And so farewell, John Key. Blimey. In a country where the paucity of real news is so profound that bored political journalists parse every conceivable theory, expand on every tenuous rumour or merely create their own narrative to
sell papers generate clickbait, he played the ultimate blindside dummy, because nobody saw this coming.
The oldest axiom of political careers is that they end in failure. Scaling the dizzy heights of success is no guarantee of protection either. Thatcher was a seemingly invincible colossus in 1987. In 1990, she shed tears of bitterness and betrayal as the black car whisked her away from Downing Street for the last time. At least it was her own side that toppled her. Whitlam endured the indignity of being sacked by the Governor General rather than the electorate. John Howard suffered the rare double disgrace of losing both his own seat and the election. Kirk died in office. Kennedy was shot. Muldoon was just chopped.
And even though a fortunate few have managed to avoid this fate and depart at a time of their own choosing, the ‘choosing’ was often illusory. Blair was harried out by a caucus fretting about the growing toxicity of his Iraq legacy, and by the relentless brooding jealousy of Gordon Brown. Harold Wilson’s sudden departure in 1976, and the admission that he had vowed to serve no more than eight years as PM, seems a closer parallel. But Wilson had correctly suspected the early onset of the same illness – dementia – which had afflicted his father, and he knew his day was done. I sincerely hope nothing of this nature lies behind Key’s decision.
Even a respected and admired leader such as Bob Hawke, whose reputation has only grown with the passing years, fell prey to the manoeuvrings of an ambitious Paul Keating. Furthermore, Labor were mired in a mid-term polling slump. John Key, and National under his leadership, have enjoyed consistently high polls for the entirety of his tenure, and if there has been any plotting or disquiet, it has remained firmly in the shadows. David Farrar gleefully pointed out that John Key is the only NZ PM in 100 years to leave on his own terms.
So, how did he manage it? Poll-driven pragmatism and an almost complete absence of ideology, that’s how. Amid the broad, high-minded visions of Obama and Blair, or the meddling, scheming grand initiatives of Muldoon, John Key simply promised his party one thing: success. Provided they were prepared to compromise on any cherished policy goals, and leave the difficult stuff for another year, he could promise them, and us, ‘a brighter future’.
In a world turned upside down by anti-establishment populism, Islamism, climate change, twitter rants and general electoral mayhem, Key batted serenely on, barely offering a half chance to his opponents and then smiling gently when they fumbled the catch every time. The big issues, the long-term challenges, he simply avoided. Why play an aerial shot if it offers a chance? Sure, he unfurled a couple of elegant cover drives to placate the grassroots – asset sales (partial, of course, no need to frighten anyone), restoring knighthoods – as well as the occasional six over midwicket to confound the left – championing gay marriage, raising benefits (only by a little, mind). But this was a largely chanceless innings of unflappable managerialism. The real failures of John Key’s administration may not become clear for a long time, but the issues he has ducked will not go away.
The looming crisis of paying for an ageing population? Just promise never to raise the retirement age and do nothing. Declining home ownership? Tweak things a little and deny there’s a problem. Affordability of decent healthcare? Just bump people off waiting lists to shorten the waiting lists (vicious pun intended). Climate change? Easy, just kick for touch. It’s fitting that Richie McCaw has been the archetypal All Black during John Key’s tenure. Put in lots of hard graft, keep the team disciplined and steal the
ball policies off the opposition at every opportunity.
Even his defeats were over the superficial and the trivial (did we really spend months arguing between the pros and cons of Red Peak and a sort of novelty teatowel?). The election of Trump and the knowledge that there would be no more cheeky rounds of golf with his buddy Obama to toast the success of the TPP might well have been the final straw.
But I’d like to conclude with some pragmatic, Key-style realism. I don’t share his politics, but it has been a colossal act of stupidity on the part of those who have painted him as some kind of closet, neoliberal fascist. He has dragged his party about as far leftwards as any Nat would dare. Don Brash’s observation that Key’s position on the spectrum is indistinguishable from Helen Clark’s should be seen by the left as a vindication of Clark’s success rather than an opportunity to moan about how he has stolen the left’s thunder.
And here’s the rub: Key is no Tony Abbott, no Dubya, no Muldoon. He was never going to tear up the consensus like Thatcher and Reagan. And he is certainly no Donald J. Trump. His ponytail pulling and prison rape gags were a bit creepy and a bit crass, but he didn’t fantasise about grabbing pussy nor make jibes about a female journalist’s menstruation. As such, I am uneasy about the optimism that seems to be pouring out of some left-wing orifices. It may well be the case that National’s sustained stratospheric polling was ‘all down to Key’ and that 2017 will usher in a change of government. But what if it isn’t? What if voters are still at best uncertain, or at worst turned off by the alternatives on offer?
I would like to see Bill English succeed Key, if only because his commitment to using data to improve outcomes and his enthusiasm for social investment is a breath of fresh air from the usual dismissal of ‘experts’, ‘research’ and ‘joined up thinking’ of which too many on the ideological right are fond. But it could be Paula Benefit. Or it could be Crusher Collins, who will show none of the political dexterity of her former boss in taking a sledgehammer to crack any leftish nut in her way.
Or has John Key suddenly and inexplicably paved the way for an improbable but not impossible Trump-esque tilt at the big prize for the populist’s populist, Winston Peters? Shudder.