In the year that gave the world Brexit and Trump, John Key gave New Zealand his resignation, a year short of the next national election.
He was one of New Zealand’s most popular prime ministers in living memory, and his preferred-PM rating at 36% (before he resigned), was four times that of the nearest contender, Labour’s Andrew Little.
Some all-knowing journalists inside the beltway said that the announcement was always on the cards; that Mr Key intended all along to leave on a high; but this is an easy claim to make in hindsight.
Only a week earlier, many of these journalists were saying that Labour’s chances of winning the next election were miniscule, based at least in part on the assumption that Mr Key remained a popular leader, and sufficiently populist in his policies to ease any anti-establishment sentiment bubbling below the surface. Moreover, his government is in good shape: there is another surplus looming, a promise of tax cuts in next year’s budget, and not a hint of a leadership challenge or in-fighting.
Mr Key mentioned two main reasons for his resignation.
First, and not surprisingly, he wanted to spend more time with his family. His two children are young adults, and have spent nine years growing up in the spotlight. In recent times, his son Max has attracted unwanted media attention, in part because of his interesting use of Instagram and a provocative photo shoot in Remix magazine.
Second, Mr Key said that he wanted to leave on his own terms and while his party was performing well; he believed that leaders stay too long and it is important to make way for new talent.
No career politician
But it’s clear that Key is also tired of politics. He has said that he isn’t a career politician and has admitted that he has ‘nothing left in the tank.’
Although he is said to have made his decision in September (2016), the announcement came immediately after an intense by-election campaign in a safe Labour seat (Mt Roskill).
Some in National’s ranks had hoped for an upset, and Mr Key hinted that it might be possible, but in the end, National was well and truly trounced, winning only 28% of the vote. He spent seven days in the electorate encouraging voters to turn out but his pulling power came to naught this time.
So perhaps voters were also a little tired of him.
Although the economy is good, the gap between rich and poor is widening. The cost of housing is hurting middle-class voters wanting to buy and the working poor required to rent.
Investment, beyond a new bridge in a marginal electorate, is needed in infrastructure and regional development.
Even some in the business community have recognised that growing inequalities are a risk to New Zealand’s social and economic cohesion.
Mr Key was pragmatic and personable, but was not always respectful of the power and responsibility that came with the office of the Prime Minister.
His departure makes the looming election far more interesting.
Jennifer Curtin is Associate Professor (Politics and International Relations) at the University of Auckland Faculty of Arts. The above article appeared on the University’s website on December 6, 2016, a day after John Key resigned from the post of Prime Minister of New Zealand. This is a highly edited version since a number of developments have taken place since then. The original article can be read (under ‘Opinion’) at www.auckland.ac.nz