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New Zealand’s political shake-up

6 December 2016

With an election due in a year, the National government faces the challenge of life without leader John Key


Just call me John: NZ prime minister John Key with US secretary of state John Kerry during his visit to New Zealand in November this year. US Embassy/Wikimedia

Just call me John: NZ prime minister John Key with US secretary of state John Kerry during his visit to New Zealand in November this year. US Embassy/Wikimedia

In the year that gave the world Brexit and Trump, prime minister John Key gave New Zealand his resignation, a year short of the next national election. The gasps of shock could be heard around the shaky isles (especially shaky at the moment, with yet another earthquake on Sunday), for this is no Australian-style leadership change. John Key has been one of New Zealand’s most popular prime ministers in living memory, and even now his preferred-PM rating, at 36 per cent, is four times that of the nearest contender, Labour’s Andrew Little. That’s a drop of 2 per cent for Key since September, but given he is coming off an amazingly high base it’s not something most leaders would worry about. Leading into the 2014 election his rating was 73 per cent, and the decline in popularity since then has been incremental rather than tied to a particular gaffe or policy misstep.

Alongside this, Key’s third-term government is riding high in the polls, on 50 per cent, while Labour languishes on 28 per cent – which, even when combined with the Greens support of 11 per cent, suggests National is on track for a fourth term in office. Under Key’s leadership, National won the last three elections easily (with 44 per cent, 47 per cent and 47 per cent of the vote share), a spectacular performance in a proportional system. If he had stayed and won again, Key would have surpassed Helen Clark’s record of nine years as prime minister (and there was some rivalry) and would have become the second-longest-serving National PM after Sir Keith Holyoake (1960–72).

Of course, some all-knowing journalists inside the beltway are saying that this announcement was always on the cards – that Key intended all along to leave on a high – but this is an easy claim to make in hindsight. Only last week a number of those same journalists were saying that Labour’s chances of winning the next election were miniscule, based at least in part on the assumption that Key remained a popular leader, and sufficiently populist in his policies to ease any anti-establishment sentiment bubbling below the surface. Moreover, his government is in good shape: there is another surplus looming, a promise of tax cuts in next year’s budget, and not a hint of a leadership challenge or in-fighting.

So why now? Key mentioned two main reasons in his press conference. First, and not surprisingly, he wants to spend more time with his family. His two children are young adults, and have spent nine years growing up in the spotlight. In recent times, his son Max has attracted unwanted media attention, in part a result of his interesting use of Instagram and a provocative photo shoot in Remix magazine. Second, Key said that he wanted to leave on his own terms and while his party was performing well; he believes leaders stay too long and it is important to make way for new talent. Resigning now, with only three more parliamentary sitting days for the year, provides the new leader with time to settle in before the election.

But it’s clear that Key is also tired of politics. He has said that he isn’t a career politician and has admitted that he has “nothing left in the tank.” Although he is said to have made his decision in September, the announcement came immediately after an intense by-election campaign in a safe Labour seat. Some in National’s ranks had hoped for an upset, and Key hinted it might be possible, but in the end National was well and truly trounced, winning only 28 per cent of the vote. Key spent seven days in the electorate, encouraging voters to turn out, but his pulling power came to nought this time. So perhaps voters are also a little tired of him.

Although the economy is good, the gap between rich and poor is widening. The cost of housing is hurting middle-class voters wanting to buy and the working poor required to rent. Investment, beyond a new bridge in a marginal electorate, is needed in infrastructure and regional development. And even some in the business community have recognised that growing inequalities are a risk to New Zealand’s social and economic cohesion. But despite finance minister Bill English’s experimenting with welfare “investment,” there has been little indication that Key was focused on these big issues, despite the OECD’s recommendation that “in the course of 2017 and beyond, the government should… increase funding to meet the challenges posed by inequalities and exclusion.”

Key’s legacy is already being written about. He has reminded us that his government guided New Zealand successfully through natural and economic disasters. He has been sufficiently flexible to respond to opinion polls and engage in policy reversals that turned out to be politically risky (maintaining the Clark government’s Working for Families package, for example, and shying away from mining in the Coromandel). He worked with both ACT, a libertarian party, and the Māori Party to build a coalition with a comfortable majority that has provided sustainable, stable government.

He was pragmatic and personable, but he was not always respectful of the power and responsibility that came with the office of the prime minister. He could clown around, with his “planking” escapades and his three-way handshake at the 2011 Rugby World Cup; though less appropriate was his ponytail pulling and his association with amoral bloggers, grubby campaign tactics and Dirty Politics; and he could play favourites, most notably by changing labour laws for Peter Jackson’s movie enterprise. But he was a self-made millionaire who grew up in public housing and didn’t take himself too seriously, and the median voter found his antics refreshing and his policy shifts acceptable. People who had never met him called him John, and spoke of him as if they knew him. There are many whom his government has alienated and voter turnout is trending down, but his combination of popularity and populism undoubtedly made many Kiwis comfortable.

John Key’s departure makes the looming election far more interesting. Bill English is tipped to be the new leader, receiving Key’s personal endorsement despite murmurings of a contest. Others have been waiting for this moment – frontbenchers Judith Collins, Todd McClay, Jonathan Coleman and Amy Adams among them – but for them it may have come too early. It is unlikely that any of these candidates, including English, could replicate Key’s charisma, and the coming months will reveal how much of the government’s support is tied to his personal leadership. Labour and the Greens will be hoping that it was all about Key. •

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Meriel Jane Waissman/iStockphoto

Meriel Jane Waissman/iStockphoto