John Key said he would do many things prior to election in 2008. Michael Reddell examines whether any got done.
Short answer: No.
At one level, John Key’s political career won’t have ended in failure. He remained popular and had had a pretty good chance of leading his party to a fourth term in government next year. But at another level, so what? … [Politicians like Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, and John Howard, and even Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill or Charles de Gaulle] left having made a difference. I’m not sure that same can be said of John Key.
Reddell suggests you should judge Key’s performance by how he proposed to judge himself.
In his 1975 election campaign, the then Opposition leader Robert Muldoon stated that if his party was elected his goal was to leave the country no worse than he found it. That wasn’t how John Key articulated his vision. In his campaign opening address in 2008 he talked about serious change … “a Government that will focus on the issues that matter to you” … “with a plan for economic recovery” … “National’s plan faces the fact that we must lift productivity in this country.”
How did he propose to do that?
“National’s plan [said Key] recognises that lifting productivity … means removing the bottlenecks in the economy – the roading problems and the creaky communications networks that are holding business back. That’s why National will fix the Resource Management Act and that’s why we’ll invest more in the infrastructure the economy needs to grow… [L]ifting productivity also means encouraging businesses to invest… The number 1 reason that private companies invest is because they are profitable and feeling positive about the future. All the R&D credits in the world won’t cut it if companies aren’t making any money. We have to get the fundamentals right first.
In 2008, a young Reddell had found this so inspiring he pinned the passage up on his wall at Treasury:
“I came into politics [said Key] because I believed New Zealand was underperforming economically as a country. I don’t think it’s good enough that so many New Zealanders feel forced to leave our country each year to seek higher wages in Australia. I don’t think it’s good enough that our average incomes lag so far behind the rest of the world. And I think it’s unforgivable that the Labour Party has done so little to address these fundamental challenges.
“I believe that a very big step change is needed in our economic performance to ensure New Zealand can make the most of its considerable potential. Growing the economy of this country continues to be my driving ambition. I stand before you today ready to deliver on that ambition for New Zealand.
“You have my personal commitment that if I am elected Prime Minister in eight days’ time I will work tirelessly over the next three years to deliver the stronger economic future our country deserves.”
So how did he do?
Well, as of this morning “the National Party has now taken down the link to [this] economic speech.” That might suggest their own assessment.
Another measure is the Prime Minister’s own. In 2008 he proposed to measure his premiership not by simply leaving the country no worse than found it, but by “lifting productivity” and increasing economic performance. In 2016, in his leaving speech, he now says “the test of a good Prime Minister is that he or she leaves the country in better shape than they found it.” And “over time, others will judge whether I have done that.”
Even by his own standards, says Reddell, he clearly hasn’t – and he very clearly knows that.
I don’t doubt that he has worked tirelessly over the last eight years, but to what end?
There has been no “very big step change” in our economic performance. What is worse perhaps, there has been no serious attempt to bring about such a change. The 2025 Taskforce’s prescription was dismissed – from some Caribbean island where the Prime Minister was – the night before its report was released. And if he didn’t like that prescription there was no sign of any energy being put into finding a package of measures he really believed would make a difference. Worse still has been the sheer dishonesty of the last few years in which the Prime Minister repeatedly asserts that New Zealand is doing very well by international standards, and is somehow the envy of the advanced world. Only a few months ago we had the nonsensical claims that he was remaking New Zealand as the Switzerland of the South Pacific, or the frankly rather offensive proposition (to all those struggling in that market) that Auckland house prices were just what one expects in a successful global city – when all the time, Auckland’s GDP per capita has been falling relative to that in the rest of the country (and when the government knows it has been making little or no progress in freeing up land use restrictions). And for all the talk of international connections etc, there has been no nationwide productivity growth in the last few years, and exports as a share of GDP are, if anything, a bit lower now than they were in 2008.
There is much more, and it is damning. He concludes:
I could go on. About, for example, the suspension of property rights following the earthquakes, about the weak regard for the institutions of our democracy, or – mundanely – about the fiscal and moral failure that the big increase in (already high) prisoner numbers over the term of this government represents. But I’m sure you get the drift. It has been eight largely wasted years – building on at least the previous nine largely wasted years – in which none of the big structural economic challenges New Zealand faced has been even seriously addressed. On not one of them can the government show serious progress and on some – house prices most noticeably – things are now even worse than they were in November 2008 when John Key spoke of his goal of securing a very big step change in economic performance. He has held office, and left at a time of his own choosing. But to what end? In that sense, surely, his political career ends in a failure much more indelible than that of a mere electoral defeat or internal coup.