The last media appearance Key made before his resignation was on Radio New Zealand, where he defended Anne Tolley’s decision not to hold an inquiry into historical abuse of children in state care, because it ‘wouldn’t achieve a lot’. He didn’t rule it out though, and if the story persisted over a few days or weeks, we would have seen Key proceed through the now very familiar stations of the National government’s communication strategy cross. (1) Say there’s nothing to be done. (2) Blame Labour. (3) Admit there’s a problem and you’re ‘looking at a range of options’. (4) Hold an inquiry, the findings of which you will probably ignore, but will (5) implement if there’s still heat on the issue when the inquiry reports back a year-or-so down the track.
One of Key’s strengths was an apparent indifference towards his government’s policy agenda. There were no bottom lines, no hills to die on. With the exception of major natural and financial disasters, everything else in the country was pretty much fine as it was but could be changed, preferably slightly, if the public mood seemed to call for it. ‘We think we’ve got the mix about right,’ was Key’s first response to any problem. It gave him enormous flexibility, and he’s leaving his office with popularity and political capital unmatched by any other Prime Minister. It’s an unusual way for a politician to go out, because one of the main reasons they’re in politics is because they have a vision for the country; values they want to translate into deeds; things they want to spend all their political capital on. Key did have some modest policy ambitions – tax cuts and partial asset sales, which he got across the line; in this term it was changing the flag and the TPPA, neither of which he delivered. Key embodied something Rob Hosking calls ‘Kiwi Conservatism’ the central tenet of which seems to be a conviction that National should be in government rather than Labour.
It’s not as if there weren’t problems for a brilliant and popular Prime Minister to solve: housing, child poverty, the broken tax system, carbon emissions, low productivity and long-term fiscal sustainability; these are all issues on which there is a broad consensus among experts that the government needs to address, some of them very urgently, even if no one agrees on how to solve them. Key was always pretty upfront that they were all someone else’s problem. In the immediate short-term the mix was about right, so long as you didn’t listen to any experts that said otherwise, and one of his government’s great achievements is transforming the public service into a giant communications department devoted to saying as little as possible.
Did it all start to seem pointless? Another election campaign. Long days travelling the country, months of retail politics visiting factories and malls, posing for selfies, long nights at fundraising dinners listening to donors and lobbyists, with the spectre of forming a government with Winston Peters at the end of it. And for what? Three more years in Wellington, away from his family, sitting through meetings, hearing people out, listening to advice he probably wasn’t going to take, endlessly assuring journalists that the experts were wrong, or that he hadn’t been briefed, or that he had the mix about right? I played a lot of computer games as a kid, and most of them had a cheat mode in which you couldn’t die; the sense of invulnerability made the game enormously fun for a few minutes and then intensely boring when it became apparent that without challenges the whole exercise was pointless. It feels as if Key found the cheat-mode to New Zealand politics – data-driven, populist flexi-conservatism – but that this is a mode of politics that bored him into ending his career.
What happens next? Key will get his knighthood, and get to enjoy his vast wealth, and sit on the board of various international banks and financial companies. National will either enjoy a smooth transition to English, or it won’t – and English has had a few months knowing this was coming to build relationships he’ll need for the very brief struggle that has come upon the rest of his party unawares.
For the past eight years the left has assured itself that National is ‘nothing without John Key’. It always felt like an excuse to me, because Key was obviously aiming at a record-long term as Prime Minister. He obviously wasn’t going anywhere. Now he’s gone and we’ll all get to find out if that’s true.