It’s tough at the top
By Roger Childs
It’s been a year full of surprises in New Zealand politics.
Every party of any significance experienced leadership changes, and even the old campaigner, the mercurial Winston Peters, got a shock in the election.
Probably the most unexpected move from the top was in December 2016, when John Key stepped down as prime minister.
Dropping the pilot
In 1890 Punch magazine published one of its most famous cartoons.
Dropping the pilot perceptively commented on the change of leadership in Germany. Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, who had dominated Prussian and German politics since the 1850s, and made Germany the most powerful nation on Earth, is heading down the gangway while the young Kaiser, Wilhelm II, watches from the rail above.
John Key had piloted National to three successive election victories and was one of the country’s most popular prime ministers. Late last year he was confidently talking of continuing on as leader for a fourth term.
It looked to be a mere formality, as the Labour opposition was struggling to get into the 30’s in the opinion polls.
Then in December he stepped down in what was a major political surprise. He mentioned that he felt the time was right to go, and wanted to spend more time with the family.
Despite some overseas travel being par for the course, a political leader’s wife has a lonely existence much of the time, and no doubt Bronagh was keen to see more of her husband.
Tom Scott crafted a cartoon showing Key rowing away from the sinking National ship.
Did Key sense that the electorate might feel three terms was enough for one government as it had with the Helen Clark regime?
Changes left and right
As it happened, National barely missed a beat as Key’s deputy, Finance Minister, Bill English, easily won the vote on the leadership. The public seemed to approve, as the polls continued to confirm the government’s popularity.
However, in mid-year all hell broke loose across the political spectrum.
Andrew Little, decided that Labour would not win the election under his leadership and stepped down. The Party unanimously supported Deputy Jacinda Ardern’s elevation to the top job on August 1 and National quickly realised that a fourth term in government was no longer a formality.
Then Peter Dunne, the United Future leader sensed that he might struggle to win his long held seat of Ohariu. In August he announced his retirement at the end of the term.
National had lost an important ally.
Meanwhile on the left, also in August, The Greens were thrown into turmoil. Co-leader, Metiria Turei, resigned after she had admitted she had committed benefit fraud when she was younger. She hoped that the party and the public would understand, but they were unforgiving especially when it was revealed that Turei had also been less than honest over electorate details.
The election brings more leadership changes
National was clearly the most popular party on election night, but who would back them up to provide a working majority for the Right in the House?
Peter Dunne was gone and so too were the Maori Party. Te Ururoa Flavell lost his seat and he subsequently gave up the leadership of the party.
Only the ACT MP, David Seymour, was there as an ally. So when special votes took away two seats from National and gave them to the Leftist parties, Winston, the familiar Kingmaker, was in the box seat. But he had lost his Northland electorate to National, something he did not forgive.
The rest is history. Jacinda Ardern, who was only a list MP in January, ended the year as prime minister, something nobody had picked last December.
12 months is indeed a long time in politics.
To complete the litany of leadership changes, earlier this month, Gareth Morgan stepped down for the top spot in The Opportunities Party. So of the sole leaders of significant parties in December 2016, only Winston remains in charge.