Resignation opens key to uncertainty

Issue 360 December 15, 2016

Presidents and Prime Ministers who are at the height of their popularity do not quit, not the least at a time when their country needs them.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key shocked his colleagues and friends and shocked the rest of the world when he announced on Monday, December 5, 2016 that he was stepping down from office and that exactly a week later, he would leave his impressive desk on the Ninth Floor of the Beehive in Wellington’s Parliament Building and become a backbencher in the Debating Chamber.

He did not cite any reason for this unusual move, except to say that his family needed him and ten years in active politics (eight of them as Prime Minister) had come with a heavy price.

Developing crisis

Although Mr Key assured the Nation that there were no conspiracies or health issues that drove him to make this totally surprising move, the social media was awash with speculations. But one fact stood out prominently: that the Party that he bound together for ten years- first as the Leader of the Opposition and soon thereafter as Prime Minister, would involve itself in a leadership crisis and soon openly bicker over choices, forming opposing camps.

Mr Key named Bill English, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister as his preferred successor hoped that the National Party Caucus would elect him.

Mr English, who is less chirpy than Mr Key and led his Party to a resounding defeat in 2002, was briefly challenged for National’s leadership by two colleagues (Police & Corrections Minister Judith Collins and Health Minister Jonathan Coleman) in the cabinet. But they have withdrawn, paving the way for his coronation.

The selection of Social Housing and State Services Minister Paula Bennett as Deputy Prime Minister could temporarily calm steamy waters.

Mr English could just be a quick fix. For, although he has never run for this office earlier (save for holding it while Mr Key was overseas on numerous occasions), his ability as the the chief executive of the country has not been tested.

Rippling effect

The exit of Dr Don Brash as the leader of the National Party in November 2006 had a rippling effect among the frontbenchers across the Treasury occupied by the Labour Party and its alliance in Parliament but the hoo-ha died down as quickly as it rose; in fact, it was so short-lived that it went almost unnoticed.

Mr Key, who emerged as the uncontested leader was initially seen as a candidate of convenience and an antidote to the smote that National had suffered. He was in effect the instrument of painless change, orchestrating a move which could have otherwise caused ruptures. But he was quick to consolidate the Party, bring together the otherwise divided members the Caucus and garner support from the National machinery nationwide. The Party saw in him a promise and they rallied around him.

They were not disappointed.

The National Party has never had it so good. With impressive ratings in opinion polls, and with Mr Key remaining high as the Preferred Prime Minister, National had its going well.

But his exit could change fortunes.

Clearly, the National Party cannot afford another division.

Stability in Labour

On the other hand, the Labour Party, on its fourth leader since Helen Clark, beaten by Mr Key in 2008, has won a measure of stability since 2014 under Andrew Little, a steady former trade unionist who calls for greater fairness, focusing on the rise of homelessness. His lot has agreed to cooperate with the Green Party, a tactic that helped it to its by-election victory in Mt Roskill on December 3, 2016.

His supporters and for time time being his critics may be willing to give him a chance.

Meanwhile Winston Peters, who leads the populist New Zealand First party, is calling for curbs on immigration and the free market. Although his Party only polls around 10%, it could end up holding the balance of power in a close election.

Whether or not the National Party retains power next year, Mr Key must go down as one of New Zealand’s most successful leaders.

Under his stewardship, the country can claim to be one of the world’s most successful economies having weathered through a number natural disasters and accidents.

The National Party is clearly at crossroads now. Time will tell whether it would turn left or right or even stay put.

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