[Editorial] Looking Back at Key’s Tenure – Stable, but Unambitious

As the PM leaves office, Capital Hardtalk reflects upon John Key’s eight years in government.

Today, John Key formally leaves office as New Zealand’s thirty-eighth Prime Minister. Often described as an ‘anti-politician’, the winner of three general elections demonstrated he never lost his ability to surprise the New Zealand public by becoming the first leader in generations to end a political career without being voted out by the public or made to resign in a party coup. He passes the baton easily to his long-serving Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Bill English, who faced off abortive leadership challenges from Judith Collins and Jonathan Coleman to win the support of the National Party caucus, with Key’s endorsement.

Key, a multi-millionaire currency trader, first entered Parliament in the 2002 election, winning the newly re-constituted seat of Helensville. He experienced a meteoric rise in the National benches, being made the party’s finance spokesperson ahead of the 2005 general election, before becoming Leader of the Opposition in November 2006, following Don Brash’s resignation.

Campaigning as a centrist, Key won an overwhelming victory in the 2008 election, denying Helen Clark a fourth term as Prime Minister. The past eight years have been a trying time in New Zealand’s history. Key entered office just as the world was beginning to feel the full impact of the Global Financial Crisis, the worst financial crash since the Great Depression. While New Zealand was relatively insulated from its worst effects, the government took a variety of measures aimed at economic recovery and shoring up government coffers, including a GST rise. Key’s government also paid witness to unbelievable levels of human tragedy, from the Pike River mine disaster in November 2010 which tragically claimed the lives of twenty-nine young miners, to the Christchurch Earthquake that killed 185 people, one of the darkest days in our country’s history. Throughout these long years, Key’s popularity, and that of his government, never truly diminished. He now leaves office with an approval rating not dissimilar to that during his early ‘Honeymoon’ period, and the National Party recently polled two percentage points ahead of the 47 percent they won in 2014.

Key deserves significant credit for being a moderating force within the National Party ranks; his tenure as leader brought the party further into the political centre, primarily on social issues and race relations. While his predecessors campaigned openly on platforms of rigid social conservatism, opposing same-sex marriage, expansion of abortion rights, and prostitution reform, Key has offered a far more nuanced and accepting stance, more in line with the views of the New Zealand people. Marriage equality was achieved under his premiership, though it is important to note this was not a government policy, but rather a member’s bill introduced by the Labour MP Louisa Wall. Nonetheless, Key gave his personal support to the cause of marriage equality and allowed his party caucus a free vote, ensuring that this vital reform was achieved with none of the controversy and animosity seen in countries such as the United States and Australia.

Key’s government has also been instrumental in moving National away from coded racialist rhetoric toward a far more constructive policy on Māori issues. Under Key’s predecessor, Don Brash – who now leads the interest group Hobson’s Pledge, dedicated to eliminating so-called ‘special privileges’ for Māori – the National Party attempted to court votes through race-baiting and divisive politics, exemplified by Brash’s “Iwi/Kiwi” billboards and his infamous Orewa Speech. Under Key, the National Party has governed for the past eight years through a confidence and supply arrangement with the Māori Party, and has an unparalleled record on Treaty settlements.

However, there is much to Key’s legacy that is far from positive. He has at times demonstrated erratic and troubling personal behaviour, such as the much-publicised “Ponytail-gate” incident in 2015, where the Prime Minister was revealed to have repeatedly harassed a local waitress despite her requests for him to stop. The incident showcased a leader who had become out of touch with ordinary people, and did so in a dramatic manner. His instinctive desire to shy away from political controversy has also led to unnecessary discussion of irrelevant issues that neither interest nor help the New Zealand people, most notably the highly unpopular referendum on changing the New Zealand flag. He has a similarly poor record on referenda from 2013, when a citizens-initiated referendum voted overwhelmingly against the sale of state assets. The sales went ahead nonetheless.

Perhaps his largest issue is the extent to which the Prime Minister has been implicated in the practice of toxic attack politics, often at a remove from himself personally in order to retain his friendly public face. The allegations outlined in investigative journalist Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics are incredibly disturbing, and have never been adequately responded to by Key. This includes senior figures close to Key, such as party spin doctor Jason Ede and then-Justice Minister Judith Collins colluding with right-wing blogger Cameron Slater to run vicious attacks on the opposition. While personal attack politics are troubling enough, the book goes on to implicate Ede and Slater in the illegal acquisition of information through the Labour Party website, and Judith Collins leaking the name of a public servant she believed to have helped the opposition to Cameron Slater. Most troubling of all is Slater’s being given access to confidential SIS documents prior to their being made available to the press through the Official Information Act, so that Slater could use said information to discredit then-Labour leader Phil Goff. The book implicates the Office of the Prime Minister as directly facilitating the release of this information to Slater, while the use of the SIS for political gain raises deeply concerning questions for the good governance of a functioning democracy.

Key also reckons with a legacy characterised by significant inaction. As a leader, he has weathered criticisms from the right for not spending further political capital on economic deregulation and rolling back state services, leading Don Brash to remark that Key was a “leader of little significance”. However, the more pernicious inaction has been Key’s muted and wholly ineffective response to mass increases in inequality, housing unaffordability, child poverty, and homelessness. Under Key’s tenure inequality has risen to a decade high, Auckland house prices have risen eighty percent in the past five years, as many as one third of New Zealand children are now below the poverty line, and homelessness has risen to one in a hundred by 2013. Little progress has been made toward mitigating these pressing issues, which must be a major priority for the incoming Prime Minister. The Economist magazine identified rapid housing construction as a policy plank for Bill English, and indicated Key now has fears of a possible real estate bubble.

Overall, Key’s greatest strength and weakness has been his tactical aversion to any form of political controversy and conflict. To his credit, a desire to avoid divisive debate has led him to modernise his party’s stance on social issues. His uncontroversial nature has also given New Zealanders a popular figurehead who has provided a force for calm in troubling times. However, this has also led him to avoid a variety of vital issues due to their political sensitivity. His inability to adequately respond to rising economic inequality and poverty stem from a desire to avoid backlash from the right wing of his party, while Key has entirely capitulated to complete inactivity on the issue of climate change. While happy to support marriage equality when the bill was pulled from the member’s ballot, he has shied away from much-needed reform of the nation’s outdated abortion laws. Lastly, and most tellingly, his popularity and “Teflon John” nature has shielded him from the necessary level of accountability expected of a government. He was able to easily brush away the significant wrongdoing present from the Dirty Politics affair, while making no real amends or evidence that these practices would not continue. We must ensure that future Prime Ministers are held to a greater standard, and cannot avoid accounting for their actions so easily.

In the short-term, Key’s resignation and the easy passing of the leadership to his Deputy, Bill English, do two things: It sends a message that, at least for now, Key’s moderation of the National Party is here to stay, and it throws open possibilities for the 2017 election. Capital Hardtalk looks back on Key’s legacy as Prime Minister with significantly mixed feelings, and looks to the future with cautious optimism.

Taran Molloy, on behalf of the Capital Hardtalk editorial board.

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