Today, last year’s third-most popular post here at EnZed’s fourth-most read political blog asking … for all his tremendous popularity, is John Key the almost unique example of a Prime Minister without a legacy?
In years to come, I suspect, John Key’s long-term legacy will be seen as being the PM who kicked the can down the road.
He was a man who without question understood many of the issues a new government urgently needed to address, and even clearly articulated before his first electoral victory what that government needed to do to address them. Yet he didn’t do any of them. Not one.
Instead he smiled and waved, and he kicked the can on down the road.
John Key said in 2008 that "Nanny State is storming through your front door.” She still is. He did nothing to stop her.
He said (correctly) that in hoovering up well over a third of working New Zealanders and turning them into welfare beneficiaries Labour’s Working for Families programme was “creeping communism.” Yet he never touched it when in office, and the unsustainable welfare programme is now cemented in and generations of children will grow up knowing nothing but mooching as a way of life.
He said that Labour’s election bribe of interest-free loans for student was “unsustainable.” He did nothing about it in office, and the tertiary and student-debt bubble he subsequently oversaw continues to inflate.
He supported Don Brash in his call for One Law for All, and ran on a platform that promised to abolish the Maori seats. Eight years later separatism now, if anything, is worse – partly because his government has been propped up for three terms by MPs holding the very seats he had pledged to abolish.
In his first election, at at time when the global economy had already melted down, his signal policy was a programme of very substantial tax cuts –“a tax cut programme [fully costed and funded] that will not require any additional borrowing” – a “pledge to deliver about $50 a week to workers on the average age” – and a promise not to raise GST. He broke both promises. And taxes remain too high, even as government debt and spending increases.
On present numbers and demographics, superannuation is a ticking time bomb. He knows that. He knew it when he promised not to touch it. And even with explosion coming on, he didn’t. It still ticks – and the sound is getting louder.
He oversaw a disaster-recovery programme in what was the country’s second-largest city that took power away from property owners and vested it in instead in several layers of bureaucracy and grand plans from which the central city is still struggling to recover – if it ever will. It could have been different. But it wasn’t.
Aware back in 2007 that housing was already severely unaffordable, he articulated then an unbelievable solution to fix it. Which might have. Yet he never did any of it it, not one jot. Instead he left the the bubble to inflate, creating serious imbalances, rampant consumption of capital, and leaving a generation locked out of home ownership.
Taking office in 2008 government debt was just over $10 billion. In eight years he has taken it six times higher – with no plans in place for it to retreat.
When he took office the wage gap with Australia made us the poorest ‘Australasian state,’ with the average NZ wage around one-third less than the average Ocker. He made that one of his main tasks. His top job. Eight years later, after refusing to do anything to lift NZ productivity (and refusing to even listen to proposals that might), that wage gap remains the same, and the average Tasmanian still earns more than we do.
This is a man who resolutely refused to make hard decisions. Who elected to promise much, and deliver little.
To smile and wave, while refusing to spend his considerable political capital on what former National leader Don Brash calls “the crunchy issues.”
He's jovial, he's friendly, he's cordial ... he's very much seen as one of us and in that sense he's done a good job. But has he tackled the big issues facing New Zealand? Unfortunately not.
If Helen Clark’s inadvertent legacy was to cement in virtually all of the reforms enacted by Roger Douglas, then John Key’s will be to have cemented in hers – while offering none of his own, not one, as any kind of counterweight.
It’s said that NZ is better now than it would have been if any of Key’s opponents had been in power – and, certainly, you have to shudder if you imagine where the likes of a Cunliffe-Norman team would have driven us.
But John Key has done precisely nothing to arrest the slide towards big government that makes the policies of a Clark or Cunliffe possible and the statism they promote still palatable – and when one of their ilk does take over again (and with MMP still in place, against which he refused to campaign, then that is more likely than not sometime soon), they will have a state more swollen after his eight years to play with, and the Clark platform he so carefully maintained to give them a flying start. As Peter McCaffrey observes from Canada,
for many 'conservatives' who seek to maintain the status quo, that [preservation] can be considered an achievement in and of itself.
But for those of us who are reformers, who think government is too big, who think bureaucracy is out of control, who firmly believe in new ideas and policies, then leaving Helen Clark's status quo largely intact (if not worse in some places), is no success.
New Zealand under John Key was always “on the cusp of something special,” which now with his end is revealed as being only the campaign spin that it was.
He is well liked, and by very many. And with the many parts of the state that needed rolling back, and that instead have been allowed to grow even more tumescent, that is perhaps the very worst thing one could say about a Prime Minister after eight years in office …
Tomorrow, last year’s second-most popular post, on the most pressing can that Key kicked so thoroughly down the road … or tried to.