Stuff

What’s Behind Prime Minister John Key’s Shock Resignation?

We asked politics lecturer Dr Bryce Edwards if anyone saw it coming, the likelihood of a controversy behind the decision and what happens next.

by Frances Morton
05 December 2016, 3:29am

John Key. Image via.

This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.

John Key dropped a bombshell this afternoon, announcing he is stepping down as New Zealand's prime minister almost immediately. The move has shocked the country, but if Key was going to resign before the 2017 election it had to be now. So he turned up at work today, gave the country a week's notice and will be out of the job by the Christmas holidays. If he'd dropped his resignation letter any later, the New Year would have rolled around and that means election year with its mobs of journalists and their insistent questioning on whether he was committed to serving out a fourth term as leader of the nation. It turns out he wasn't. In a trembling voice, Key made the announcement to a pack of stunned reporters at his weekly press conference at Parliament saying he had "nothing left in the tank" and it was the right time to "spend more time at home".

VICE asked Dr Bryce Edwards, politics lecturer at University of Otago, if anyone saw it coming, the likelihood of a controversy behind the decision and what happens next.

Hi Bryce. This resignation comes as a big surprise, right?
Bryce: This is a huge surprise for everyone in New Zealand. There's been no forecast on this. There's been no-one speculating on Key's imminent departure. I think we're all shocked, but of course this year we've been shocked by so many things around the world that we're used to being shocked. This is kind of like New Zealand's Brexit. It wasn't seen to be coming and it's an upset. It's huge.

New Zealand is generally thought to enjoy a very stable political situation, is it a cause for concern?
I don't think so in the sense that there is going to be economic or social unrest. It does remove the most important player in New Zealand politics in someone who has been the lynchpin of success for the National Party and the Government over the last eight or nine years. It has to have a big impact. Politics won't be the same.

Next year's election is going to be totally different as a result of this. There is going to be instability, that's obvious. Whether that's going to cause any chaos or not, that's another question. Certainly the government is in quite good heart at the moment. Things are quite balanced. John Key has already played a good role in refreshing his party personnel, his cabinet. He's probably picked quite a good time to go.

Refreshed, but he mentioned in his press conference that Bill English would be his pick for new leader and isn't that a step back to the past?
It is a problem for National in the sense that they don't have any strong obvious people that could lead like John Key has. Bill English is seen as stable. Although he's failed in the past I think he's probably seen as having redeemed himself as deputy prime minister and minister of finance. It's hard to think that Bill English is the long-term answer to this resignation. He'll be a caretaker prime minister. Someone to hold the reins for at least a year and make sure there's not too much instability, and possibly win another election.

Who will his big challengers be?
You have to look out for Judith Collins and Paula Bennett as some obvious challengers to Bill English in the short term. If Bill English is flailing as prime minister early next year, there could be a possible step down by him. If he manages to win next year's election and stays as leader for the next two years you might start thinking about the younger members, maybe Simon Bridges, maybe Amy Adams, as contenders for the takeover.

Is it just an unattractive time to be a politician right now, with the upheaval internationally? Could Key be thinking I don't want to bother with all this?
I think there could be a small element of that especially when you look at the challenge with what's going to happen in Europe the new leader of the US, the fact that the TPP talks have been so problematic. But I also think it's a bit simpler than that. John Key has never wanted to be prime minister for four terms. He probably does want his life back. He's never been a total political animal.

He's leaving the stage when he's still being applauded. Most politicians just don't know when their time is up. Perhaps with his background as a money trader, he can look ahead a bit more than most politicians are able to. You want to sell your stocks before they start going down in price. He gets frozen in time as leaving on a high.

Do you think there's a controversy brewing underneath his departure?
We can't rule out there is some upcoming scandal. Or something in his personal life that's not scandalous, a health issue for example. I tend to think it's not. I think it's him wanting his life back. He has a huge amount of personal wealth. He can now cruise and feel like he's achieved what he set out to do and is a statesman on the world stage.

He was never a traditional politician, was he at the start of the businessman-as-politician trend that we're seeing with Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull?
Yes. What's always been quite surprising is that New Zealanders haven't seen that as a problem. I would have expected when John Key came in that there would be much more discontent or suspicion about his massive wealth and what impact that might play in his ability to be a politician and leader. He's also been able to negate that by coming across as down-to-earth and relatively ordinary. Some of that is natural to him because he's from a relatively poor background. He mangles his words and talks like a normal New Zealander.

Key's been a hugely popular politician, what have been his big losses during his term?
I'd say the issue is that he hasn't achieved as much as prime ministers normally would. He hasn't been a radical reformer or visionary or someone with strong ideas about improving things. Instead he's been more of a tinkerer and a managerial prime minster. I think people on his right, core National Party people, will see him as having failed to really push the National Party agenda.

On the areas that he has had some glimpses of vision or strong feelings such as the flag referendum, he's failed. He hasn't managed to get that as his major change to the ethos and culture of New Zealand. I think he'll be ok with that. Getting through the global financial crisis and being popular is probably enough.

Philanthropist Gareth Morgan has just announced his political ambitions launching a new party. Could he have scared him off?
I don't think so. I don't think there's necessarily anything that John Key will be scared about. He occasionally has problems with the media and dislikes the criticism and scrutiny. There are rumours of a book coming out that will be very critical of him, written by Ian Wishart. Whether there is any connection between that, who knows. The timing of this book, being published this afternoon, could be related. But it'd be surprising.

Where to now for John Key? Will we continue to see him in public life?
Politicians have a very mixed record of continued involvement in public affairs. I don't think John Key will be inclined to be a strong force in public life. He's already indicated he wants to be involved as a company director on boards. That's probably more his natural environment than writing political columns or giving speeches or analysing the constitution. He could put his hand up for Governor-General or future Head of State under a republic situation but I can't see him being a very important player in politics from the sidelines.

Follow Frances on Twitter.