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PoliticsMarch 22, 2017

Exit, stage centre-right: watch John Key’s valedictory speech, and read our panel’s appraisals


John Key has left the building, but not before delivering one final address. How did he go? Our experts offer their assessment of the last parliamentary appearance by the man who was New Zealand prime minister from 2008 to 2016.

Jenna Raeburn: Quintessential Key, and a rebuff to critics

John Key’s valedictory was smattered with jokes and anecdotes, but did not shy away from responding to his critics. The most common criticism of Key has been that he does not leave behind a “legacy” of major policy reform.

It would be hard to hold that view after listening to him rattle off his list of achievements: increasing benefits, supporting marriage equality, ultra-fast broadband, Treaty settlements, balancing the books – just try telling any Australian prime minister that’s “not a legacy”. Then add the Christchurch recovery, which is legacy enough for anyone.

Key also hit back at people who accuse him of not having principles, stating that his values stem from his upbringing, “rather than a Politics 101 textbook”. What a line. John Key’s principles are the values of middle New Zealand, not the frozen ideological values of a political party hierarchy. Anyone looking for an explanation for his extraordinary popularity can start there.

The speech was quintessentially Key: matter of fact, practical, engaging, funny, slightly understated, positive, pragmatic, focused on real achievements. And optimistic. The tone of the speech reflects the mood he has helped to create in this country.

No wonder Key says his legacy is leaving behind a more confident and proud New Zealand.

Jenna Raeburn is director of Barton Deakin Government Relations, New Zealand

Morgan Godfery: A contradiction to the end

Richie McCaw, the Real Housewives of Auckland, Max Key’s publicist, and the National Party are in mourning. The Rt. Hon. John Key, known to his enemies as Hon.Key, to his vanquished enemies as the Smiling Assassin, and to his admirers as Teflon John, is now former Prime Minister John Key. #BringBackJohnKey is trending in Parnell.

After eight years in power, I’m still not sure how I feel about the guy. Yeah, I still reckon he’s an enigma: the bloke you’d rather have a beer with, even though he minces down catwalks and might tug your daughter’s ponytail; the great communicator who struggles with rhetoric and oratory (though he excels in banter); and the apparently conservative Prime Minister in his eighth year of Keynesian expansion.

But how do I feel about that? Who knows. I’d love to sit at the margins, one of the love him or loathe him types. Maybe I’d fit in with the crowd who think he’s a provincial bore. The philistine who reads the literary populist John Grisham, the bougie who re-watches Rowan Atkinson’s cheap gag Johnny English, and the oaf who seems to think whatever the last person told him to.

In another, crueller world I might’ve joined a certain East Auckland set – the Kings’ old boys who think Key is an Example To Us All: the self-made millionaire, the communicator who could out-debate any Harvard-trained lawyer, and the Prime Minister to boot. What a hero. But I’m not. Sure, Key is exceptional, but he’s also mundane.

This is the contradiction at the heart of his person and politics. The contradiction means I’m ambivalent towards him as a person and politician, and maybe that’s one reason the country was ambivalent to his politics.

Morgan Godfery is a writer and trade unionist

Emma Espiner: The enthusiasm remained, but the elephant in the room ignored

What struck me (and put a positive or negative spin on this if you want) was the childlike quality John Key retained in his enthusiasm for the office of prime minister. He loved the Diplomatic Protection Squad, loved being mates with big international leaders and he loved that he got to hang out with Richie McCaw. He never learned to enunciate his vowels properly, he littered his valedictory speech with dodgy syntax and admitted to mangling everyone else’s languages when he travelled abroad. He took great joy in taking the piss out of himself and his signature three-way handshake.

Our former prime minister didn’t directly address the claims about civilian casualities in Afghanistan raised by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s book Hit & Run, but he put in a big plug for our defence forces when he acknowledged the sacrifice of our military personnel killed under his watch. The elephant in the room got a terse nod, but that was about it. It made for a slightly off-centre watch. Valedictories are for the record, for posterity. They have a special character compared to other speeches in the debating chamber of parliament. A valedictory speech is lifted above the cut and thrust of day to day politics. They offer an opportunity for politicians to reflect on their legacies. But it was difficult as a viewer to put the allegations of NZ-sanctioned deaths of innocents to one side and I guess that was the point of the book launch scheduled a day before this speech.

But I’d wager that John Key will go gently and untroubled into his goodnight.

Emma Espiner is a medical student, mother and social commentator

Eric Crampton: Fine form, shame about the Christchurch remark

I normally don’t watch Parliament TV. But it’s harder to avoid it when sharing an Auckland hotel room with Oliver Hartwich. And so I caught John Key’s valedictory address.

The former prime minister was in fine form, with the folksy touch that saw him through three elections. The self-deprecating noting of national cycleways as response to the GFC was fun, and his tribute to his mother was endearing.

It would have been surprising if Key had dwelled on areas where he might have had cause to reconsider his government’s approach. His having presided over a national housing crisis was, unsurprisingly, left unmentioned. But I was particularly disappointed to hear his lauding of Gerry Brownlee’s performance in the Christchurch earthquake response. Or, more accurately, I had to stop myself from throwing things at the television. Hotel rooms don’t appreciate broken televisions. But that too is reflective of Key’s approach as prime minister: loyalty to his ministers no matter the harm they do, so long as it doesn’t touch the polling figures.

Eric Crampton is head of research, The New Zealand Initiative

Guy Williams: bit of a short list, John, but thanks for the laughs

Scripted casual!? While it was weird to hear a world leader close his final address with “It’s been a blast” like he just got off the Luge in Rotorua, I was surprised he didn’t go more off script. He told his kids “the world is your oyster” while reading from a piece of paper like he was entering the Smokefree speech competition. Key word is entering, he wouldn’t have won.

I couldn’t help but notice his list of proud achievements was very short for someone who had been in power for eight years. It was unusual to focus mainly on a cycleway (thumbs up for that thing that I defo remembered existed and use all the time); maybe he wanted to stay humble?

Despite wishing he’d gotten a teleprompter or at least had one practice go in front of the mirror I was still affected by the speech. Maybe it’s Stockholm syndrome? Thanks for the laughs John, I disagreed with a lot of things you did, I really hope you were right!

Guy Williams is a tall comedian


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