Haere ra John Key: Eleven takes on the PM’s surprise departure

A collection of thoughts on Key’s successes and failures, by some of New Zealand’s top commentators.


The spirit of Christmas

A few things to thank John Key for.

By Emma Espiner

This year has made me a bit twitchy: Trump, natural disasters, losing a bunch of music legends, ongoing conflict all over the place.

To be honest, I wasn’t ready for John Key to go. Don’t get me wrong: I was never Team Key (because, gross), but there’s something to be said for the security of the status quo at the end of a shockingly unsettling year. 

In saying I was never Team Key, I also never believed he ate babies for breakfast or that he took office specifically to make New Zealand worse for everyone who wasn’t his close personal friend. He got a lot wrong – the abuse sustained by the English language at his hands not the least – but in the spirit of Christmas (and because I’m too jittery from 2016 to be mean), here are some things I’m grateful to John Key for: 

  • Putting Maori (Party) at the table. He didn’t have to, and I imagine there were plenty of colleagues in Caucus who didn’t want him to. People say this was just sensible manoeuvring on Key’s part so he would have a buffer in terms of support in Parliament but, nonetheless, he provided a platform for Maori voices, and I’m grateful. 

  • Whanau Ora. I recall the press gallery and others laughing as Dame Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples introduced their kaupapa Maori concept of wellbeing for whanau. Their perceived inability to put it into English words (memorably, John Key himself once described it as a waterbed) was fodder for amusement. In spite of this, John Key promoted the policy and I think it’s firmly embedded enough now to have a good chance of surviving future governments. 

  • Making friends with global leaders. I won’t be lining up for a three-way handshake or a ponytail tug with John Key anytime soon, but I do like the way he’s made friends with other leaders. I remember cringing early in his term because he was nowhere near the statesperson Helen Clark had been. Her depth of knowledge about All the Things was not something Key could or would aspire to. Instead he charmed them. I think they genuinely like him. And, by extension, they like us a little bit more too. 

  • Running the country like a company. I realise the ‘Prime Minister as CEO’ is a pejorative for some, but I’m less a fan of dynamic leadership in government than I am of performance and stability. Under-performing ministers were not allowed to languish on the front benches. And now, in his own words, having taken the knife to others’ careers, John Key has taken the knife to his own. Politicians internationally must be looking in wonder at a prime minister leaving on his own terms, at unprecedented levels of popularity. Several friends reminded me that this is unusual in politics, but entirely normal in business. So with that, our CEO departs.

Emma Espiner is a medical student, mother and social commentator.


Housing a city

The housing crisis is Key’s big failure.

By Shamubeel Eaqub

John Key oversaw three terms of government after winning in 2008. His government’s policies and leadership in Auckland issues have been mixed at best. When it comes to the number one issue, housing, his government was a decisive failure.

Winners from the last eight years will see his legacy as positive. Homeowners have done very well. But the losers have really lost. Inequalities in housing and other opportunities have become more entrenched. While Key did not cause these, he failed to act.

The economy has surged during his time in power: Auckland accounted for two-thirds of all new jobs in New Zealand in the last eight years. But that is not about the government: it’s about Auckland’s inherent dynamism as New Zealand’s largest urban economy, with an overheated housing market and strong population growth. But now increasingly unaffordable housing and congested traffic are blunting Auckland’s economic competitive edge.

The lasting Auckland legacy for Key will be the housing market – a devastating and utter failure. When Key was elected in November 2008, the median Auckland house price was $425,000. Eight years later, house prices are 104 percent higher, at $868,000. Incomes have not kept pace.

Extremely unaffordable housing has had the expected consequences: increased homelessness, housing stress for the poor and vulnerable, and eroding the hopes of middle-class families to own a home of their own.

Key’s government has been hapless in dealing with the housing crisis. First, there was the refusal to admit there is a crisis. Then, a range of half-baked measures like Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas have, predictably, not sped up much-needed housing supply. His government has continually blamed the council for this lack of supply, but it did not use its popular mandate, nor its majority in government, to make policy changes that would speed up the creation of new homes.

Shamubeel Eaqub is an Auckland economist.


Cities under Key

Key mixed urban leadership with diffidence.

By Patrick Reynolds

John Key was in charge of the country at the same time as the power of the Auckland’s urban services economy became undeniable. The transformation of Auckland from overgrown provincial town into actual city and growth engine became a major force on Key’s watch. The provincialists in Key’s Cabinet were, and perhaps remain, unimpressed, but Key, with the support of younger ministers such as Simon Bridges and Nikki Kaye, was able to push through policies that support a very different world from the traditional National Party heartland.

In Auckland, local government amalgamation and electrification of the passenger rail network were started by the previous government. Meeting Mayor Len Brown halfway on funding the transformational City Rail Link and initiating the Urban Cycleways Programme, however, were the Key government’s doing. But these urban projects need to be understood in the context of an almost-feverish funding of motorway expansion championed by city sceptic Steven Joyce. The dubiously titled Roads of National Significance programme consumes the lion’s share of transport funds. These roads do the heavy lifting for extractive industries; the relatively weightless urban economy still receives much less support.

Key’s influence is even less visible in the Christchurch rebuild. Despite a promising programme of public consultation, the truly unimaginative and anti-urban impulses of Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee dominate the outcome: a highly dispersed urban form creating near total auto-dependency.

While Key did lead the more retrograde members of his government to accept that cities need different ways of thinking than the rest of the country, it was always tentative. His government may be more remembered for fiddling in the face of a serious housing affordability crisis. He leaves this issue for a future government to grapple with, as well as the urgent need to complete Auckland’s rapid transit network. Also mostly ignored is the other issue with a huge bearing on how we order our cities: climate change.

Patrick Reynolds is a writer for Transportblog.


Better than you find it

Was John Key really so popular?

By Tina Makereti

I tire of hearing how amazingly popular this Prime Minister was: I found him arrogant, childish and at times deeply offensive. What does his popularity say about New Zealand as a nation? I know that across the diverse communities I move through – Maori, Pakeha, intellectual, creative – he isn’t popular (though I understand this is my small world). The other thing that is often repeated is how successful he is. By whose measure? My measure of success is leaving a place better than you find it. The last decade has been marked by job losses and sly cuts in income and welfare for many, as well as discouragement of higher education by making it almost impossible to access funding for postgraduate study. And then there is the deep shame of increasing homelessness and poverty among our most vulnerable. So there’s another side to this story of popularity and success. How great has this administration been for New Zealand, really? How many have been hurt by it?

Tina Makereti is a writer and curator.


Getting interesting

The 2017 election is suddenly a real contest.

By Bill Ralston

You wake up one morning and the political landscape looks reassuringly the same. Next minute, all has shifted seismically. John Key finally reached the long-promised end of his day and walked away from the job. While the 2017 election is being bloodily fought out, he will probably be playing golf in Maui and choosing what board directorships to pick up. Good on him. He deserves the break.

As always, his political timing is superb. By quitting now he gives the new Prime Minister the opportunity to dramatically reshuffle the Cabinet. Possibly six existing ministers will exit, fresh faces will join the line-up and others already there will be promoted to more powerful roles. It is a chance to revitalise a flagging third-term government. Making the change now gives the new administration several months to conjure up an attractive election-year budget.

John Key has tried to anoint his mate and chief collaborator for the last 10 years, Bill English, for the leader’s role. What he may have failed to realise is that outgoing prime ministers almost immediately lose the one thing that they need to enforce their will – they no longer have power. There will be a contest for the leadership, whether we see it surface publicly or not. It is happening now.

Whoever gets the job will lack John Key’s easy manner, his populism, his incisive debating ability and his stamina through adversity. I have watched John Key at close quarters, dealing with an almost debilitating campaign crisis then walking out the door to a shopping mall, smiling, to be mobbed with crowds demanding selfies. The guy is, or was, a rock star.

This is one reason why we are seeing a rare smile or two from Labour’s Andrew Little. He must think Christmas has come early this year: first, the successful Mt Roskill by-election, then the sudden departure of his most formidable opponent. Suddenly, Little is beginning to look positively prime ministerial. He is keeping his messaging short and simple, concentrating simply on the housing crisis, hospital waiting lists and social equity issues between rich and poor. All are solid vote-winners.

The one benefit for National is that the biggest danger it faced at the next election was a poor turnout by its voters, convinced that the Nats would walk home. Now the race will appear to be tighter and, if the new Prime Minister pushes the right messages to the public, bolstered by a budget that provides an improved package for families and tax relief for lower income earners, the turnout could favour them. 2017 promises to be a much more interesting year than it did a week ago.  

Bill Ralston is a media commentator and advisor.


Asset valuation

John Key knew his stock was falling.

By Ali Ikram

When the end came, such was the success of John Key in projecting confidence to the electorate that only he recognised it was drawing near. The need to have him interpret events on behalf of New Zealanders was so great that his statement that Andrew Little’s leadership was terminal deflected attention from National’s performance in the Mt Roskill by-election and became the overriding narrative. No one imagined it was Key’s leadership that had entered its final hours.

But the data had been there for the public to read for quite a while: A significant drop in his approval rating, from 44 percent in January 2015 to 36.7 percent in May 2016.

It was the beginning of a trend he had no desire to see play out. 

To understand his decision to step down while in an outwardly dominant position is to understand John Key as an individual whose career forward-planning has seen him enjoy success in finance while avoiding the Global Financial Crisis, and reign as Prime Minister for eight years without the property bubble bursting.

So who – in fact – was John Key?

During his time in office I have heard him described in a variety of often conflicting ways. On election night 2008, Matthew Hooton called him “the most emotionally intelligent leader” this country has had, while an MP who Key had cleared away in a Caucus refresh painted him as “a former state house boy” on the exterior, who privately held contempt for those in long-term poverty.

Once, when addressing the students of King’s College, Key recommended Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Gladwell’s theory proposes that the mind is able to process vast stores of information in a matter of seconds, and that hunches and gut instincts are as good – possibly superior – to considered judgement.

To onlookers, that appeared to be his modus operandi: the untutored political savant who connected instantly with everyone, from bankers to dairy farmers to schoolgirls at shopping malls. But the best explanation of the reasoning behind this week’s events is contained in John Roughan’s biography, Portrait of a Prime Minister. In it, Key states that knowing when to cut your losses is not a defeat, but part of a strategy for enduring success.

“If they [an investor] buy a house for $500,000 and a month later somebody offers them $600,000, it’s human nature to take the money and dine out on their good fortune. Conversely, if they put that $500,000 house on the market and the best offer it brought was $350,000, they would hold on to it. A good dealer would not. As soon as he realised the asset was losing value he would get what he could for it and put the money into a new, hopefully better investment.”

Ali Ikram is an Auckland-based writer and broadcaster.


The everyman

Key’s way with words.

By Peter Wells

For me, John Key is like Zelig, the Woody Allen mockumentary where Woody Allen morphs a mysterious fictional character into real historical events. One minute he’s on the balcony with Lenin, the next minute he’s with the Russian royal family. Zelig has no real character but an ultimate adaptability to slip onto the historical stage. He’s the everyman who is no man. Key has this kind of slippery everyman persona while remaining relatively enigmatic as to his true feelings. Or perhaps he has no true feelings. (Remember how he couldn’t remember what side he had been on during the Springbok Tour, when the whole country was bitterly divided?) One minute Key’s with the Queen in her sitting room at Balmoral, the next with President Obama on the golf course in Hawaii.

Key also reminds me of Muldoon. Muldoon had the unique ability to speak in the voice of ‘the ordinary New Zealander’. This allowed ordinary New Zealanders to give Muldoon a free pass to do extraordinary and, in the end, illegal things. It’s to do with the voice. Muldoon spoke not like a politician but like your average Joe (an ability Donald Trump has developed, along with the everyman prejudices).

John Key came into politics after a life in Merrill Lynch during a pretty disreputable decade in international finance. He spoke in an ‘everyman’ New Zealand way, along with the dodgy grammar. Under John Key we have had the surface appearance of prosperity, peace and ever-escalating property prices. But I’m not sure if this isn’t a mirage fostered by the flood of migration and a booming real-estate market. Behind this lies an increase in national debt that may cripple future New Zealanders. It’s part of the Zelig personality,

I think. The odour of a magic trick.

On another level, I have always found his effeminate voice quite amusing. Don’t get me wrong. I had what was meant to be the definitive sissy voice at grammar school and was subjected to endless bullying in an attempt to get me to speak like a monosyllabic bloke. But now we have had a prime minister with a total sissy voice, heavily sibilant, full of ‘ssssssss’. So I feel John Key has broken the sissy barrier, making it good for all true Kiwi blokes to lisp along and not feel at all embarrassed by speaking like a sissy in public. This may end up being his one true legacy.

Peter Wells is an Auckland writer.



The writing on the wall: A post-truth postscript

Key spotted the social deal getting wonky.

By Hamish Keith

To compare the Mount Roskill by-election to Belshazzar’s Feast might seem a bit far-fetched, but in the time of post-truth, how things feel carries much more weight than how they actually are. Belshazzar, you might remember, was the fabulous King of Babylon. He gave a mighty feast. He went too far.

An offended God sent him a message.

A mysterious hand wrote it on his dining room wall. A wise man, Daniel, worked out what it said: Your days are numbered, mate.

At the beginning of his current term, which has prematurely proved to be his last, the Prime Minister warned his government against arrogance. Hubris – that born-to-rule feeling that induces a deadly political deafness. Whatever Key’s friends or foes might think of him, they all seem to agree that he has an unerring ability to read the writing on the wall before anyone else.

Key was a very successful financial trader. On the trading floor, success is built on cashing in your chips before anyone else has spotted the deal is going wonky. Underneath the economic good news – or at least the manufactured version of it – there are currents that suggest more and more New Zealanders are beginning to feel the social deal is becoming very wonky indeed.

Poverty, inequality, racism, human rights, fault lines in the health system, tremors in education: all those things we took for granted as making New Zealand a decent place are beginning to wobble. The protective armour of the attitude of “if it is not my problem, it is not a problem” is wearing thin. Those concerns are gathering influential voices: the families of the Pike River dead, the Human Rights Commissioner, judges. The crowd at Belshazzar’s party is hearing what the writing on the wall actually says.

The 19th-century poet Edward Fitzgerald summed the tragedy of it up:

The Moving Finger writes: and having writ,

Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all thy tears wash out a Word of it

John Key is a smart man. He is not waiting around until the wall falls on him.

Hamish Keith is an Auckland cultural commentator.


A man chasing a city

The search for the middle ground.

By Ryan Mearns

Politics, post-Key, won’t be the same. For me, John Key was the Prime Minister during my political coming-of-age, as the world sharpened in focus to reveal how decisions get made by those in charge. 

Sitting in front of the television at 15-years-old as the election results come in, I remember the only heuristics available to me for evaluating the political mood of the country were my parents, and they were ready for change. For good or bad, eight years on, Key has made a mark. Not in the way Helen Clark pushed through a bolstering of the social welfare state. His is the mark of being a man who was always hunting for the political centre. He drove his Cabinet to do the same, even when it went against their ideals.

Auckland was Key’s Petri dish for this centre ground. At times the city revealed the pragmatic nature of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, when they lost the centre and attempted to right their wrongs. Len Brown’s mayoralty put the wheels in motion for the City Rail Link, for example, to be viewed as a moral imperative. Early transport ministers of Key’s Cabinet labelled it as pouring money down a hole. But as the public’s disappointment melded with the frustration of some of Auckland’s business leaders, the needle moved and the government said it would fund the project. Auckland’s urban renewal won’t be a legacy of Key’s, but we will remember it as a time when central government budged under public pressure, when the Prime Minister’s insatiable appetite to occupy the centre delivered a win for the city. 

This centre ground became less stable for Key as Auckland’s problems became more complex. By being so focused on the middle ground with the housing crisis, he refused to put in place any large-scale state building program or reduce the tax incentive for property investors in any significant way. Key never used his popularity to make the change in the housing market that the city needed, and this lack of meaningful action will leave a sour taste in the mouth of young Aucklanders struggling to find a home for years to come. At best, Key as Prime Minister only belatedly supported other people’s work. The search for the centre can only get you far.

Ryan Mearns is a senior member of Generation Zero.


Haere ra John Key

Where the hell is middle New Zealand?

By Courtney Sina Meredith

I was on stage in 2008 at what was then the Silo Theatre, performing poems that would form the basis of my first book of poetry, Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick, when someone called out that John Key had beaten Helen Clark. He was the new Prime Minister.

Insert expletives here: I said a handful into the mic. I was dressed for yet another Clark victory – bright red lips with a gold chain and matching Louis Vuitton scarf. My eyeshadow was festive, a shimmering dance-in-the streets aqua. I couldn’t understand it. How did a relatively inexperienced businessman gain the trust of ‘middle New Zealand’, an ideological wasteland I would spend the next few years grappling with? Cleo and Sia, the characters in my play Rushing Dolls, would examine this term with huge trepidation two years later. “Where the fuck is that, by the way?” Sia says. “I just imagine the whole country is a fringe right, and then there’s the middle part.”

John Key is a man I never warmed to – an expression I heard from Americans explaining why they didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton. I’m freshly back from the US, where I was on writing residencies. Like the rest of the ‘liberal elite’, I found great comfort in checking the polls on the New York Times, where Clinton’s chances of winning sat around 92 percent.

Then I landed in Alaska on the evening of 8 November to the upsetting news that Trump had basically won. In the weeks after I went to activist brunches, and a community hui for people to come together and grieve, share stories, look for shared values and work towards an equitable future regardless of the President Elect. I was assured by the one Australian in town, “At least John Key isn’t that bad.” 

Since the news broke of Key’s shock resignation (I hooted in my office and wanted to break open a bottle of bubbly), the trailer of vignettes in my head has continued to flicker: his failed attempt at changing our flag; his zealous passion for the Trans-Pacific Partnership in the face of unbelievable public opposition; his-limp dick appraisal of New Zealand writers (“while our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to our All Blacks, we still need role models to inspire us”); ponytail pulling; pointing towards ‘most New Zealanders’ as some kind of bogeyman meets voice-of-reason, as if everyone agreed with him on most things.

One thing I’ve learned is that we live in such robust, isolating bubbles. The future can’t just be an echo chamber, a reinforcement of our own comforts. We want Aotearoa to continue to be a people-focused bastion, governed by big ideas and rich culture, not the smug conditioning of market first, community second. I think all of us – well, most New Zealanders – can agree on that?

Courtney Sina Meredith is an Auckland writer and performer.