But it's not because Ms Kelly, a former union leader, was one of the Government's strongest critics.
"There's no question that Helen would have been one of the most worthy candidates," Mr Key told Paul Henry on Monday.
"Even though I didn't always agree with the things she said, I would have hugely respected her if she had won."
More than one online petition has been launched to get Ms Kelly back on the shortlist. She had the most nominations, but was pulled from contention after she died from cancer earlier this month - two weeks after nominations closed.
"She cannot win... because unfortunately she's passed away," awards manager Glyn Taylor told Newshub on Friday.
"Rules cannot be bent otherwise you have anarchy, so the rules are what the rules are."
And that's why Mr Key doesn't think she's eligible.
"The trouble with having someone that's passed away as your New Zealander of the Year is, where does that lead? Does that mean that later on in years to come people say someone died five years ago, they weren't on the list, but they would have been on the list - they were a great New Zealander?"
Mr Key compared it to the royal honours system, which only honours gallantry and bravery awards posthumously - to become a Sir or a Dame, you have to be alive.
"You can't do them posthumously, and that's one of the reasons - otherwise they'd go back and say 'you forgot to give so-and-so a knighthood'."
More than 3000 people have signed the ActionStation petition started by Alastair Thompson, and another 2000 a petition on Greenpeace's Toko site, hosted by Jake Benge.