THE JOHN KEY INTERVIEW
They say New Zealand politicians can’t be bought, but tell that to the person who, just before Christmas, shelled out more than $4,000 to have lunch with new National Party leader John Key after a charity auction on the Zillion website. All we can tell you is the mystery buyer wasn’t us. Instead, IAN WISHART caught up with John Key and his deputy Bill English for their most in-depth media interview yet on their vision for New Zealand.
KEY: My view is that this brand is in incredibly strong shape, these are values and principles that go back 70 years. And if you really look at the sort of things that, say, for instance Holyoake was saying and you apply them to what I’ve been saying in the last three weeks, then I think you’ll find there’s a pretty strong match there. I think the reason that the party has endured for so long is that those values are very very durable. Now of course individual policies come and go, what worked for Holyoake and others won’t necessarily work for me in terms of absolute policies, because the environment is different, but I think one of the aims of that speech is to really spell out that while I’ve used a slightly softer tone in the last few weeks, than maybe Don did, that fundamentally we are still going in exactly the same direction with values that line up with where we think New Zealand is heading.
INVESTIGATE: It’s been an interesting time in politics, particularly since Labour took over in 1999, and I guess the period up to the 2002 election, where it had its vicious electoral defeat was marked, I think, by National still trying to establish what it actually stood for. Is there a danger in the slightly softer tone that the clear delineation between National and Labour won’t be kept?
KEY: Well, yeah, look, there are always risks as, in a sense, I don’t think beneath the surface, Labour has truly moved towards the centre, and I think the language they want to use and the spin they want to put on things is that they’ve got a tinge of blue in them, if you like, and they are hunting in the centre ground. Inevitably that’s where most New Zealanders inhabit and if we don’t try and win that space then by definition, it pushes us out to a much smaller audience. And clearly we want to win the bulk of the party vote come Election 2008. So in a sense, we don’t make any apologies for hunting in that ground but I think there will be very different outcomes. Fundamentally, we trust the private sector and we trust New Zealanders to make good judgement calls for themselves and their families, and we don’t think Labour does and we think that their response is always one of the sort of Nanny State where Wellington knows best. When you see the results of the last few years, I mean, health is just a classic example, no one can say that Labour hasn’t thrown enormous amounts of money at it – they’ve taken the spending up annually from $6 billion to about $10.5 billion a year, but the results are at best pathetic. And why is that? Well, because they’re hiring as many bureaucrats as they are nurses. So I think you’ll see a very different approach from us, but one that the public will buy into, and I don’t think it’s one where they will be intimidated by it. I mean, my view is that if someone is looking for a hip operation or a knee operation, they care about the quality and the timing of that operation; in the end, the hospital that carries it out is probably irrelevant.
INVESTIGATE: I see the suggestion that women in Nelson/Marlborough will be without epidural services, because the government has rundown the health system to that extent, in what is a major provincial city.
KEY: That’s an example of where their priorities are wrong. I think you can argue the same case with Pharmac – I mean, Pharmac’s funding has been static for the last four years, in nominal terms it’s been around half a billion dollars. In the last election campaign our policy was to increase their funding reasonably dramatically, and of course we were going to do that by not rolling out a subsidy in another area, but we thought that was a better allocation of funds. Now, that doesn’t mean it’ll be our policy in 2008 but what it shows is, I think, that we are prepared to tackle – you can’t just look at these incredibly large portfolios and just argue that there’s one solution, throw a bit of money at it and you’ll get the right outcome at the other end. I think you really do have to demand productivity and performance and have the right allocation of resources.
INVESTIGATE: From my own time in Government working for Mike Moore in 1986, one of the key things in that first Lange administration was the perception, the hangover from the Muldoon years, of “bureaucracy capture”, whereupon a lot of the civil servants at the time had been with a National administration for years and were used to dealing with National and were very suspicious of the incoming Labour people. The reverse is now the case, you have bureaucracy capture with Labour – Tamihere touched on it in his interview with Investigate last year about the networks that now exist in the civil service. How seriously do you treat that as a problem?
KEY: I think the winds of political change drift pretty rapidly in Wellington, it’s a world that revolves around the Beehive and Parliament, and my sense of the anecdotal stories and approaches below the radar screen that we’re getting at the moment is that the core bureaucrats in Wellington can sense pretty rapidly a change.
So while, superficially, they may have nailed their colours to Labour’s mast for a while I think they can see that the time of this government is rapidly coming to an end and they’re making pretty clear and overt signals that they want to work with us. Of course, we’ll have to demonstrate through our policies and our people that we’ve got the goods, but I think we very much do.
INVESTIGATE: One of the issues, with the State Sector reform of the 80s, and it’s been a bit of a bugbear for parties in Opposition when they want accountability out of Ministers – is that Ministers now say “well, we can’t touch these civil servants because it’s all independent…” – Is there room for more political control of the senior departments and so forth so that you can get accountability back into the political system?
KEY: Well I think you do need accountability. My guess is that the public will be looking aghast at the Liam Ashley case, and asking why a Labour party in opposition were so quickly calling for heads on the National side when we had Cave Creek, and yet when it comes to Liam Ashley they’ve been pretty quick to accept that they are politically accountable but not responsible, and therefore they don’t intend to do anything about it. So I think the public is entitled to accountability, and across a wide range: accountability even just for value for money – I think New Zealanders know they are paying a hell of a lot in tax, that the government expenditure has increased dramatically and in part that’s putting pressure on inflation in New Zealand, yet coming out the other end is something that even the incoming briefing to ministers confirms – to describe it as “sub-optimal” would be gilding the lily. It’s really a very low level of productivity. Yet every quarter for the last 20 quarters we’ve seen the state sector wages rising faster than the private sector, so there’s a real imbalance here. Government is a big beast now, and we need to have that beast performing if New Zealand’s economic growth and productivity levels are going to get us back into the top half of the OECD.
INVESTIGATE: Well that gets me back to the question about bureaucracy capture, because there is this perception that we have an elected political system, but it has been disconnected legislatively from the civil service that it operates –
KEY: Well I think that’s been a deliberate political ploy by Labour, I think you’ve seen that through the DHBs – that was a level put in place to ensure, again, that they were responsible but directly not accountable. Every time you ask a question they can simply say ‘Well that’s a matter for the DHB, take it up with them’, and when you try and take it up with them you get a blank response. I don’t think any of us should underestimate that Helen Clark is a cunning woman who understands the systems well and has worked them to her best advantage.
INVESTIGATE: So is a Key government likely to be brave enough to figure out some way to bring that accountability back in legislatively so that it can control the public sector?
KEY: We’ll certainly take a look at it. I think it is important when money is spent – and we’re talking about very large sums of money – that people feel there is a process of accountability. It’ll probably never be at the level that every journalist and lobby group would want, but I think nevertheless there are improvements that can be made.
INVESTIGATE: In other words the pendulum has swung too far?
KEY: That’s my sense of it. Like it has in so many things with Labour, it never self corrects until it’s exposed.
INVESTIGATE: If you had to describe the Labour years, and taking the good with the bad, what would you say their biggest achievements are?
KEY: Arguably they’ve been in the social policy area, you know, whether it’s banning smoking or changes that they’ve made in areas like civil unions – I’m not arguing whether they are good or bad, I’m just saying that they’ve achieved a result. If you look on the other side, economically, while I think they would point to the fact that there’s been reasonably strong levels of economic growth and job creation, I think if you really look at their policies they’ve just been riding a wave that they did very little to create. And I think when you really look back on the Clark years she won’t be remembered for what she’s achieved. I think she’ll be remembered for the way that she managed her caucus. There’s a big difference.
INVESTIGATE: On the flipside of the same coin. What are their biggest weaknesses?
KEY: Well, their weaknesses are, I think, they have very low levels of aspiration. Fundamentally, Michael Cullen and Helen Clark are deeply conservative people who doubt Kiwis ability to really make it on the world stage, so they don’t invest in things like infrastructure heavily, because they’re just not quite sure whether we’ll make it or not. Everything is done incrementally, everything is sort of second-guessed and micro-managed, and my sense of it is that New Zealand is sitting on a huge opportunity, which if it doesn’t capture in the next 20 or 30 years, will really set us back, because for the first time in our history we are probably in the fastest growing time zone.
We’ve got a world around us that’s rapidly going to start buying the kinds of products that we want, but equally we’re facing competition that most Kiwis haven’t really focused on, coming out of countries like Latin America, for some of our core areas like agriculture and forestry and wine, and ultimately the same thing could be true of tourism. And so I think you’ve got this sort of interesting world where on the one hand, there is this great opportunity – and the Internet is the same thing: all of a sudden people can tap into a billion people worldwide, have a niche product that they can sell from New Zealand and from their home (which may not necessarily be located in downtown Wellington or Christchurch), so the opportunities are limitless, and the tyranny of distance has been removed. But on the other side of the coin, the competition is coming from people that we are not solely focused on, and it’s coming on stream pretty quickly.
So it is not a scenario where New Zealand is doomed if it doesn’t get its policies right, but it’s a scenario where we don’t achieve what we are capable of achieving. I think that would be hugely frustrating for Kiwis, and it’s also, I might add, extremely dangerous, because we’re sitting on the border of a country which is pretty aggressively focused on building its competitiveness – in the form of Australia – and we’re already seeing that: 685 Kiwis leaving a week. We’ve got a brain drain that the OECD is starting to mention as our number one issue, given that it is the highest in the developed world. So I think we really have to worry about those competitive threats and the only way to fix that is to come up with a set of policies under a timeframe, and with a commitment, that are world-class, that do sort of challenge where New Zealand could be if it wants to achieve the kinds of outcomes that it is capable of achieving.
INVESTIGATE: Catch-22 for National: under the new Brash leadership when he came on board, his Orewa 1 speech, catapulted the party back from the political doldrums to the point where it almost won the last election. He touched a nerve quite clearly on this whole issue of race and multiculturalism and everything that went with it. How difficult is it to you as a new leader to keep that support there and yet find a way of navigating a softer line?
KEY: Well I think firstly, that obviously it’s critical that you maintain your core support, and I’d say National’s core support is in the mid-30s. I think that’s sort of where it sits, and that’s probably fundamentally true of Labour – we probably both have core support of around about 30 odd percent. But we had a particularly bad year in 2002, partly because MMP is very cruel to you when you are doing badly because they don’t necessarily jump to the centre-left, but they just go off to a party on the centre-right, and we saw that in 2002. The good news is its kind to you when they think you’re going to win and you’re doing well, you pick up a whole lot of people who vote for a winner even if they are a little unsure. So we obviously need to maintain our core support, which is critically important.
The future of New Zealand is changing and we need to change with it. If we don’t, then ultimately there is no long-term future for the National party. Political parties represent the populace if you like, and we need to be part of that. If you really look at the policies, as I’ve said, fundamentally our policies on race have not changed: we believe absolutely in all New Zealanders being treated equally before the law, we believe in a speedy settlement process of historical claims and we believe in the abolishment of the Maori seats – if there’s a change, then it is over the timetabling of when that abolition will take place. It’s likely that our first caucus in February will come up with something that will reflect, arguably, a more conciliatory timetable around the abolition of those seats.
So really, in a sense, all I changed is probably the tone. I make no apologies for wanting to talk about the language of development, not the language of grievance. But I do that for a number of reasons: firstly, of course as a political leader I could spend my life absolutely honing in on everything that separates us, and these days we are a pretty multicultural society and there are lots of differences. But equally, I believe that we’ve got to focus on what unites us and sort of have enough maturity as a country to say ‘there’s a lot that binds us together’, and even though there are many voices singing the same song, we’ve also grown up enough to recognize there are some differences as well.
INVESTIGATE: We are heading into a world that is increasingly turbulent, and I raise the example of Investigate columnist Mark Steyn-
KEY: I know him, yes.
INVESTIGATE: -and Steyn has just published a book called America Alone where he makes a very telling case that, for example, Europe as we know it with its various different European cultures, will effectively cease to exist within one generation because of the huge influx of immigration from overseas. I think Muhammad is now the most popular name for baby boys in Belgium, and I think running at number two in France, so you are getting this huge cultural tidal shift. And that’s part of the reason they’ve had these riots over there. But what he is basically saying is, the world is a very changeable place and the demographics are changing – in the West our birth rates are falling and our populations are becoming older. What does this mean in the next 15 to 20 years for New Zealand?
KEY: I think we know that there will be a changing ethnic mix in New Zealand – most of the forecasting indicates that this is likely for the reasons that you pointed out, that we have a birth rate that is below replacement and unless we want to see our population fall then it is likely there will be some [ethnic] change.
I think our position is slightly different in Europe. Europe’s had fairly open immigration for lots of different reasons, New Zealand’s been a country largely based on immigration. So I don’t think we need to be fearful of that. But I think we should just apply sound tests, which are: it’s our country, we should choose who we want to come here and who doesn’t come, and in choosing that we should pick people who we think can make a contribution, that can ultimately settle in and become New Zealanders. My sense is that we’ve achieved that pretty well so far. There’s always a process of digestion if you like, but I feel pretty confident we can manage that process.
INVESTIGATE: Is there a need as part of that process increasingly to have some sort of national written constitution so that everyone who is a citizen of New Zealand understands what our basic principles are and we swear allegiance to that?
KEY: A written constitution, not necessarily, but one of the things you’ve seen in Australia, and I have some sympathy for, is that through the curriculum and through the education system they promote very heavily to young Australians, wherever they come from, a deep understanding of Australia’s history, of its natural fauna and flora, all the historical icons of Australia. I think that’s something that can be looked at in New Zealand, because I think it is very important that when people come – not that they forget their historical roots – but the thing that will make any country work is not that we have differences, because clearly we will have some, but we also have something that we feel binds us together. What it means to be a New Zealander.
At the moment, I would argue that we are best at expressing that when we are not in New Zealand, when we see each other on the tube in London or we are somewhere else. I think, increasingly, Australia has done quite a good job of that, you’ve seen this sort outpouring of nationalistic pride on Australia Day, my sense is New Zealand will evolve with the right political leadership to that. In other words, a sort of coming together of what it means to be a New Zealander, and there are certain pathways we can do to help achieve that in a world which, as you say, is likely to have greater immigration as a feeder of its population.
INVESTIGATE: In terms of the rise of yourself and Bill English to leadership, I was reading the blogs for the next few days afterwards, and the reaction from some of the right-wing blogs was, “Oh heck, it’s Labour lite!”. What’s your reaction to that, have they got reason to be fearful or do you think you’ll be able to persuade them and keep them on board for the next couple of years?
KEY: I think we will absolutely keep them on board. Look, there will always be a wide range of views. Again, if you go back to Holyoake, I think, he said if the party agreed with him 60% of the time he was doing pretty well. You are never going to get somebody who is going to agree with absolutely everything you say, and every policy you take as a leader, even as a political party.
So in the end it comes down to a kind of theme, and values and the way you handle the decision-making process. Of course there will be some on the extreme right, who will want to have policies that we are not likely to be advocating, and again some on the extreme left, who will want policies that we are not likely to be advocating.
Again, I make no real apologies for saying I take a relatively pragmatic view of things. In the end I want policies that work, but pragmatism should not be mistaken for not being decisive. I think we proved in the early weeks of the leadership that we are certainly prepared to make decisions, even hard ones, and we will make them pretty rapidly. I think even in my political career in the last 4 1/2 years, I’ve proven that through things like the tax plan, which was the biggest tax cutting plan that New Zealand has seen in its history. So I don’t think people can say that I’m not prepared to make hard decisions or decisions that when I believe in them I’ll back them.
INVESTIGATE: Is this a sign of how you will treat your responsibility in government – as Helensville MP, you were personally not worried about civil unions but you had a large amount of lobbying going on in your electorate that suggested the people in your electorate who had voted for you did not want that passed. Still in a conscience vote, you opted to recognize the will of your electorate. Is that something you see as being fundamental to being a politician?
KEY: Yeah, and you can take two views on conscience issues, one is to say that you vote on your own conscience, only what you think matters and to hell with the people that you represent; the other thing you can say is that you operate in the House of Representatives as their representative. I’ve chosen to take the latter view. Often the latter view coincides with my view, I mean, I voted against the Prostitution Law Reform Bill, because in the end I thought it was bad legislation as much as I got intense lobbying about it. It’s not that I’m too gutless to make a decision, because I will certainly make them and I make them all the time, but I kind of feel like the people of Helensville, who put me there, expect me to represent their views in Parliament, and I do. Behind the scenes you’ll see me doing that quite aggressively on a number of issues, one or two that I won’t bother sharing with you, but I can tell you from a local perspective that it’s been slightly different view from views others might have held and I’ll strongly advocate for that as well. In those instances, if the party has a different position, then I’ll be bound by the party’s position as I expect all of my MPs to be. But I’m not afraid to stand up to the people that put me there, and I think any politician that forgets who put them in Parliament will rapidly find themselves on civvy street.
INVESTIGATE: What about citizens initiated referenda on conscience issues, is that something you’d support?
KEY: Yeah, I think there is some room. You can’t overdo referendums – where you get to a point where the vote is on everything – because it becomes really difficult. And one of the really difficult parts about referendums as well is that you ask really simplistic questions for what are really complex issues. But, nevertheless, conscience issues are largely about the kind of society that we want, and some things, at a pace that people feel comfortable with. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with having that kind of view.
You wouldn’t apply it to everything, and there are certainly times when political leadership is required. You can take a simple example, where there are certain things around race for instance, where you couldn’t have – even if there was a majority – them inappropriately flexing their muscles on a minority. We are a better society for having politicians and leaders who, in the past, have stood up to that. And you can sort of quote Martin Luther King down. But I think that, in certain instances, there is a place for binding referenda and we should not be afraid to use them.
INVESTIGATE: The Hager book that has attracted so much attention in the media, perhaps undeservedly, the general mutterings continuing behind the scenes would suggest that there were no leaks, that somehow somebody has hacked into National’s computer system – is that a concern to you?
KEY: It is a deep concern and I think all New Zealanders should be very concerned if that’s the case, because really we are talking about something very sinister, if that’s occurred. We are meeting with the police, we need to get to the bottom of it. We know they are taking it very seriously. One of the reasons that we certainly hold the view that it is likely our systems have been either hacked into, or there has been something occurring, is simply the sheer volume of information they have. It is just not credible that it was just a bunch of e-mails that someone left on a plane.
INVESTIGATE: Your deputy Bill English is a conservative Catholic boy, do you believe in God?
KEY: What I have always said to that question in its many iterations, is, look, I have lived my life by Christian principles. I don’t go to church, I was never brought up in any major way in a terribly religious household. My mother was Jewish, which under Jewish faith makes me Jewish. I do go to church a hell of a lot with the kids, but I don’t want to hold myself out to be something that I’m not. I’m not Bill, I accept that, but I kind of try and live my life as best I can by a set of rules that I think works.
INVESTIGATE: In terms of the votes that you’re out to capture by 2008, who are you after, what is your target market?
KEY: It’s got to be women. Women are the clear audience – not that they don’t like what we’ve said in the past – I think it is adding on to the message that we’ve had. So that’s the first one, and I think the second is urban liberals and young people. But right across the board, I think there is room for improvement.