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More than three months after his shock resignation in December last year, former Prime Minister John Key was still quelling rumours about his sudden exit ahead of his valedictory speech to Parliament this week.

That many Kiwis thought at the time – some still do – there was more to the resignation than meets the eye comes as no surprise. Unlike successful sportspeople and celebrities, few politicians, if any, have been known to quit while ahead. And John Key was always ahead, with consistently high approval ratings hovering around the 50 per cent mark through much of his premiership.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Key has been hard put to explain that the real reasons for his throwing in the towel were uncharacteristically mundane. Active politics had a taken a toll on family life, he said. Stepping down well ahead of this year’s election would give a fair chance to Kiwis to assess the National Party’s new leadership in the run-up to the elections, was his other reason. True as they might have been, many were unconvinced.

There is no question that John Key is among this country’s most popular prime ministers. His state house to Beehive story via being a successful moneyman in the world’s biggest capital markets is inspirational. His ability to seemingly connect with all manner of people is almost showbiz celebrity like. No wonder that he is admired by a whole bunch of world leaders from Barack Obama to Malcolm Turnbull, who waxed eloquent about him and his leadership on television upon hearing of his resignation.

Mr Key’s leadership saw this country successfully navigate the stormy waters of the global financial crisis, with the economy continually managing to grow, no matter how slowly, at a time when the rest of the developed world economies were reeling and failing to register growth in some years. New Zealand successfully extricated itself out of a debt hole to notch up a surplus toward the end of his premiership.

On the domestic front, he dealt with many contentious issues deftly, getting most people around to his side. In fact, his style of functioning made hard things look easy. He connected well with the country’s growing migrant groups and was extremely popular with Kiwi Indians, always turning up at the many cultural fests that dot the calendar. He was a chief guest at four of the Indian Weekender Hall of Fame functions.

Nicknamed ‘the smiling assassin’ his government did take some potentially unpopular decisions such as rationalising welfare payments, which political parties of other dispensations might have been loathe to dealing with. His easy and positive manner generally raised New Zealand’s stock in international circles and in the past decade, this country has featured high in nearly every global desirability index.

While Mr Key had a lot going for him in his years in power, his popularity was helped in no small measure by the disarray in the Labour party throughout much of his tenure. As Mr Key’s popularity soared, Labour squabbled over its leadership no less than three times, all the while stumbling along, offering neither strong opposition in Parliament nor a credible alternative to the electorate in terms of well thought out policy let alone any semblance of stable leadership.

Disappointments

When Mr Key said, “Disappointments are inevitable in politics,” in his valedictory address, he was perhaps referring to his own disappointments – such as the failed flag referendum. For many Kiwis, too, it was a disappointment – not because it failed, though, but because it was even attempted in the first place. Most Kiwis saw it as a pointless, wasteful exercise and voted with their feet. That $24 million exercise was one of Mr Key’s few political miscalculations that failed to become part of his legacy.

Though Mr Key’s stewardship skillfully navigated choppy economic waters, one would have expected him to leverage his considerable economic nous and international financial experience to help broad base New Zealand’s primary industry-centric economy. Not many politicians and heads of governments come with the kind of financial experience of Mr Key, and his lack of action in opening more doors and creating a conducive financial environment for Kiwis’ celebrated innovativeness will be seen as a major missed opportunity.

While the nation might have done well in macroeconomic indicators during the Key years, the reality on the ground seems to point the other way. Social and financial inequality among New Zealanders has increased. While the reasons for this could be many, over-relying on immigration and unbridled international student numbers as a driver of growth are undoubtedly one. It has put pressure on the country’s infrastructure and public services and will take good leadership and investment to put it right.

Despite living for many years in New York and Singapore, Mr Key never appeared to appreciate the virtues of public transport infrastructure. During his leadership, the government dragged its feet for years on Auckland’s transport woes, most of all the City Rail Link. Its policies seemed to favour the private transport lobby.

Mr Key’s too hard basket had a couple of other files that piled up high as well. Superannuation, which he perplexingly vowed not to touch during his watch and housing, which, with his financial nous and political acumen, one would have thought he could have found answers for. Housing will likely turn out to be the biggest issue in the coming elections.

All in all, Mr Key has left New Zealand in a better place. But Kiwis will have to wait for another prime minister to deal with the real issues that profoundly impact on the quality of their lives now, and crucially, in the future.

Decisive action on these important issues would have carved out a great legacy for Mr Key. Too bad they’re still in the too hard basket.

First appeared in The Indian Weekender, March 23, 2017