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Television: Throwback Thursday – John Key Gets Called a Racist on Neighbours at War

Years before he became our Prime Minister, John Key was just another electorate MP, wading through his constituents’ sewage. We look back at his time on the magical New Zealand docu-drama Neighbours at War – and get his brief memories of the moment.

“You’re a racist,” the man yells. “And so is he.”

‘The man’ is a landlord named David “a socialist… in the socialist party.” ‘He’ is John Key, our future Prime Minister, but in 2005 a lowly MP for Helensville. Key’s response to being told he’s a racist – despite having provided no evidence to support the thesis – is to stand stock still, shuffle and look at the ground. Key’s there to try and find a way to resolve a heated and extremely long-running dispute between some West Aucklanders, over giant willow trees which destroy sewage pipes and throw shade onto all the surrounding houses.

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It occurs during ‘Parakai’, an episode from season one of Neighbours at War, and one which has largely vanished from the public memory and archive due to it having been shot in a now outdated aspect ratio. The Spinoff was provided a copy of the episode as part of our reporting for a longer feature on the show, which has become an enduring New Zealand television icon, and is about to head into long-term hiatus after 10 wild-eyed and woolly years on our screens.

The Neighbours at War format is very simple: find a conflict between two or more neighbours, allow each to tell their side of the story. Gussy up where possible with re-enactments of important flashpoints in the dispute, throw in an affectionate, earthy Bill Kerton voice over – then invite a prominent New Zealander to attempt to find a resolution to these seething examples of hyper local discontent.

Over the years that mediating role has been played by all kinds of classic Kiwi jokers. Mary Lambie, Tom Bradley and Brian Edwards have all taken a turn trying to broker peace. This last season alone has seen ex-Police 10 7 host Graham Bell, former Close Up presenter Mark Sainsbury and horrible The Edge DJ Dom Harvey appear on the show.

Along with broadcasters, a reliable source of mediation talent has been politicians. Annette King, Chris Carter and Tariana Turia have all performed the job with distinction. So – how did John Key fare? Did his famed dealmaking prowess allow him to find love and understanding between the bitter opponents on NaW?

No. In fact, his effort on the episode is one of the least successful in Neighbours at War history. “A mediator is someone who’s impartial,” Key explains to camera on his drive to site, in a big electorate-issue Commodore, “and I don’t feel impartial. I think [Jan, one of the neighbours] is in the right.”

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The whole sorry saga had begun a few years earlier, when Dave, the man who would one day cry racist, planted some willow trees around a rental property he owned in the sleepy hotbed of hot springs, Parakai. They grew swiftly, proud and tall. At first Dave trimmed his trees, paring them back to a couple of metres whenever they got too unruly. But he tired of the expense and effort, and eventually simply let them run rampant. They soon shaded their neighbours’ living rooms and kitchens. Before long they were breaking up water pipes, and the seeds of a full-blown neighbour war were in the wind.

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As you can see in the NaW data-vis above, the sun couldn’t see the houses for the trees, and Jan took to the local community newspaper to vent her frustration. She glared out from its pages, arms folded, shot from a low angle, spoiling for a fight. And a fight she got, as Dave, a veteran of the ’81 Springbok tour protests, dug in and refused to get out the clippers. One night Jan’s husband snuck across the fence and trimmed the heck out of the willows, getting them back down to a tall man’s head height, and left the trimming in a large pile on the lawn.

Dave was steamed.

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There was no going back now. The relationship had turned toxic. This was when the local MP was called in. John Key was at his desk in his electorate office, on the main road out to Kumeu, just down from some farm vehicle distributors, when a letter crossed his desk. Two sets of constituents were having trouble with “the herbaceous equivalent of herpes,” as Kerton delightfully put it. Could Key fix it?

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He’d sure as hell try! The parties assembled in a large grassy section adjacent to a loose metal driveway. The body language was sullen and disengaged from the first. Jan and her crew stood to Key’s right (wise choice), staring defiantly at Dave, who received Key’s questions – plaintive and outwardly reasonable – with an exasperated posture.

“So Dave, how do you see it?” asked our future PM. “What’s your side of the story?”

“They’ve been told half a dozen times they can trim them,” says Dave, before a supercut proves he has, in fact, told them nine times on that day alone. Key cuts to the nub of the issue, issuing a barrage of fair questions: “Do you think it’s reasonable to have the trees grow to that height, and have it disrupt their sewage system?” “Do you think part of the problem is that you don’t live there?” “Isn’t it your responsibility?”

Times passes. No compromise is trucked. Somewhere nearby, the willows grow a little taller, perhaps emboldened by the impasse. Key doesn’t have all day. If he waited until Dave calmed down, he’d still be in a field in West Auckland. Finally the MP issues his verdict. “It sounds to me like you guys had a bit of a falling out, and you’re deliberately allowing the trees to grow because you’re angry with them,” he says. It doesn’t sound much like mediation.

He suggests they shake on it, a last, desperate plea for some kind of resolution in this irresolvable grudge match. Jan strides across, her hand extended. “I’m sorry,” she says, not entirely disingenuously.

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Dave’s arms remain firmly folded. He’s had enough. He explodes. “I don’t shake hands with racists,” he yells. “I’m racist?” replies Jan, shocked, appalled, confused. (Everyone on screen is white).

“Yes,” replies Dave. “You’re racist. And so is he,” he says, nodding at Key, who does a very good impression of a man who hasn’t heard a word that’s been said. He stands still, slouching with his hands pocketed, his shirt too big and billowing slightly in the breeze.

This is the path to power in New Zealand. It runs through a backyard in West Auckland. Key was just a minor figure at this point, just the local MP. Not yet a three term Prime Minister, the idol of Hosking, a saint to some, a pariah to others. Just a man on a stony driveway; wishing he was anywhere else, dreaming of bigger things.

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He really did try though – and the hand-written addition to the form letter is a nice touch. Years later, when asked to recall the incident, he issued The Spinoff the following statement:

“The show bought to my attention a practical example of neighbours being unable to resolve a disagreement and I was happy to try and mediate a solution.”

Strong stuff. I called Judith, one of the aggrieved parties, to see if her memories were any more pungent. “Dave wasn’t really interested in mediation,” she recalled, from the same house on the same street. Jan remains her neighbour, but Dave sold the house a few years ago, around the time her local MP was being sworn in as PM.

The new neighbours were far more agreeable, and chopped down the trees. “As soon as they were cut down, there was light in the house,” she said, the conflict long out of mind until my call.

What the combined might of Neighbours at War and John Key couldn’t fix was left to time to heal.


Watch the poignant final episodes of Neighbours at War, from Thursday 1st October, 8.30pm on TV2 or on TVNZ OnDemand

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