Yesterday afternoon, at roughly 2:50pm, John Key ceased to be Prime Minister of New Zealand.
Before he left Wellington for the last time, he packed up his Beehive office, and ceremonially pranked Bill English by leaving framed pictures of women’s ankles that he knew would rattle him.
He then made his way down to the halls of Parliament, where he held his final press conference as Prime Minister. It was here he was able to say to the press the things he’d always felt but was never before allowed to: Patrick Gower, your columns read like they’re written for children. Barry Soper, you’d look better if you just shaved it all off. Katie Bradford, your mum’s a loser.
The Hobbit was bad, I never liked Lorde, the 2011 World Cup was rigged, and it’s pronounced “Bro-nag”, he added.
It felt good.
Finally, Key made his way, waving, down the steps of Parliament, as he was greeted and applauded by every suck-up loser he’d ever seen or worked with in the capital. He hated most of them, but he shook their hands and hugged them anyway.
“You’ll fail,” he whispered in Bill English’s ear, before hopping into his crown car, and disappearing into the foggy wilderness of our memories.
But who was John Key? And was he really Prime Minister? Or did we just imagine him?
Has Bill English been Prime Minister for 14 years after winning the 2002 election and we’ve just blocked most of it out? We’ll never really know.
Fictional or not, Key’s legacy will live on as one of the most significant chapters in our political history, and today, we take a look back at the headlines that defined his long reign as the nation’s fickle conscience.
One of the great appeals of John Key was that he took a relaxed approached to leadership, both at home, and on the world stage.
So when North Korea threatened Turkmenistan, Iceland and New Zealand with nuclear strikes in 2013, he was quick to provide a reassured sense of certainty about the situation.
“Well, you know, if they want to, what do you want me to do?” he said, noting that New Zealand did not possess the defensive capabilities available to other nations.
Asked what would happen if North Korea did launch a nuclear strike against New Zealand, he replied “Everybody would die.”
“Could we at least evacuate?” he was asked.
“Not in time, probably not, no,” he replied.
“Does the government have a contingency plan if such an attack occurs?”
When asked about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s claim he could turn Auckland into “a sea of flames,” Key said “Yeah, he probably could.”
Despite successfully selling off 49% of shares in several major state assets during Key’s second term, he felt there was still an opportunity for the Government to bring in more cash if it put Revenue Minister Peter Dunne up for sale.
In April of 2013, he announced that Dunne – like Mighty River Power and Air New Zealand – would be partially privatized under the mixed ownership model, where the Government would maintain a slim majority shareholding.
The Ohariu MP had been Revenue Minister since 2005, under two successive governments, and had not once expressed interest in a different portfolio. Key hoped that this would encourage him to “expand and invest in other sectors.”
The sale was challenged by the opposition Labour Party on legal grounds. They argued that Dunne could not be sold, as he was not an asset.
Perhaps one of John Key’s bolder moves as Prime Minister was to finally bite the bullet on behalf of all New Zealanders, and eat a kiwi live on national television, just to make sure we weren’t missing out on anything by keeping it on the protected list.
“There are many things that unite us as New Zealanders, and one of those is that none of us can ever probably remember eating a kiwi,” he said. “But I think most ordinary New Zealanders know that we often think to ourselves ‘I really wonder what they taste like.’
“Tonight, as an act of public service, I plan to make it so we don’t have to wonder about that any longer.”
The Prime Minister then sat down at a dinner table behind a silver platter with a large domed lid, tucked a white napkin into his collar, and lifted the lid to reveal a roast kiwi surrounded by crinkle-cut chips.
Key then began a determined effort to dissect the carcass with his hands, clumsily scooping chunks of steaming white flesh into his mouth, punctuating his chewing with occasional sounds of contentment.
About three-quarters of the way through the effort, as he was addressing the kiwi’s hindquarters, Key sat back in his chair with apparent indigestion.
“Phew, she’s tough going,” he said, mopping his brow.
However, he soon recommenced his valiant struggle, cracking open a leg bone and using it as a straw to suck up remnants of stray kiwi fluid.
Key was careful to spend a long time picking every last speck of meat from the carcass, leaving it a bare, bleached shadow of its former self.
After cleaning the dish with a burst of energetic thrusts of his tongue, Key sat and contemplated the meal.
“Yeah, well, it’s, um… it was pretty good. Yeah. I liked the skin bit, but I think I prefer chicken,” he said.
John Key was widely praised for his actions, which many believe are responsible for satiating New Zealanders’ curiosities enough to maintain the kiwi’s status as a protected species.
Even the Prime Minister can get a bit star struck on the world stage, and John Key might’ve been guilty of that later in the year, after he was caught lying about having a productive discussion with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Private accounts of the conversation – or lack thereof – forced Key to admit that, rather than have any kind of discussion with Putin, he “pretty much just stared at him.”
“Yeah, well there were a lot of people in the room at the time. I didn’t actually know that I’d see him,” he explained. “I was a bit overwhelmed, really. I didn’t know what to say. I just thought ‘Wow, there’s Putin.’ I mean, what do you say? ‘Hi, I’m the Prime Minister of New Zealand’? That’s kind of unimpressive.”
When Putin attempted to talk to Key, he reportedly blushed, ducked his head and walked off sheepishly. He then told a group of New Zealand diplomats he had “just met the President of Russia” and “it was great.”
When David Huebner resigned as the United States ambassador to New Zealand, Key was given the unprecedented honour of replacing him by US President Barack Obama.
In a written statement announcing the appointment, Obama praised Key’s ongoing commitment to representation of the United States, saying it had always been clear whose best interests he had at heart.
“John has an extensive and proud history of representing the United States in New Zealand, which he has done in his own capacity for five years now,” wrote the President. “I have every confidence that he will continue to advance U.S. interests in his country and neighboring regions, and believe he is unquestionably deserving of his new post.”
As always, Key was coy about the details of the appointment, and refused to offer any insight into how it might conflict with his role as Prime Minister.
“I don’t have all of the details and I don’t bother to ask those particular questions,” he explained, “because, actually, I’m not too concerned about it, and, frankly, I’ve had a vasectomy.”
“I think most New Zealanders would agree that’s pretty funny,” he added. “It means I have sex.”
In 2014, when John Key was caught having had private phone conversations with Whale Oil blogger Cameron Slater, he sought to clarify that he never spoke to Slater in his capacity as Prime Minister.
“On those occasions where I have had dialogue with Cameron, for a variety of reasons, it was never, to my memory, in my capacity as Prime Minister,” Key told Parliament. “I spoke to Cameron Slater not as myself, but as a sponge.”
He further clarified that, in his conversations with the blogger, he was “more of a kitchen sponge” and “not so much something you’d find in the shower or bath.”
When Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton criticized the National Government in 2015, Key was quick to respond, saying he was “disappointed” by her remarks, but not “overly worried” because The Luminaries “wasn’t my cup of tea, anyway.”
He granted her that it was a “pretty good” novel about “the moon,” but he had “read better.”
“I mean, obviously, look, yeah, I think most New Zealanders would agree that Eleanor did pretty well and we’re all quite proud of her,” he said. “But at the end of the day, they’d probably say ‘Look, I haven’t read the copy I was given for Christmas, and neither have any of my friends, and my kids thought it was boring because there were no dragons.’ And that’s just how it is, but all the best to her.”
Key said that, ultimately, there were “much better” and “more famous” pieces of New Zealand literature, such as “The Lord of the Rings” and “that one about the hairy black dog.”
“Look, to be frank, it’s just the Man Booker Prize, which we also have to keep in mind,” he added, upon being pressed further. “The best books don’t usually win that prize; it’s a prize for boring books.
“I’m fairly certain that there hasn’t been a Jack Reacher novel to win that prize, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar didn’t win one either.”
“I think if your prize hasn’t been awarded to The Very Hungry Caterpillar it says something about your prize,” he concluded.
If Key’s resignation last week came as any surprise, there were potentially signs of him tiring as early as two years ago, when he seemed to regret having ever become Prime Minister in the first place.
In an unveiling a plan that would move 8,000 state homes into private ownership, Key said he hoped it would prevent any other child who grew up in a state house – like he did – from ever ascending to the job.
To an Auckland Rotary audience, Key recounted at length his experiences growing up in a state house, and how it had helped him gain a foothold on his path to attaining what he described as “the worst job in the world,” Prime Minister.
“It is lamentable that, when I was a kid, we lived in a New Zealand where a child of extremely poor wealth could rise and rise, become so happy, and then somehow end up here; in a job where no one ever leaves you alone, you have about 3 hours a week to spend with your family, whose names you’ve forgotten, and you can’t even tell a joke like a normal human being.
“It is my belief, and the Government’s belief, that no poor child should be forced to endure this success.”
The remarks drew a standing ovation from Rotary members, who required medical attention afterwards.
Labour’s new leader, Andrew Little, criticised the plan, saying it would be more effective to prevent poor kids from becoming Prime Minister by moving all state houses to places with no hope or job prospects, such as Palmerston North, or New Plymouth.
“I was born in New Plymouth,” said Little, “and I’ll never become Prime Minister.”
If he wasn’t already, John Key solidified his status as the everyman Prime Minister early last year when he decided not to attend Waitangi celebrations because it was a public holiday, and thus his day off.
While on Te Tii Marae the day beforehand, Key promised he would be there “well into the evening,” but he also attempted to make clear to everybody that this was “one day only.”
“As you know, tomorrow is Waitangi Day, and this is sort of, you know, this is work for me, so I won’t be here,” he said, smiling.
“Will you guys be here or are you just going to flag?” he asked. There was silence.
Despite this, Key did say he was having a great time at Waitangi and was most looking forward to “the haka.”
“You don’t get many days off a year,” he said, further explaining his decision to be absent on Waitangi Day itself, “and you know, this is a public holiday, it’s a long weekend. So instead of coming out here to Paihia we decided we’re just going to embrace what these sorts of holidays are really all about: sitting at home and playing computer games.”
Key always tried to be a fierce advocate for New Zealand on the world stage, and when his predecessor Helen Clark ran for the position of UN Secretary General earlier this year, he was her most vocal advocate.
“At the end of nine years, Helen was tired, worn out, had utterly failed her country and its people. Her government was a disaster, taking New Zealand down the road to an out-of-control nanny state that would hurt the taxpayer at the expense of the taxpayer,” he said. “You should elect her Secretary General of the United Nations.”
He went on to detail his arguments from the 2008 election, about why he should have been elected in place of her.
“I knew, when I saw the direction Helen had taken us, how her government had handled the budget, and failed to address the housing crisis, that I would do a far better job of handling the budget and failing to address the housing crisis,” said Key. “You should elect her Secretary General of the United Nations.”
“I knew I would be a better Prime Minister, and actually, basically, I think history has borne that out at this point. She won three terms. I won five.”
“At this rate, anyway,” he added.
Those listening in the assembly appeared confused, and there was a smattering of claps here and there.
“Helen was totally unequipped to lead New Zealand,” he concluded. “Helen is fully equipped to lead these United Nations, and she has my unequivocal endorsement.”
John Key wasn’t always the most responsive in a crisis, and he got a lot of criticism just two months ago after his uncharacteristically slow response to an All Black having a sex in a toilet, possibly the biggest news story of the year.
Key waited a whole six hours – an extraordinary period of time – to address the news, which many now say he should’ve known about “much earlier,” given that the incident itself happened weeks prior.
This led to speculation that Key wasn’t getting on-the-ground briefings about All Blacks activity, sexual or otherwise, which opposition leaders described as unacceptable.
When Key finally spoke on the incident, he said that Smith had “clearly let himself and those that are close to him down,” and that he would “probably be reflecting on that.”
“He’s embarrassed the All Blacks, he’s an integral part of the All Blacks, actually, so he won’t want to be sitting on the sidelines, and frankly, he’s embarrassed himself a bit.
“I think most New Zealanders would probably agree that sex is something that should be done in a private place, preferably with consenting adults.”
Key said he took “appropriate time” to “ascertain all of the facts” before commenting, and had visited the toilet cubicle personally.
John Key left his greatest act of political theatre until last, shocking everybody by resigning at a totally different time of day than what would have been anticipated.
In his final press conference, he acknowledged the bizarre break from protocol.
“Oh, well, look, I think most New Zealanders would agree that at the end of the day, I made a decision,” he said, “and I made that decision at the end of the day, on a different day, and at the end of that day, I decided that today, before the end of the day, I would, at the end of the day, on a different day altogether, resign.”
“Oh, well, look, you know, if you like,” he added. “So, yeah, pretty much.”
Key said he had been “immensely privileged” to serve as Prime Minister of New Zealand for eight years, during which time he had experienced “a great deal.”
“I certainly think most New Zealanders, if you asked them, would agree that I’ve been Prime Minister for eight years, and during that time, we’ve done some things,” he said. “I think they’d agree that when you’re in government, you do some things, and some of those things work, if you like, and some things don’t work overly well, and you have some ministers, and that’s just kind of how it goes, fairly standard stuff really.”
He felt his resignation wasn’t “an overly big deal or anything.”
Asked what kind of legacy he felt he’d left, Key replied “Yeah.”
The decision to resign was a difficult one, he explained, but at the middle of the day, he didn’t think he could go another three years having to look at Patrick Gower’s face.
“So I’m happy to say, this will be the last time,” he said.
Key finished his press conference smiling and joking, saying “not overly”, as he slowly faded from reality as the bizarre figment of our imaginations he always was.
John Key became the leader of National in 2006, at a time of great need for the party. After Don Brash upset all the brown people, Key was appointed to act like nothing had happened.
It worked brilliantly.
Not only did he defeat Helen Clark in 2008, he went on to win re-election by historic margins in 2011 and 2014, and was on track for a similar result in 2017, 2020, 2023, 2026, 2029, 2032, 2035, and in the 2036 snap election.
After a brutal financial crisis, he oversaw New Zealand’s return to surplus, and successfully led the country through the housing challenge, and into the housing crisis.
John Key was undoubtedly one of the greatest Prime Ministers in New Zealand history.
He taught us all that it’s better to be liked and do nothing at all, than to not be liked and do something at all.
He taught us that the best way to spend political capital is to not, but rather put it in a bank and let it accrue interest until you finally resign and somebody else has to deal with it.
He was an incrementalist, who taught us that incrementalists of the past have been too eager, and that there’s no reason to implement any of the increments all at once, when you can implement each increment in increments.
He taught us that if you find yourself having bullied someone, the right thing to do is to buy them two bottles of wine and act like nothing happened.
But most importantly of all, he taught other politicians what New Zealanders really want to see in them: nothing at all, just leave it as it is, and make sure beer’s still affordable.