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Sunday 09 April 2017

Off Key

Posted in: Comment, Features
By Craig Young - 5th December 2016

It looks as if there won't be a fourth term for John Key after all. Unlike Keith Holyoake, the last National Party Prime Minister to serve more than three terms of office, the erstwhile Prime Minister has announced his intention to step down after December 12. What legacy does he leave?

Key was born in Auckland in 1961 before his family moved to the mainland and he ended up going to the University of Canterbury, eventually graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce and becoming a foreign exchange dealer. He went overseas, working for Merrill Lynch and the Foreign Exchange Committee of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, before returning to New Zealand in 2001.

In 2002, he was elected as National MP for Helensville, one of the few bright spots in National's worst election performance to date, and in 2004, Don Brash appointed him as Party Finance Spokesperson. Following controversy over Brash's Exclusive Brethren logistical and financial support at the 2005 New Zealand election, Brash was pressured aside in 2006 and Key became party leader.

In 2008, in the wake of the global financial crisis, he was elected Prime Minister after Helen Clark's three-term Labour-led government was voted out. He implemented austerity policies, weakened trade union representation, and slashed funding to the New Zealand AIDS Foundation and other community welfare organisations as Prime Minister. However, he also realised that like his good friend British Conservative leader David Cameron in the United Kingdom, he needed to tack toward the middle ground in order to retain public support.

This has led to disavowal of National's social conservative elements, epitomised when Key announced he would be supporting Labour List MP Louisa Wall's Marriage Amendment Bill, which he did, throughout its parliamentary reading. Half of his National caucus followed him, insuring the passage of that legislation in collaboration with Labour, the Greens, Maori and Mana Parties and United Future. Colin Craig and his Conservative Party were unhappy at this, as was Family First, but Key did not electorally suffer as a consequence of his decision. While the Conservatives polled periously near the five percent threshold in 2014, the party all but disintegrated in 2015.

Meanwhile, Key has kept to the middle ground on other issues, refusing to weaken the Clark administration's parental corporal punishment ban, refusing to recriminalise street sex work and refusing to limit young adolescent access to abortion as well. On the negative side of the ledger, Key has also refused to directly add gender identity to the Human Rights Act 1993 and his administration has seen a growing waiting list for subsidised reassignment surgery.

Along the way there was his use of the word 'gay' in it's snide schoolyard context as in "that gay red t-shirt" and his exaggerated mincing down a catwalk, n either of which won him any gay fans. But his dismissal of Conservative party leader Colin Craig's desperate "John Key is too gay for the Helensville electorate" leaflet, saying ''We live in a world where equality is pretty important,'' was better appreciated.

Outside LGBT concerns, he has had to deal with the Christchurch earthquake and reconstruction, the Pike River mine tragedy, the Rena environmental disaster and the current New Zealand housing affordability crisis. Unfortunately, the Labour Opposition has been unable to nail him on any of the above, going through its reserve supply of possible leadership candidates over the last decade, from Phil Goff (now Auckland Mayor) to David Shearer to the disastrous David Cunliffe to the current incumbent, Andrew Little. But how much of National's political capital is related to the affable populist demeanour and excellent communication skills of its outgoing leader? And who is replacing him?

Bill English is his deputy and possible replacement. Born in 1961 in Lumsden, Southland, English is a devout Catholic. He attended St Patricks College at Silverstream, near Wellington, and gained degrees in commerce (University of Otago) and English literature (Victoria University of Wellington). He has been a previous National Party leader of the Opposition, and presided over a particularly disastrous election campaign in 2002, which led to his ejection as leader and replacement by Don Brash.

When John Key became National leader thereafter, English became Finance spokesperson and then Treasurer after National won the 2008 New Zealand election. English is a stalwart religious social conservative, opposing abortion, voluntary euthanasia, civil unions and marriage equality. He may well be too conservative for many New Zealanders, given the declining level of Christian religious observance in New Zealand.

It is interesting to speculate what might happen if he did try to weaken abortion access for young women, or curtail the current Health select committee hearings on the legality or desirability of assisted suicide. There is the small matter of his son's antigay misdemeanour several years ago, but of considerably more concern is his wife Dr Mary English's past connections to anti-abortion groups Doctors for Life and Women for Life/Family Education Network, although she relinquished those responsibilities several years ago. Granted, the Prime Minister backs him, but does he carry too much baggage?

Another possible choice is Steven Joyce, the 'minister for everything' during the life of the Key administration. Undeniably, he does have an impressive aggregate portfolio background as a result. Born in 1963, Joyce has a Bachelor of Science in Zoology from Massey University. He has been Minister of Transport, Tertiary Education, Economic Development, Science and Innovation.

He adroitly handled the Sky City Convention Centre debacle, the Novopay teachers pay quagmire and Fonterra dairy goods recall crisis while administering his various portfolios. Joyce is widely regarded as a social liberal and might be a better choice to replace Key than English, given English's problematic past party leadership and the latter's religious social conservatism.

The remaining question is why this has happened. Could it be the collapse of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement in the wake of Donald Trump's election? Would Bill English be more convivial to Winston Peters if, as widely anticipated, the New Zealand First leader becomes kingmaker in the event of an otherwise hung parliament after next year's election? Is the Prime Minister aware of adverse economic forecasts that might stunt his party's electoral fortunes?

How will Labour respond to this? If I were the Labour Party's parliamentary caucus and organisational wing, I'd junk the primary leadership selection procedure. It has a habit of being vulnerable to populist pressures and prejudices, sometimes with disastrous outcomes, such as the selection of David Cunliffe as party leader in 2014. Andrew Little has the self-discipline and focus to campaign vigorously, but Labour will need to flesh out and elaborate its policy development if it is to win the 2017 New Zealand election.

Can the National Party retake the Treasury benches without John Key?


Craig Young - 5th December 2016

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