Tribute to John Key

The sudden departure – and now fast fading memory – of John Key’s term as Prime Minister, reminds us that even the most popular of politicians can, within a few weeks, be nothing in the public consciousness. Before he disappears totally from our attention however I think an assessment of his legacy is relevant as a setting for where New Zealand governance heads next.


Some would say John didn’t achieve much over his eight years. Apart from the partisan (and hence lacking objectivity) stance of his political opponents both to the left and right of his government, that view is in my view quite unfair. His approach of a “steady hand” can at times seem like a deadweight of mediocrity and lack of vision, but I thought the Key government actually did a couple of things that saved New Zealand from a recession.

In the face of a plunge in commodity prices it facilitated a substantial boost in immigration that if nothing else, kept demand going and that means people working. In the past those sorts of agricultural slumps have led to nationwide slowdowns. We can criticise the quality of the migrants we’ve let in – and I do – but as a short term stabilising measure their arrival was important.

His government has had to deal with two large earthquake events, the reverberations of which are still vibrating through the economy – not just in terms of the rebuilds but also the implications for fiscal policy going forward. In short it has been compromised because of the Government’s share of the insurance liability. This is part of the explanation for why fiscal policy is so tight – the other Achilles heel of course is the ballooning cost of NZ Superannuation, something John Key wouldn’t face up to.

In terms of vision you could argue Mr Key’s was limited. When he first announced the $50m national cycleways project, some of us (including me) scoffed. I don’t now – his idea was sound, tourism has continued to boom and no small part of it has been due to the marketing of ‘natural experiences’ that New Zealand is so famous for. For sure there are issues with too rapid growth in the sector – but they are far easier problems to deal with than those arising from an underperforming sector.

On that same theme, the announcement by the PM of Predator Free 2050 was in my view, a major. Not because it is bound to now happen, but more because it puts preservation and enhancement of our natural capital firmly in the centre of New Zealand politics. It is now conventional for communities and their leaders to be doing projects in the conservation area, it is no longer a wacky Greenie thing.

Resisting the calls to repeal the anti-smacking bill and passing the legalisation of same-sex marriage were examples of progress in the social policy area that the John Key government made and should be congratulated for.

But for me by far the most important legacy of John Key is that he saved New Zealand from the politics of the Rabid Right – that group of politicians that put little to no weight on issues of social justice, who frankly care only about themselves and their own cohort, who see all government spending as wasteful (apart from security fences around their own property), who are locked in to the trickle down economics of big business, who kowtow to every demand from foreign capital for subsidies and tax breaks, and care not that wage earners bear so much of the tax load.

National was on the brink of an election victory in 2005 led by the Far Right faction of New Zealand politics, personified by Don Brash, famous for his attack on Maoridom’s rights under the Treaty of Waitangi. It was John Key that pulled National away from being driven to the Far Right by Brash, aided and abetted by ACT (which he later led) and the Hard Right faction of his own party, personified currently by Judith Collins. With a loyal core of “shock jocks” prominent in commercial media, New Zealand was so, so close to going further down the path of neoliberalism that has unfortunately given genuine free and competitive markets such a bad name.

That is what New Zealand needs to thank John Key for.

Which brings me to where his leadership didn’t really perform. Top of that list has to be the resumption of growing inequality in New Zealand. Inequality was given its most severe impetus by Ruth Richardson’s Mother of All Budgets back in 1991 which slammed welfare benefits and promised trickle down. That never happened, which is why neoliberalism is such a failed extension of the changes that Roger Douglas introduced. The early 2000’s were bad enough in terms of driving wealth inequality further - the house price to income ratio rose from 3.5 to 5.5 as the Clark-Cullen government refused to counter the explosion in offshore borrowing by the banks that fuelled the property market (at least until the GFC of 2007). It was clear then that the RBNZ’s view that mortgages were the least risky form of bank lending and were to be encouraged, was pretty silly. Combined with the tax break, it was a licence to make money in that asset class – and many of us did, a lot of money.

But then from 2011 until now that unaffordability has risen further, from 5 to 7. This time it was John Key’s regime that turned a blind eye to what was clearly making his voters happy, happy, happy. 

It is this phenomenon – the income tax loophole that continues to underpin property price inflation – and is gutting the discretionary income of New Zealand’s middle and lower income families. More and more of their income is devoted to keeping the same roof over their heads. Successive Establishment party governments – both Labour and National – refuse to deal to it, and we have this obscene spectre now of retirees continuing to gear up to speculate on property – at the very time they should be running down their savings (if they had any).

To conclude then, contrary to popular opinion, John Key’s government achieved a lot. He himself saved the National Party from going down a dark hole of extremism. But he left unattended a few issues too – the most damaging one being, a rampant housing market leading to widening inequality.

John Key, Praise Be.

Showing 20 reactions

  • Duncan Wilcox
    commented 2017-01-20 09:53:15 +1300
    How’s this article jive with John Key’s legacy? What is described in this piece is not all his fault but under his ‘guidance’ New Zealand has tipped the slope to a steeper decline…just like their intensives dairy push & the environment.
  • Duncan Wilcox
    commented 2017-01-17 09:47:04 +1300
    And maybe #20 – 1080 & the poisoning of NZ’s natural environment…killing a sparrow with a 12 gauge shotgun…
  • Steve Cox
    commented 2017-01-17 08:25:15 +1300
    Hi Matt
    Thanks for your list. I’ll add: –
    19. Earthquake Responses.
    After the Canterbury earthquakes John Key made promises galore. And ever since the government has back-pedaled on virtually every individual promise.
    It was interesting then after the Kaikoura earthquake that his comments were along the line of “What do you want and we’ll look at it”. He wanted every chance to be able to avoid spending money.
  • Duncan Wilcox
    commented 2017-01-16 20:34:21 +1300
    Thanks Matt Walkington for that succinct & sad list of John Key’s didn’t do’s or did do but very badly. There truly does seem to be a paucity of real, honest public servants in government lately. They all seem to have some skin in the game & mostly or totally appear to be focused on their & their corporate sponsors’ interests only…public be damned (literally dammed in some cases). Not sure how folks buy into this crock of shite but Winston Churchill correctly stated – the best argument against democracy is to spend 5 minutes talking to the average voter…
  • Matt Walkington
    commented 2017-01-16 13:12:24 +1300
    Just to fill out my previous post a bit, here’s the headings of Simon Wilson’s “Shame Index”

    1. Child poverty
    2. Filthy rivers
    3. Domestic violence
    4. Tax evasion
    5. Farm worker deaths
    6. Underfunded mental health services
    7. The surging wealth inequality gap
    8. The housing crisis
    9. The Emissions Trading Scheme
    10. Pike River
    11. The Saudi sheep deal
    12. Housing the homeless
    13. Healthy food in schools
    14. Underfunded homecare services for the elderly
    15. The neglect of Northland
    16. Abuse of children in state care
    17. Deep-sea oil drilling
    18. Blaming Helen Clark
  • Stuart Munro
    commented 2017-01-14 13:56:48 +1300
    Those without lifetime employment in the now grossly unequal employment market are hardly likely to view Key as centrist. He was in fact a polarising figure, intolerant of such things as a balanced critical media as represented by John Campbell. For my part I consider him the worst of a very long line of lazy, dishonest and essentially non-performing politicians who have perverted the mechanisms of our democracy to enrich themselves. I’d characterise this column as one of the occasional lapses of judgment that render your otherwise quite promising work unreliable, Gareth.
  • Nick Taylor
    commented 2017-01-14 11:09:38 +1300
    It just goes to show what a slick operator John Key really is that he can fail on objective criterea yet win subjectivly-isnt this the definition of a conman and a very good one?
  • Matt Walkington
    commented 2017-01-14 08:52:21 +1300
    Oh, and I should add to the list, the approaches of the Key government to undermining democratic processes in Parliament.

    Unnecessary and excessive use of urgency provisions.

    Unnecessary and excessive use of omnibus bills.

    Culture of obfuscation at question time.

    And also the extreme measures taken to defeat the OIA process, on the one hand, and use it for corrupt release of information, on the other.

    Not all of these techniques were novel and different from previous governments but the Key government refined them to perfection.
  • Matt Walkington
    commented 2017-01-14 08:32:56 +1300
    Then, further, we coukd view John Key as a PM who very clearly championed the attack of the global neoliberal elite on meaningful democracy, undermining it at every turn, and slowly replacing it with corporatist plutocracy. He was very clear “their man in the south pacific”.

    NZ is not so far down that corrupt path as some countries, it seems, but we will catch up without strong measures to reduce inequality, promote true democratic engagement and, importantly, to keep corporate money and undue influence out of politics.

    If some else feels motivated to make a list of the anti-democratic actions of John Key PM, I’m sure it would help add even more balance to this “tribute”. Here are some starters to jog the memory.

    TPPA, overriding democracy at every step of the process and in the content of the agreement

    Partial asset sales

    “Dirty Politics”

    Troop deployments

    Countering Terrorist Fighters Legislation Bill

    Ignoring the recommendations of the MMP review to lower party thresholds

    Those are just what spring to mind immediately.
  • Duncan Wilcox
    commented 2017-01-13 23:17:04 +1300
    I think you failed to mention or detail John Key’s utter failure on environmental issues Gareth. With our waterways in serious & steady decline to the point that the only way National justifies their lack of action is to aim for ‘wadeable water’ or less – pathetic. And the utter abomination of the ECan coup d’état – is this still a democracy I wonder? I need to check the dictionary definition again because that sure did smell more like the actions of a dictatorship. And then there is the Hawke’s Bay water fiasco…the environmental tragedies go on & on. And for what? So the all mighty Industrial Dairy & Farming folks can earn a buck or two at the expense of the public. John Key practices a form of capitalism like many western countries do today where they socialise the risks & costs and privatise the profits. He’s left a legacy all right….one that the rest of us will be cleaning up for decades.
  • Samantha Fairley
    commented 2017-01-13 22:34:39 +1300
    Good read, thank you. Agree with the problem of housing rate increase as people who got cheap land long ago in the city can now get even more land, and others struggle to get any land. a challenge indeed. UbI would help the unfair advantage of free living costs to the pensioners who are home owners.

    Really hate the predator free policy though. Possums eat only around 3% of daily native growth-nothing to actually worry about. 1080 kills as many native birds as it saves, 19 different native bird species are documented dead with the stuff.

    It’s the disgusting giant dairy industry that needs agressive attack to really preserve whats beautiful in NZ, the dairy industry is polluting our rivers, and making a joke of animal rights, with baby animals having hooks put through their noses to stop them suckling on each other as they are taken from their mothers and waiting for the death truck. God awful cruelty with environmental destruction thrown in for good measure. Nut tree -like hazlenuts -plantations are the solution. they make wonderful milk, butter and cream. minus the water pollution and baby animal torture.
  • Alexei Gladkikh
    commented 2017-01-13 21:36:38 +1300
    Yes make tribute to war criminal. Invasion in Iraq and Afghanistan was illegal. So US actions in Syria. Taking parts in them and sending NZ soldiers to die and kill in this wars is a war crime. There even no discussion about why NZ become US vassal state, having no independent foreign policy what so ever. Discussing.
  • Matt Walkington
    commented 2017-01-13 21:10:18 +1300
    I’m really pleased to see you using the word “neoliberalism”, Gareth, and pointing out that it has little to do with free markets. Naming and shaming the rigged system is the first and critical step to replacing it with a fairer and more environmentally sane system.

    I disagree, though, within any implication that Mr Key is not by nature a neoliberal, given his background prior to becoming prime minister. Particularly his role in banking deregulation and, of course, his career as a financial trader.

    It’s pretty clear from just this article that you believe that NZ’s version of neoliberalism can be “fixed” by some comparatively minor adjustments, rather than by complete reengineering.

    Bring it on, I say, though I worry that the list of adjustments may be longer than you think. Particularly, if we are to have a society that is all of democratic, fair to all, and truly sustainable.
  • Matt Walkington
    commented 2017-01-13 20:34:08 +1300
    It’s certainly too early to “access” Mr Key’s legacy but I meant “assess”. Pardon me.
  • Matt Walkington
    commented 2017-01-13 20:29:10 +1300
    It’s far too early to access Mr Key’s legacy.

    Just two critical issues where Key actively and knowingly thawrted any meaningful action will be enough to leave most NZlanders cursing his name.

    One is climate change.

    The other is rampant house price inflation.

    If either or both of the issues pan out to be disasters for this country, Mr Key will probably want to follow his elitist instincts and expatriate himself and family.
  • Chris Skilton
    commented 2017-01-13 19:18:38 +1300
    Thank you Gareth! How bloody refreshing it is to see some no nonsense assessments of politics for a change. I’m impressed.
  • Bart Brichau
    commented 2017-01-13 18:30:30 +1300
    I am pretty surprised and disappointed by your analysis, Gareth. John Key led a government that let Fonterra and other big corporates (including international) get away with about anything. The fact that he completely denied/ignored the global warming/climate change threat, must have featured in your assessment but it is a huge hole. Why? The fact that John Key’s government opened the door/invited oil exploration…really????
  • Oliver Krollmann
    followed this page 2017-01-13 16:09:03 +1300
  • Richard Woodd
    commented 2017-01-13 15:41:44 +1300
    You forgot to mention the massive state highways roading programme. Not only a catchup on deferred works, but finally building for the next 50 years. I reckon that’s the Key team’s biggest legacy.