The man without a legacy

You could almost say that the only thing John Key was good at was winning elections. As if that were a small talent for a politician.

He was very good at that, anyway. Leading his party in successive elections to a share of 44%, 47% and 47% again of the vote is a truly remarkable achievement in a proportional multi-party system. Helen Clark, the three-term prime minister he defeated to get the job in 2008, never managed more than 41%. Yet in her case you could readily point to several political accomplishments which could be variously described as being part of her legacy, mostly in the form of new social welfare entitlements such as the Working for Families scheme, or social security instruments such as KiwiSaver and the Cullen Fund.

After 15 years of radical neoliberal reforms, Clark applied the brakes, while leaving the core of those reforms untouched. She stopped the privatisation of the government workplace insurer, ACC. She abolished market rents for state housing. Through those measures and others like them, she reoriented the political centre. You could call the new consensus ‘neoliberalism with a human face’. It operated through a state that appeared to look after its citizens, while doing nothing to reverse the extraordinary levels of social inequality produced under successive governments.

John Key took that consensus and walked away with it. Clark’s reformist momentum had simply stalled. Her political project had nowhere else to go, and needed to be going somewhere in order to justify itself. It was like when Hillary Clinton tried to replicate Obama’s campaign but without being able to run as the candidate of change.

In specular fashion, Key offered instead a paradoxical continuity: putting the Tories in charge of Labour’s house, and making them the custodians of Clark’s achievements. Not a new thing in the country’s political history, but done so well that the public barely noticed. It was not so much an election as a wonderfully executed burglary.

Eight years later, just as he appeared poised to sleepwalk into a fourth term, Key walked away this morning. He will be in charge of the country for one more week only.

Historians will remember him. But for what? Always he did so little. Having gone into power just as the global financial crisis kicked into gear, he passed up on the opportunity to respond with a program of outright austerity.

He cut public sector jobs, which is hardly ever an unpopular move. He enacted welfare reforms that introduced social controls rather than slashing entitlements, so that affected people would be blamed for falling out of the net themselves, rather than being pushed. He deprived sectors of the state of funding often just by failing to increase it to keep up with costs. (The state public radio, for instance, has had its funding frozen since he took office.) He privatised state energy companies, but only up to 49% of the shares – possibly the most emblematic example of his pragmatism.

He championed the TPP, but without ever letting us forget that it was the brainchild of a Labour foreign minister. He brought into his coalition the Māori Party, the product of a split with Labour during the Clark years, without making undue concessions to its demands. He eschewed the racially divisive platform of his predecessor, Don Brash, proving more successful at settling claims under the Treaty of Waitangi than Clark.

Throughout it all, he kept a constant eye on the dial of that consensus, without ever attempting to shift it. He was helped in this by his faithful pollster, later to be included in the cast of characters of journalist Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics. Ultimately, the accusation that the prime minister was running a Nixonesque ‘ratfucking’ operation against the Labour Party and other political adversaries out of his office didn’t stick. I suspect historians will look into that again, too. The case is hardly a weak one, especially since the weeks following the publication of the book were marked by one of his aides taking a sudden and highly convenient holiday.

When I say that Key was supremely good at winning elections, I don’t mean to say that we should forget or excuse some of the methods he employed to this end. But neither should we overestimate their effect. By far Key’s greatest single achievement was to position himself as the natural choice for continuity of government from the Clark years and into an indefinite future of modest, unambitious prosperity (‘we’re on the cusp of something special’, he famously read once off a Crosby-Textor cue card). His was an electoral consensus built on a bulging centre comprising affluent and semi-affluent voters, who either own property or are heavily mortgaged, while the large and growing ranks of the working poor and the destitute have stopped voting altogether and may never become a constituency again. Under these social conditions, the John Key project was virtually doomed to succeed, as it effectively deprived Labour and the Greens of people to appeal to. Absent an economic crisis, the centre-left has no intervention to offer, nor solutions to problems that largely affect a non-voting public.

But it would be foolish to underestimate the role of Key’s personal appeal in all this. For eight years he played the part of the prime minister beautifully. He was a reassuring presence, projecting confidence and competence yet never appearing to take himself or his office too seriously. Neither the media nor the opposition managed to alter those perceptions in relation to such issues as his handling of the housing crisis, or the reconstruction of Christchurch. He was the prime minister of those who think that the country almost governs itself, and that we shouldn’t upset its balance. But that act won’t be an easy one to follow for his colleagues: he struck that tone effortlessly with his public persona, and it gave credibility to the very idea of his government. Someone will have to replicate that.

Yet in spite of his great talent for winning elections – or maybe because of it – John Key has no legacy. Called upon to account for his achievements after today’s surprise announcement, the New Zealand’s Herald was barely able to compose four short paragraphs, including some questionable entries (‘attended the Queen’s residence at Balmoral’, ‘aimed to establish the Trans-Pacific Partnership’ – but failed). The one time he tried to use his office to promote lasting change, through a referendum to adopt a new national flag, it starkly exposed his lack of political substance and vision. Everyone quickly recognised it as the branding exercise that it was, and on this occasion the great communicator failed to persuade the public that the idea had any merit. It was a symbolic issue, yes. But it makes the misstep even more telling for a politician who relied so heavily on his image.

That the country governs itself is, of course, an illusion. The auto-pilot set by Helen Clark was never meant to take us this far, and the many structural issues of the New Zealand economy could yet come to a head all at once. When that happens, we may look quite differently at John Key’s absent legacy.



Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Brilliant G T .Best obituary for a no legacy leader and his unprecedented flip flop on serving a 4th term coming between breakfast and lunch and so out of ‘blue’ I have read. On a slow train to Onehunga too . How any in the MSM could keep faces straight hearing him mention Pike River Mine or his work for the poor underclasses as positives before I left Waiheke truly alarming though. Have they been replaced with replicants?

  2. Whilst agreeing with most of your observations I think you have failed overall to convey a man who has lacked empathy with the very public he purports to represent. His popular support has been largely due to a perpetual polling of public shock jock oppinion and smarmy arrogance that has allowed him to say what he thinks in a ‘commonsense’ good bloke next door persona. This farcard so carefully constructed and nurtured comes from a man who made his fortune by gambling, mainly with New Zealand funds as it happens, back in the day of the fledgling neoliberal buggerthyneibour financial freewheeling of the 80’s. John Key’s legacy will not be that he left his mark on New Zealand politics, rather that he scarred New Zealand with a callous disregard for anyone who represents the dispossessed, the disheartened, the downtrodden. These people became non persons under Key’s watch ignored, invisible, irrelevant. For Key there is no housing crisis, no poverty, no waiting lists in the healthcare sector, the poliice nor teaching. Child poverty is a left wing construct along with all criticism of the degradation of the welfare system. And how do we know this? Because the media, the fabulously indolent fourth estate, tells us so. This castrated profession has been sentenced to the buffoonery and opinionated likes of Paul Henry, mike Hosking and Hillary Barry et al who continually trivialise, mis report or simply ignore any other narrative than the one John Key has fed them for the last eight years. I don’t rejoice at the political demise of this man since unfortunately there are many more candidates waiting in the wings to continue these destructive and polarising policies.

  3. You have forgotten the progressive anti-establishment movement that is sweeping the globe, this is a gamechanger for neoliberal governments; which will effect the Labour Green NZ First government that will take power after the 2017 general election.
    John Keys legacy will be a heavily soiled corrupt political and government entity system that may take 20 years to clean up, so Keys resignation may just be the batten being handed to another wing of the same corruot neoliberal bird.
    Viva la revolution; #EndNeoliberalism.

  4. At last, a balanced review of Key. Popular, yes, but also deeply unpopular. Indifferent to poverty and homelessness, and willing to lie his way into office (think Tranzrail).

  5. No legacy?
    The biggest inequality gap ever.
    Turning a 8 billion $ debt into a 130 billion $ debt.
    7 years of deficits.
    Changing the parameters of stats collection to lie about unemployment figures.
    Spying on new Zealanders.
    Selling the countries sovereignty.
    The more than 250 proven lies including massive conflicts of intrest.
    Assaulting women.

  6. Keys legacy is making the economy reliant on the three pillars of high diary prices, Christchurch rebuild and a housing boom. By placing Brownlee in charge of the rebuild he has made sure that will never finish. His inaction on housing will keep that going and ensure we owe so much to foreign banks that they can never pull the plug on us. Unless dairy prices fall and we lose any ability pay back loans.
    Also the suspension of democracy in Canterbury both for water rights and rebuild it a pretty big legacy down here.

  7. All this rhetoric. Name a Prime Minister that has been without his/her faults. Name a PM that has been respected and liked by all. While many sit around critiquing the PM I am sure there are many that have enjoyed the stability and strong economy that we have had to endure for the last eight years. Come on – how many of you in Auckland earned overinflated prices on your properties. There are many areas in which the government has let people down but at the end of the day most of you put your head down on your inflated feather/down pillows and had a good night’s sleep. So let’s stop with the unproductive disparaging remarks and hope the new PM whoever he/she is will address some of the humanitarian issues. Good luck to that brave person. There are many waiting to condemn you before you even begin your job.

  8. He promised the $9b and burgeoning old age universal pension would not be modified while he was PM. His biggest popular pledge has been honoured.

  9. Excellent analysis of john Key’s performance.
    Most of the replies are right on the money. Let the bun fight begin!!!
    Labour/ Greens are ready for the challenge in 2017 and hopefully, this time, will succeed in gaining back the power.
    If Action Station commit to trying to get the non-voters to vote, it should be a breeze!

  10. It’s old news now but a correction on the start of this piece.

    Clark didn’t apply any brakes. It was her coalition partner led by Jim Anderton which applied the brakes to neo-liberalism. Given Clark’s desperation for power she no choice in the matter.

    You are correct about “Working for Families” – which didn’t work (see Jane Kelsey’s “The FIRE Economy”), the Cullen Fund and Kiwisaver (both subsidies for the stock markets).

    Interestingly, in the following elections (2002, 2005) Labour had on their election literature as their big ‘wins’ their coalition partner’s policies – Kiwibank, Paid Parental Leave, and 4 Weeks Annual Leave – all fought against tooth and nail by the Labour members of government (but not their members and some of their backbench MPs). Ah – happy days.

  11. What a about soaring company and private debt that we never hear a out, property, company and bank profits hemorrhaging offshore, three families to a three bedroom house, a whole generation of savers through mortgages turned into consumers and debtors…this government has done more damage in their term than any other in’s history.

  12. We learn much more about Key’s legacy from the replies than we do from the main article. Most groups and individuals who have fought against injustices in New Zealand will be pleased with John Key’s resignation. Key has promoted the injustices of inequality, housing, the rich – poor gap, selling our assets to overseas corporations, increasing carbon and methane emissions causing global warming, trade deals that reduce our democracy and give control of some of our economy, laws and regulations to overseas corporations, environmental degradation, health, education, tax cuts to the rich at the expense of the poor, and job losses. The list goes on.

    If there was ever a reason for New Zealanders to celebrate it is John Key’s resignation.

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