Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 18 September 2015
Shortly after being chosen by his party as Australia’s new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull singled out one international leader as his role model: his New Zealand counterpart.
“John Key has been able to achieve very significant economic reforms in New Zealand by doing just that, by taking on and explaining complex issues and then making the case for them,” Turnbull told the media. “And that is certainly something that I believe we should do.”
New Zealand observers may be surprised to find out, but across the ditch our government is regarded as a reform-minded administration. Last year, the Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher described Key as a “neo-liberal activist” who “has coaxed his country into swallowing the pills of reform.” Meanwhile, The Australian’s Henry Ergas praised Key for his “prudent fiscal strategy” and “far-reaching tax reform”.
Hardly any New Zealander would describe Key this way. Certainly not his former minister Rodney Hide who summed up Key’s approach like this: “Politicians with ideas scare us. There’s no chance Mr Key will scare us. He has his power precisely because he does nothing with it.”
I dissected these different narratives in an essay last year, Quiet Achievers. My conclusion was that, on balance, Australian commentators had a better understanding of the New Zealand Prime Minister’s approach to government.
Key’s successful strategy, I argued, was based on the four P’s of Preparation, Patience, Pragmatism and Principles. This “incremental radicalism” did indeed add up to a reform agenda over time. However, the slow speed of implementation made these reforms harder to see up close.
If Turnbull took inspiration from Key’s first two terms, he could become a successful Prime Minister. And after eight frustrating years under Kevin Rudd (twice), Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, Australia desperately needs better government.
But Turnbull is not the only one who would benefit from an analysis of the playbook of Key’s first two terms. Key himself should remember what led to his success.
So far, Key’s third term has been disappointing. The lost Northland by-election seems to have robbed the government of any reformist ambitions – apart from changing the flag. The NBR’s Rob Hosking recently even went so far as to ask whether Key was losing interest in the job.
The reformer’s job is never done, and there is plenty to do. Malcolm Turnbull knows this, and John Key should not forget it.