Key - No vision, no legacy, no problem

A newly elected Prime Minister John Key waves to media from his Auckland home. Photo / Greg Bowker

By Audrey Young

A commonly asked question of leaders when they enter office is what is your vision? A commonly asked question when they leave is what is your legacy?

Considering Prime Minister John Key had neither, he had a remarkably stellar career and history should treat him well.

Wanting to leave a country in a better state that you found it is not a vision.

Nor is being ambitious for your country. If that were so, everyone has the same vision.

This week was about John Key's legacy after eight years in office.

Much of the reflection blurred the concept of a political legacy with his leadership style, how he made people feel and what he will be remembered for.

A legacy is an achievement that will endure beyond the next leader and beyond different Governments.

It is for example the welfare state, ACC, deregulation, MMP, Treaty of Waitangi settlements, Kiwisaver, and the Cullen fund.

When I've asked people this week what they thought Key's legacy was, many have said he gave New Zealanders a greater sense of confidence, especially about New Zealand's place in the world.

That is true but it is a state of mind. It could just as easily disappear through circumstances well beyond our control.

It has been said that Key's handling of the global financial crisis and the Canterbury earthquakes was his legacy.

They were defining events in office that magnified his qualities of empathy but they were not a legacy to New Zealand.

The three regrets he cited this week would all have been enduring and significant legacies had they been successful: changing the flag, the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Kermadec ocean sanctuary.

Getting rid of the wretched flag would have been a wonderful legacy for the country.

But Key underestimated the extent to which Opposition parties wanted to deny a Tory politician any such victory.

Their cynicism about the process turned a large section of the electorate against any change.

The failure of the Obama Administration to get the Trans Pacific Partnership across the line in time for it to be examined and ratified in the 12 member countries was a fault of the US, not Key, because it controlled the timetable.

The work New Zealand and the US did together on what would have been the world's biggest trade pact brought the two countries even closer politically.

But in the end, the US controlled the process.

It didn't set clear enough parameters at the outset about what sort of agreement it wanted, which countries it wanted involved and what its timetable should be.

The failure to get the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary passed into law on Key's watch was his own stupid fault.

He paid too much attention to Environment Minister Nick Smith and not enough to Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson.

Continued below.

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It was a great idea but in order to allow Key to announce it with all the attendant hoopla at the United Nations, proper process was sacrificed for a fast secret process which has now been legally challenged. If it was worth doing, it was worth doing properly.

Key and Finlayson have made stunning progress on the Bolger-Graham legacy of treaty settlements with an amazing number of settlements with iwi in the past eight years.

If it weren't for the spoiled record in the Kermadec issue, Key may almost have established a legacy in the advancement of his relationships with Maori.

His decision to include the Maori Party in Government even though its vote has never been required took governance to a new level.

It may not be a legacy because future governments may not follow suit.

There are two other areas I consider to be legacies for the Key Government although he has not claimed them as such: the Ross Sea sanctuary and the modernization of New Zealand's spy agencies.

By modernization I mean that Key oversaw their transition from agencies run by the old boys network of ex-soldiers and intelligence community insiders to normal public servants; they also transitioned from agencies run with a "trust-me" philosophy and meagre oversight to ones that are overseen by an independent Inspector General.

The reform was precipitated by spying on Kim Dotcom but Key did not have to be dragged kicking and screaming to it. He encouraged it.

It is highly likely that Key would have headed in that direction anyway. A civilian outsider had already been appointed to run the GCSB, and issues of improper spying overseas would also have alerted Key to the need for review and reform.

The acceptance of the Ross Sea region Marine Protected Area by the 25 member countries of the Commission for the Conservation of Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) represents a huge legacy by the Key Government and the Obama Government, although it has not been claimed by them as such.

Covering 1.55 million square kilometres, it is the world's largest marine protected area.

Key took ownership of the Kermadec proposal, however, and left the Ross Sea to Foreign Minister Murray McCully and his counterpart John Kerry work on for three years until their success in October.

Key's success in international affairs is a defining feature of his leadership.

The confidence New Zealanders feel at home and abroad about a strong place for New Zealand in the world may have something to do with the respect in which he was held.

At the end of every major trip of his that I covered, I would sit down with him for an entertaining Q and A about his personal observations which were often more candid that MFAT would like.

He was as relaxed in those forums as he would be at the Helensville kindergarten.

His ability to form connections extended beyond Obama, Xi Jinping of China, Angela Merkel of Germany, Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, and all the Australian Prime Ministers to Asian, Pacific and European leaders.

But again, that is about his unique form of leadership and high EQ. The connections may be helpful for the next Prime Minister, Bill English, but probably not the one after that.

The fact that Key doesn't really have a legacy is of no matter.

It is an issue that worries historians, politicos and journalists but not voters.

What he should be remembered for is daring to be different.

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- New Zealand
12:24 pm Saturday 24 December 2016
Yeah, three ostensibly identical flags and one token koru. The panels final "choice" was identical to that plastered on exports the world over before the panel made this "choice".

It was prelude to a bradng exercise designed to promote the great sell out, with which the TPP would have scorned the earth. The Meril Lynch poster boy left under advice from his paymasters who knew he wouldn't be able to enact that end game.

Dave H

11:05 am Sunday 18 December 2016
Why do the media forever try and bring one of the most popular prime ministers down. It goes to show that they think that they are the real power in this country, and yet they are out of touch with the everyday person. The world has been through a huge crisis, but NZ missed most of it. In the next few years we are going to have massive surpluses. Sure things are not perfect, but it beats being in Greece, Italy, Spain etc. I will remember him. He has left big shoes to fill.

of The old sage

- New Zealand
11:04 am Sunday 18 December 2016
Stephen Hawkings, eminent scientist, has given us one thousand years before the clap of doom strikes. I do think we can continue to grow the world economy, what with all the millions being born each year, and that will sustain growth until then. I begin to wonder if Stephen is becoming more spiritual as he ages?

Ex Aucklander

11:03 am Sunday 18 December 2016
Grow up Frustrated Builder. The only reason nobody was convicted of corruption was because Teflon John managed to convince the sheep that there was nothing to be seen there. Judith Collins Oravida. God give me strength!!!

Liberal Minded Kiwi

- United Kingdom
11:02 am Sunday 18 December 2016
You do know every party was represented in the "Flag Consideration panel" Every party had a say in how it was to be voted on and how it was to be presented. He took this issue out of the too hard basket, presented it in the best way possible, for a very small cost and it was voted upon and put away for another decade.
Perfect management. The left didn't want him to be the leader who gave us a new flag and supported colonialism instead, very hypocritical.

Liberal Minded Kiwi

- United Kingdom
11:01 am Sunday 18 December 2016
Even if John cured all diseases, paid back our comparatively low debt and brought world peace he'd still have the usual moaners online attacking him. Lets be fair, the angry hate mob reserve a lot of their vitriol for John. I wish him all the best, never voted for him but as a person who travels around the world, he was very well regarded in every circle.


- New Zealand
11:01 am Sunday 18 December 2016
The best analysis of Key I have ever read on the NZH goes to the wise guy

Chris M

11:00 am Sunday 18 December 2016
The negativity here stops me from adding a comment. Well, almost stops me.

Adam and Eve were not satisfid with paradise either.


- New Zealand
02:28 pm Sunday 11 December 2016
I'd love to ride the cycle trail, but I have osteo arthritis in my knees and my doctor will not even refer me to a specialist in case it mucks up the stats if I have to wait too long to be seen and properly assessed.


- New Zealand
02:28 pm Sunday 11 December 2016
"It has been said that Key's handling of the global financial crisis and the Canterbury earthquakes was his legacy." Well, I live here Audrey & thanx very much, not. Handed it over to Browpee after trotting out the condolences & I for one am still awaiting the full ASSESSMENT. Likewise Pike River, tears & promises, soon dried, never kept.

TPPA - US control? Well, every sensible person knew that would be so from square one. The original Labour idea didn't include the US, did it? & the end result probably won't. Enough said.
The spy modernisation. Oh yes, we are so grateful to be spied on by two agenices instead of one now. & if we have an event it's almost sure to be some loner who talked to no one.

Getting on with people. Yes, gotta give him that. Mark of a salesman, nothing more. Someone else writes the main speeches & you can chat golf while sounding enthusiastic about the surface issues. It's a pity he wasn't as candid with the NZ public perhaps. Avoidance personified.

Different? Oh yes, but Trump's outdone him on all personal issues.
They don't give titles to quitters, do they?

Ken Maynard

- New Zealand
12:10 pm Sunday 11 December 2016
Every year brings forth advances in science & technology which appear a net positive for the future. They are also ~social negatives~ as they displace humans from real jobs & participatory or contributory roles in society, so causing personal alienation & social instability.

Environmental issues threaten grave crises unless we reduce over-all human impacts on this biosphere.

Looking forward for a NEW SOCIAL VISION; I suggest the future will require a highly educated elite to run it. While the vast majority being rendered redundant in real terms means they will only need ~functional-skills~

Basic literacy, basic maths, enough history to give them a sense of place, an incalculated social code of acceptable behaviors, plus computer literacy. You are 13 years old, here is your school leaving certificate; good luck with your life.

The future would seem to involve something old something new. The new will involve advanced sciences & technologies, the old the restoration of a near medieval social structure.

As the new order of things is still evolving it is PREMATURE to fix it as such at this time; but if you are looking for futures VISIONS the above seems quite probable.

John Northcott

12:10 pm Sunday 11 December 2016
"and why it doesn't matter"
Because he's John Key and he can do no wrong.


12:09 pm Sunday 11 December 2016
Hi Audrey,,
I've been trying to find a recent article that mentioned, re Bill English being sprung for claiming the Primary Residence housing allowance some time back, that he'd reimbursed the money... I thought the article was one of yours, but can't seem to find it - was indeed it one of yours?

If so, I was wondering about your source for this information re the repayment. I saw no reference to it at the time, and to my knowledge all he did was to cease the allowance, saying only "it wasn't a good look". The sum involved would have been substantial given the length of time he'd been claiming it. Can you enlighten me either way.
Thanks very much..


12:09 pm Sunday 11 December 2016
He convinced Kiwis that fish were far more important to us than personal privacy. Well the gullible ones anyway.


12:09 pm Sunday 11 December 2016
There is one very important legacy from John Key that every one seems to have forgotten and that is the Ultrafast Broadband system.

It would not have happened without him.

This is a game changer, particularly for the regional New Zealand and puts us well ahead of Australia.

Overseas visitors I have hosted are very envious, and the Australians in particular are very critical of their countries efforts with the NBN.

And of course there is the cycle trails . Those of us who have ridden them really appreciate the vision and energy that has gone into creating these. The trails will be there for many generations to enjoy and a great revenue earner for the regions. It was I think a Green initiative but Key embraced the idea and made it happen.
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