In the wake of National’s leadership woes, The Spinoff sat down with the party’s most popular face in recent history to talk Covid-19, Judith Collins – and why he thinks our border should be more ‘flexible’.
John Key is confident about our country’s future.
In part, that’s because he tunes in each morning to Newstalk ZB’s famously accurate breakfast host Mike Hosking – “or Sir Mike Hosking, as I call him these days” – to hear how the markets are bouncing back.
But, he’s also confident because he thinks we can get through Covid-19 stronger than some people are predicting. “To do that, we need some creativity in our thinking, and some flexibility,” he told The Spinoff in a one-on-one chat today.
The former prime minister, and by far the most popular National Party leader in recent history, was one of several business and political speakers at a summit in Auckland today, questioning how our biggest city can grow out of the ashes of Covid-19. And there’s no easy answer: the impact of the virus has been devastating for Auckland. Its GDP is forecast to decline by 6% this year compared with a national drop of 5.6%. There are also fears 50,000 people in Auckland alone will be out of work.
“We were advertising 2021 as a year like no other for Auckland,” mayor Phil Goff told the crowd today. “It’s turning out to be like that now, but for other reasons.”
Key acknowledges the number of job losses will be high, but says, “The good thing about Auckland is that while it, tragically, can shed jobs quite quickly, it actually creates them quickly as well because it’s the engine room of growth in New Zealand.”
Key has been largely complimentary of our government’s response to the pandemic. Today, he singled out our prime minister Jacinda Ardern and the director general of health Ashley Bloomfield for praise. But now that we’re out of the proverbial woods, Key reckons we can start to move more quickly. “We’re in a fantastic position as we don’t have community transmission, and I don’t think we want to do anything that challenges that – but that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything.”
It’s a view echoed by another speaker at today’s summit: Rob Fyfe, the former head of Air New Zealand, who in recent months has been pulled into the government’s Covid response as a business adviser. He says we need to create a living plan and a road map that can be continually updated. And that, Fyfe says, does not involve QR codes and the government’s existing tracer app – which he considers “ineffective”.
“Government is not agile and departments are territorial,” he said.
Key agrees, telling me that Wellington is bound up in too much red tape, which doesn’t help us in a crisis. We need flexibility and to think outside of the box, he says. For Key, the border is central to this flexibility.
“I think what we have to do is say: in the same way we allow returning New Zealanders to come and quarantine, how can we do that on a broader basis so that business can invest and others can be involved?
“If you change your thinking around so that it’s not just a fortress mentality, but a mentality of saying ‘we’re going to permit things to occur’, I think you can get more flexible and get better results.”
Key, like any politician, is good at spinning rhetoric – but he also has some ideas. International students should be allowed into the country, he says, with the ability to quarantine in residential halls. He singles out Auckland University, AUT and Massey as institutes that particularly need the income.
The foreign buyers ban should also go: “Some politicians might like it from an ideological perspective but the truth is, can we even afford it now?
“And is it the right thing: if someone is going to come to New Zealand and build a holiday home, is that really a major? I would be a lot more flexible in letting investment in that area.”
We should also be more flexible on allowing people to come here and work.
“For businesses, it’s only returning New Zealanders that are really given the priority unless you’re in some extreme or boutique sector like the film industry, but the truth is there’s a lot of stock-standard businesses that just need to be able to bring people in so that they, in turn, create lots of jobs.”
Key says that Auckland is important to our entire country’s rebuild. During his keynote address, he even suggested the government should give Auckland Council a loan. Phil Goff, watching on from the audience, had dollar signs in his eyes.
“[Auckland] is the engine room of economic growth and so it isn’t as simple as saying ‘I live in another part of New Zealand and I don’t care what happens in Auckland’. Actually, if [Auckland] slows down, the country slows down,” Key said.
I told him how my Wellington-based parents are always quick to criticise how much of their “hard-earned taxpayer dollars” get spent on Auckland. Key thinks everyone should care about investment in Auckland: “Its needs are fundamentally greater because it’s that long-term magnet for internal and external migration, and if you want to have a positive effect from migration, you need to build supporting infrastructure.”
Just as he is confident about New Zealand coming through the other side of Covid-19, Key remains confident about the state of his former party. Flashing his trademark smile, he brushes away any concern about recent chaos within National.
“It’s all good, I think Judith [Collins] is going to perform well. She was an extremely competent minister when I was prime minister,” he said.
So competent, she was given an ultimatum by Key: resign or be sacked. Collins also claims in her recent memoir that Key threw her under the bus.
Today, Key just laughed. “I haven’t read the book, maybe I’ll just skip it and not worry about it,” he said.
“It’s going to be an interesting campaign.”