Toby Manhire gazes back at the last almost-10 years in New Zealand politics, leadership and tragedy.
When I returned to New Zealand after 11 years away in 2010, John Key had been prime minister for a couple of years and it felt like he’d been prime minister forever. He was a fixture of familiarity and fondness – the sort of Kiwi with whom you might strike up a friendly, forgettable conversation while waiting for your fish and chips.
From abroad, I’d thought him sort of goofy and lightweight. Back in New Zealand, it was clear he was sort of goofy, but no lightweight. Key was smart enough not to feel the need to project smartness, super quick on the uptake and, for most, relatable. Socially liberal and pragmatic, Key was hardly carved in the image of the ruthless Tory. He quickly pushed through tax cuts, a GST hike and changes to employment laws. He navigated the New Zealand economy to a stable place after the global financial crisis. But in essence, the Key premiership was more managerial and incremental than ideological.
Key has said that the flag referendum – a shambolic few months – was the biggest regret of his political career. The most frightening thing about that is that he’s probably telling the truth.
He may not be able to trumpet any huge defining legacy, but certainly Key was a winner. He led National to three election victories. He effortlessly saw off any hints of insubordination. He outmanoeuvred Winston Peters. His premiership was made a good deal easier, to be fair, by the pitiful parade of rivals on the opposition benches.
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Key’s sternest test arrived in the election of 2014. First came the Nicky Hager bombshell Dirty Politics, a book which drew on hacked online messages to map the unsavoury circuitry that connected Key’s office with the political attack blog Whale Oil and its odious author, Cameron Slater. Hager’s book, which ultimately led to New Zealand political communication becoming substantially less toxic, sucked much of the oxygen out of the campaign – for several days Key faced hundreds of thorny questions on the stories it laid bare.
Next came the Kim Dotcom wrecking ball. The flamboyant German internet mogul had launched the Internet Party, which formed an unlikely marriage with Hone Harawira’s Mana Party, and took centre stage, literally, during the ostentatious flop of the Moment of Truth at the Auckland Town Hall. Through the campaign the Dotcom novelty wore off (he blames the media), and by the end he apologised for, more or less, sabotaging his own party’s efforts. The Dotcom electoral experiment failed. In a decade in which gross social and economic inequality became increasingly front of mind, Dotcom was one of three super-wealthy super-ego political projects – alongside those of Colin Craig and Gareth Morgan – to which New Zealand voters said, yeah, nah.
For all the histrionics of the 2014 campaign, however, Key and his party’s polling numbers barely flickered. National and “Team Key” stayed the course and returned to power.
As for Dotcom, in the absence perhaps of any viable opposition, he became at times Key’s most compelling opponent. One of the most memorable exchanges at parliament came in a select committee hearing, when Dotcom claimed he had evidence Key was aware of his activities before the absurdly, indefensibly overblown 2012 raid on his mansion. “Oh, he knew about me before the raid. I know about that,” said Dotcom. “You know I know.” Key’s response: “I know you don’t know. I know you don’t know.” Dotcom: “Why are you turning red, Prime Minister?” Key: “I’m not. Why are you sweating?” Dotcom: “It’s hot. I have a scarf.” (Dotcom continues into the 2020s fighting American efforts to extradite him on copyright and other charges. Whatever you think of him, he was treated disgracefully and unlawfully by New Zealand security services).
Perhaps the most definitive thing about John Key is the manner in which he left: unexpected, yes, but on the face of it almost inexplicably. Perhaps, ever the currency trader, he could see the way the wind was blowing. Perhaps he’d just had enough, and got his coat.
Bill English saw off the challenges of Judith Collins and Steven Joyce to succeed his friend and have a second pop at leading the party into an election. That election defied all predictions, however, and the zeitgeist demanded that the Labour Party, which had promoted the “youth adjacent” Jacinda Ardern in a fit of desperation to the leadership, should win. Not that you could fairly say English, who performed creditably in his short stint as prime minister and in the campaign, lost. Indeed, the morning after the election the Sunday Star-Times included the headline, “A fourth term for Battling Bill”.
It was Winston Peters, of course, who carried the crown. He told New Zealand that it was time to ditch the “status quo”, and Jacinda Ardern became prime minister. That she was able to completely revitalise Labour’s chances, and to suddenly slam the door on so many years of mediocrity in opposition, shows irrefutably the role of leadership. After all, the policy platform was essentially unchanged from that under her predecessor, Andrew Little.
Another, equally challenging component of leadership under MMP is managing the different parties of government. Ardern must secure support from both New Zealand First and the Greens for just about every piece of legislation. She insists she enjoys that process. The truth of that will be put to the test sharply in election year, as the parties scrap for public attention while Labour strives to show that it can deliver the “transformation” Ardern promised.
Ardern showed that she, too, can be a pragmatist. When New Zealand First delightedly snuffed out any chance of introducing a new capital gains tax, Ardern didn’t just rule it out for the term; she said she’d abandon the idea of it altogether and forever. It was an echo of John Key’s pledge when he was prime minister never to change the retirement age. And in both cases, the decisions were a bitter reminder for young people, for whom the prospect of owning a home feels fantastical, about who still runs the world – or at least who vote in elections.
Her task as the 10s slide into the 20s is to demonstrate that the New Zealand which recoiled at the sight of families sleeping in cars has fundamentally changed. And she’ll need to have an answer to the question she invited during her historic speech at the Waitangi upper marae in 2018: “When we return in one year, in three years, I ask you to ask us what we have done for you. Hold us to account.”
There was a lot to be proud about, too. It was a decade that saw the son of immigrants, raised by a single mother, rise to the highest office. It was a decade that saw a woman sworn in as prime minister for the third time out of the last five. It was a decade in which a prime minister gave birth, took six weeks of parental leave and a baby to the floor of the United Nations.
It was a decade in which MMP lived out its teenage years and entered adulthood. The proportional system, introduced in 1996, got a cautious nod of approval in a 2011 referendum. Key sought to include the Māori Party in his government even when that support wasn’t essential. And in 2017, MMP reached a new maturity when New Zealand First’s decision to coalesce with Labour meant that comfortably the biggest party in parliament now sits on the opposition benches.
It was a decade that saw Trump and Brexit plume around the world like an Australian bushfire. It delivered, just, a cross-party climate act: not much more than a start, but a start is a lot.
It was also the decade that saw the super city take form. Auckland has begun moving in a direction that might one day make it a genuinely functional, vibrant city fit for the current millennium, let alone the current decade, but it’s painfully slow progress. The Unitary Plan is something. And there’s an underground city rail link under construction. A version of the project was central to Len Brown’s campaign for the new mayoralty in 2010 (it became known as “Len’s loop”). If we’re lucky, it might be open by the middle of the 2020s.
But at the end of the day – as the longest-serving prime minister of the 2010s liked to say – the decade in politics today feels plotted out in four painful convulsions, each of which leaves a distinct scar on the national memory. On November 19 2010, 29 men were killed after an explosion ripped through a West Coast mine. Three months later, Christchurch was pummelled in a brutal earthquake that took 185 lives, injured hundreds more and left much of the city in ruins. In both cases, John Key revealed his political leadership and acumen. In both cases the political ripples turned to waves – which continue to this day.
On March 15 of this year, Christchurch was broken again – this time at the hands of a terrorist, who murdered 51 people at prayer in two city mosques. The impact was long and deep and demanded New Zealand come to terms with the ugliest parts of our national makeup. The official probe into how it could happen is ongoing. In the days and weeks after the attack, however, Jacinda Ardern, drawing on the leadership of Muslim Christchurch, revealed an empathy, steel and clarity that in the most appalling circumstances brought New Zealanders together and inspired people the world over. It was a strength of character that showed itself again this week following the tragic eruption at Whakaari.
There, too, the political fallout will be lasting, uncomfortable, exacting. If it’s not too much to ask, let it be that the decade to come demands substantially fewer such tests of its prime ministers.
The political phrases of the decade
Team Key: A campaign slogan that left no doubt how it worked.
Planet Key: The fantasy land in which the prime minister lived, according to detractors.
The walk-run: Bill English’s social media choices, which included a breakdown of his daily exercise routine (and spaghetti pizza) offered instructive, entertaining and happily innocent reminders of the way campaigning has changed in the digital age.
Relentlessly positive: The words that best captured – along with the nebulous “Let’s do this”, the wind of change that Ardern promised.
The decade in one sentence
Two prime ministers (sorry Bill) who presented very different, and sometimes deeply alike, visions of New Zealand.
Alternative decade in one sentence
The arc of history is long but it bends towards justice, and the arc of the Waitangi projectile was short and bent towards Steven Joyce’s head.
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