The Legacy of a Dismantled Prime Minister
Following his unexpected announcement to resign as New Zealand’s Prime Minister on 5 December last year, much has been said of Key’s “legacy”. Pundits have been scratching their heads, trying to figure out what “legacy” can be attributed to eight years of a Key-led administration.
Despite screeds being devoted on the subject, it appears that little can actually be attributed to any form of Key “legacy”.
On 29 December, Radio NZ’s “ “, Brent Edwards, wrote;
“At the time of his departure, his own personal rating remained high…”
Whilst Key’s Preferred Prime Ministership rating remained higher than his rivals, Key’s public support had plummeted since 2009. In October 2009, Key rated a phenomenal 55.8% in a TV3/Reid Research poll.
By May last year, TV3/Reid Research reported Key’s support to have fallen by 19.1 percentage points to 36.7%. The same poll reported;
National though is steady on 47 percent on the poll — a rise of 0.3 percent — and similar to the Election night result.
So something was clearly happening with the public’s perception of Key. Whilst National’s overall support remained unchanged from election night on 2014, Key’s favourability was in slow-mo free-fall.
Edwards’ analysis of Key’s “legacy” appeared mostly to consist of this observation;
Within the political commentariat Mr Key has been highly regarded, mainly on the basis of his political style.
He was quick to dump any political unpopular policies before they did terminal damage to his government and he had an uncanny knack of skating through the most embarrassing political gaffes with little damage, if any, to his political reputation
What other Prime Minister, for example, would have escaped with their political credibility intact after revelations they had repeatedly pulled the ponytail of a waitress at their local cafe?
In effect, Key’s ‘qualities’ appeared to consist of constant damage-control and “an uncanny knack” to avoid being charged with assault.
Edwards contrasted Key’s administration with that of Jim Bolger and pointed out the latter’s legacies, which have had a lasting impact of New Zealand’s social and political landscape. The first was the advent of MMP which forever changed politics as it is done in this country. The second was Bolger’s courage to stand up to his party’s redneck conservatism and engage with Maori to address Treaty of Waitangi grievances.
Key’s “legacies”, according to Edwards, was a failed flag referendum costing the taxpayer $29 million and this;
He did help manage the country through the Global Financial Crisis and the Christchurch earthquake. But National was left a legacy by the previous Labour Government – a healthy set of government books – which gave it the financial buffer it needed to deal with both crises.
Irony of ironies – Key’s one claim to a “legacy” was the product of a prudent Labour finance minister whose own legacy was a cash-gift to Key. Yet, even that cash-gift to Key could have been squandered had then-Finance Minister, Michael Cullen listened to Key’s wheedling demands for tax-cuts;
“Mr Key can’t have it both ways. One moment he says there is a recession looming then he thinks there are still surpluses to spend on tax cuts.”
… he is almost the kinder, gentler Kiwi Donald Trump. He is a populist who has been able to read and respond to a national mood in ways that few other politicians have, although that has more to do with a reliance on opinion polling than some kind of semi-supernatural intuition.
Matthews’ reference to Key’s ability “to read and respond to a national mood in ways that few other politicians have, although that has more to do with a reliance on opinion polling” was pointed out by Radio NZ’s John Campbell, in his own assessment of the former Prime Minister’s tenure;
Key entered Parliament in 2002. His maiden speech was a pre-Textor, pre-dorky, pre-casual, pre-everyman piece of rhetoric, ripe to the point of jam with admonishments and exhortation.
And the key passage, in this respect, was: “We mustn’t be scared to do things because they might offend small groups, or seem unconventional. Good government is more than doing what’s popular. Good government is more than blindly following the latest opinion poll.”
On election night 12 years later, having just been made prime minister for a third term, Key triumphantly thanked his pollster, David Farrar, by name: the country’s “best”, he declared, admitting, as the New Zealand Herald reported, that he had rung Farrar “night after night, even though he wasn’t supposed to”.
The man who’d entered Parliament declaring a belief in something better than poll-driven politics had subverted himself. Gamekeeper turned pollster.
Matthews summed up with this conclusion;
He was somehow politically untouchable, even when New Zealand was laughing at or with him, or just cringing. Future historians will provide a clearer picture of his failures: A flag change that was supposed to be a personal legacy became an expensive embarrassment; the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal is dead in the water; he could have used his political capital to do something meaningful about inequality and poverty.
But over on the West Coast, the government’s failures to satisfy the grieving Pike River families remain entirely embodied in Key.
Again, Key’s abilities appear to lie with being “politically untouchable”. His “legacies” amounted to a list of dismal failures.
The unknown author of an editorial for the Otago Daily Times was kinder, as if it had been written by one of National’s small army of taxpayer-funded Beehive spin-doctors;
The legacy Mr Key will leave is one of financial stability, a unified government, a record of strong economic management and a commitment to lift as many New Zealanders out of poverty as possible. A shortage of suitable housing has been laid at the door of Mr Key but his efforts in trying to sort out that particularly difficult area have been assiduous.
One of the issues he received the most criticism for is failing to bring home the bodies of the Pike River miners who died in the explosion. While Mr Key would have meant what he said at the time, the pragmatism which ruled his career meant he made a tough call to allow the mine to be sealed. Then there was the failed flag referendum.
But, his leadership during the Christchurch, and latterly Kaikoura, earthquakes was seen as outstanding by most New Zealanders. New Zealand secured a seat on the United Nations Security Council in no small part due to the work carried out by Mr Key.
Curiously, the un-named author glosses over the “commitment to lift as many New Zealanders out of poverty as possible”, “a shortage of suitable housing … laid at the door of Mr Key”, “criticism for … failing to bring home the bodies of the Pike River miners who died in the explosion”, and “the failed flag referendum”. Because at least – the author crows – we “secured a seat on the United Nations Security Council”.
The ODT’s mystery cheerleader for our former Dear Leader may be one of the few attempts to put a positive ‘spin’ to Key’s administration. It was, however, glaringly light on specifics.
In direct stark contrast to the ODT’s lame attempt to canonise Key, Audrey Young was more caustic in her piece, Key – No vision, no legacy, no problem. Her conclusions were;
… two other areas I consider to be legacies for the Key Government although he has not claimed them as such: the Ross Sea sanctuary and the modernization of New Zealand’s spy agencies.
Unfortunately for Young, the original proposals for a MPA (Marine Protected Area) for the Ross Sea began as far back as 2005, and was first mooted by the US delegation to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources (CCAMLR).
If Key’s sole legacy was to increase the spying powers of the SIS, GCSB, and uncle Tom Cobbly – that may not be something his descendants bring up at polite dinner parties;
“Yeah, it was grand-dad Key who helped turn New Zealand in the virtual police state we have now. Sure we have spy cameras in every home, workplace, and cafe, but crime is almost non-existent!”
– is not something Max or Steph’s own kids will be heard crowing about.
Young suggested that Key’s “legacy” was more akin to a ‘state of mind’;
When I’ve asked people this week what they thought Key’s legacy was, many have said he gave New Zealanders a greater sense of confidence, especially about New Zealand’s place in the world.
That is true but it is a state of mind. It could just as easily disappear through circumstances well beyond our control.
Giving “New Zealanders a greater sense of confidence, especially about New Zealand’s place in the world” were the legacies of former Labour Prime Ministers – notably Norman Kirk and David Lange. Their leadership against the war in Vietnam; atomic bomb testing in the South Pacific; opposing apartheid in South Africa; advancing gay rights, and turning the entire country into a nuclear-free zone are legacies that are with us today.
Going back even further, and the legacies of Labour’s Michael Savage are still discussed today.
Cringing whilst Key recited his “Top Ten Reasons for Visiting New Zealand” on the David Letterman Show would hardly have given Kiwis “a greater sense of confidence, especially about New Zealand’s place in the world“;
[Warning: Cringe Level: Extreme]
Most who saw that episode would have hidden their heads beneath a pillow or blanket. Hardly the stuff of legacies, except of the Silvio Berlusconi variety.
She then concluded;
The fact that Key doesn’t really have a legacy is of no matter.
Well, that’s alright then. According to Young, Key’s “legacy” would be in the same vein as the manner in which he handled his own and ministers’ scandals and stuff-ups; nothing to see here, folks, no legacy, move along please.
Comedian, Jeremy Elwood, offered;
We may never have another Prime Minister who provides as much fodder for as many late night comedy shows around the world, as well as right here, again, but that’s all been part of his “popular appeal”.
Another ‘comedian’ – albeit unintentional – was Roger Partridge, writing on behalf of the so-called NZ Initiative (formerly the now largely discredited Business Roundtable). Partridge offered a lengthy list of neo-liberal “reforms” from Key’s tenure as PM;
Key’s was also a reforming government. After the Fourth Labour government, it was perhaps New Zealand’s most radical in the post-war era. The GST for income tax swap, welfare reforms (the likes of which might have brought down another government), the investment approach to social services; labour market reform, partial-privatisation, reforms in education, including national standards and charter schools: these may have occurred incrementally, but together they comprise a prodigious package of reform.
None of Partridge’s listed “reforms” will stand. In an era marking the rise of nationalistic political movements (Brexit, Trump, et al), Key’s “package of reforms” will be rolled back and many, like Charter Schools, swept away entirely.
These legacies of a failed economic ideology – neo-liberalism – may rate a mention in the footnotes of future history books, but not much more. In fifty years time, no one will point to Key’s supposed “reforms” as people still do to Michael Savage’s achievements.
The Herald’s pointed to; Liam Dann
…ongoing GDP growth at about 3 per cent, unemployment at around 5 per cent and the crown accounts are solid with the Government booking surpluses that are forecast to top $8 billion within five years.
– but had to concede that much of this “growth” was illusory, based mostly on high immigration and unsustainable ballooning house prices in Auckland;
The housing boom has been a global phenomenon driven by the unusually low interest rate environment in the wake of the GFC. Investors have been looking for somewhere to put their money outside of the bank and assets prices have soared – both sharemarkets and property.
And far from National’s books being in surplus, Key has managed to rack up a debt of $95 billion according to a recent Treasury document. Dann must have missed that salient bit in his rush-to-gush. He did, however, acknowledge the nature of the “ongoing GDP growth” further into his piece;
Overall population growth and record net migration is widely cited as a factor taking the gloss off New Zealand’s strong growth story.
Per capita GDP isn’t nearly so strong and the extra population is adding to the housing bubble and highlighting some deficiencies in infrastructure spending.
Almost reluctantly, Dann concludes;
He has not been a reformer but he has created a stable platform, in unstable times, for growth.
He exuded confidence and it rubbed off on the economy. Whether he has done enough to set the nation up for long-term prosperity, as outlined in those rosy Treasury forecasts, remains to be seen.
He also repeats Brent Edwards’ observation;
…Key made the most of the market conditions he had to work with. He has benefited from some ground work done by the previous Labour Government, particularly in booking the gains from the China free trade agreement.
Writing for Radio NZ, John Campbell asks;
So, in the end, how will history judge John Key?
In his earnest, boy-scout, way, Campbell is charitable about one possible legacy left by Key;
In the age of Trump and Brexit and Manus Island, and having succeeded Don Brash and his divisive Orewa rhetoric, part of what may endure is a sense that, under him, New Zealand did not embrace xenophobia and paranoia and the vilification of Māori, Muslims, Mexicans, blue-collar immigrants and almost anyone who wasn’t Tribe White.
To this point, writer and trade unionist, Morgan Godfery, not a natural ally of Key, tweeted on the day the prime minister announced his resignation: “I’ll go into bat for Key on this: he rejected the politics of Orewa, avoiding what might have been an ugly decade of tension and conflict.”
Which might be true… except that Key and his Ministers were not above vilifying those who dared criticise National, or when it suited party-politics;
In his usual manner of gentle admonishment, John Campbell chides Key and his Administration for their failing in housing;
“When I was six”, [Key] said in his maiden speech, “my father died; leaving my mother penniless with three children to raise. From a humble start in a state house, she worked as a cleaner and night porter until she earned the deposit for a modest home. She was living testimony that you get out of life what you put into it. There is no substitute for hard work and determination. These are the attitudes she instilled in me.”
Key was six in 1967. Among the many things that have changed since then is housing affordability. The IMF’s latest Global Housing Watch lists New Zealand’s housing market, in relation to household income, as the most expensive in the OECD. Could a penniless solo mother, working as a “cleaner and night porter”, paying market rents, now earn the deposit for a modest home?
Then Campbell issued what may well be Key’s one and only true legacy – if one could call a broken promise to the grieving families and friends of 29 men entombed deep within a mine on the West Coast, a “legacy”;
This is what John Key said, behind closed doors, when he met with Pike families on September 22, 2011.
“The first thing is I’m here to give you an absolute reassurance we’re committed to get the boys out.”
An absolute reassurance. The boys out. When the families heard that, there was spontaneous applause. The human details. The empathy, sincerity and trust. When the clapping stopped, the prime minister continued:
“When people try and tell you we’re not, they’re playing, I hate to say it, but they’re playing with your emotions.”
And then John Key made it personal:
“So, you are the number one group that want to get those men out. And, quite frankly, I’m number two. Because I want to get them out.”
Five years on, the men are still in. It may be that the risk of getting them out is too great. But, when he was alone with them, Key didn’t say that, or qualify his words with that possibility. His was an “absolute reassurance”, and the families believed him and have clung to that belief in the years since.
Of all the many broken promises from Key, that will be the one most remembered. Because as Campbell so astutely pointed out, “John Key made it personal”.
‘Mickey Savage’ writing for The Standard was more brutal and unforgiving in his/her appraisal of Key’s administration;
Key has perfected the aw shucks blokey persona that some clearly like. Although this was only skin deep. His management of dirty politics and the Cameron Slater Jason Ede axis of evil won him the last election but at the cost of his soul.
As to the substance he did not really achieve or create anything. He saw off the Global Financial Crisis and the Christchurch Earthquake rebuilds basically by borrowing money which New Zealand could because Michael Cullen had so assiduously paid off debt.
His economic development policies were crap. Expanding dairying only polluted our rivers and increased our output of greenhouse gasses. The growth of tertiary education for foreign students only caused the mushrooming of marginal providers.
The primary economic growth policy now appears to be ballooning immigration. Auckland’s population grew almost 3% last year. The symptoms are clear, rampant house price increases, homeless caused by ordinary people no longer being able to afford inflated rental amounts and a whole generation shut out of the property market. And services are stretched as budgets are held but demand increases.
And child poverty has ballooned. Key was great with the visuals and the talk of an under class and the trip to Waitangi with Aroha Ireland before he became Prime Minister was a major PR event for him to show that at least superficially he cared about the underclass. But the reality? Over a quarter of a million of children now live in poverty and kids are living in cars even though their parents have jobs. There is something deeply wrong in New Zealand.
Overall Key was great at the spin and the PR but appallingly bad at dealing with the reality. Despite his hopes the country is now in a far worse situation under his stewardship than it was when he took over.
‘Mickey Savage’ has summed up Key’s legacy perfectly and I leave this brief assessment for future historians;
John Key – Master at spin, photo-ops, and PR, but nothing else. When the teflon was stripped away, there was nothing underneath.
And that will be his legacy: nothing. We simply couldn’t think of a single damned one.
Scoop media: 3 News Poll – 2-10 October 2012
Fairfax media: The boy from Bryndwr – John Key’s Christchurch legacy
ODT: The John Key legacy
NZ Herald: Key – No vision, no legacy, no problem
US State Department: A proposal for the establishment of the Ross Sea Region Marine Protected Area
NZ Herald: NZ’s half-trillion-dollar debt bomb
NZ Herald: Bennett gets tough with outspoken solo mums
Dominion Post: Forced sterilisation ‘a step too far’
Against the current: John Key’s Dismal Record on Climate Change
Local Bodies: John Key’s Real Legacy
Sciblogs: Key’s legacy – an economist’s view
The Daily Blog: The true legacy of John Key
The Standard: John Key’s legacy
Your NZ: Key’s legacy
Previous related blogposts
This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 4 January 2017.
= fs =