Interview with John Key: New Zealand’s next Prime Minister?
Photograph of John Key by the New Zealand National Party.
John Key is the leader of the New Zealand National Party and with the New Zealand General Election this year, I spoke with John Key via email.
Hopefully I will be getting similar interviews with leaders of other political parties such as Labour and the Greens throughout this election year.
Are you taking much notice over the polls that currently show National leading by a big margin?
- John Key: No. National remains focussed on putting together a series of policies that will lift living standards, raise after-tax incomes and deliver better social services alongside First World infrastructure. The polling in election year is always likely to bounce around a bit, and we take nothing fore granted. Helen Clark is desperate for a fourth term, so I fully expect they will be spending taxpayer money with little regard for the longer term consequences. National will remain focussed on delivering on the real issues affecting New Zealanders, like after-tax incomes which are drifting further and further behind Australia, a health system which has delivered thousands of bureaucrats, and fewer operations on a per capita basis, and an education system that doesn’t fail thousands of our children.
Do you take any signs of possible outcomes in New Zealand based on the election result in Australia last year?
- J.K.: No. I don’t think you can take the Australian result and superimpose that on New Zealand. For starters, we are working in an MMP environment, and we are working under a very different set of Government-designed election laws that were set up to sow confusion, deny free-speech, and curb Labour’s critics in election year. Nevertheless, as I travel around the country I do get the sense that people are tired of the Labour-led Government, and hungry for some new ideas and fresh thinking. National is under no illusion as to the challenges that lie ahead, not just in terms of the election but more importantly, for the future direction of this country.
If elected, what is the first major reform you would like to undertake?
- J.K.: My top priority is to start restoring the faith of New Zealanders in New Zealand. This is a great country with huge potential and a bright future. I want more Kiwis to believe that their future, and their children’s future, lies here in New Zealand, not Australia or elsewhere. In terms of policy – I want to share more of the gains from economic growth with hardworking New Zealanders through a programme of ongoing tax cuts. In National’s view, the Government should spend taxpayer money with the same discipline that households do, and return the taxes that it does not need to the people who paid them.
You’ve said that you will repeal the EFA, will you draft up a replacement Bill? If so, will you take a bipartisan approach when drafting up a possible replacement?
- J.K.: That is our intention. The laws that govern our democratic process are owned by the people, not the group of politicians that happen to occupy the Treasury benches at any one point in time. The self serving laws that the current Government put in place are an absolute mess. Anyone who wants to take part in the democratic process is being forced to consult a lawyer, and the confusion has paralysed political and third parties for the first part of the year. Labour’s intention was to curb its critics, and in this respect, the Electoral Finance Act has done exactly what Helen Clark hoped. National will repeal this legislation and consult other parties on a set of rules which are fair, transparent and promote free speech and open participation in our democracy.
You’re relatively politically inexperienced compared to your opponent, Helen Clark. Do you think the voters will take this into consideration at the voting booth? How does your former career in finance help you in a political setting? How about your childhood growing up in a state-house, among other things?
- J.K.: I am proud of my achievements since I have been the leader of the National Party. It is true I have not been a career politician, but I believe I bring a fresh approach to politics in this country. I am not interested in revisiting the arguments of the 80’s and 90’s or subscribing to some arcane ideology. I believe I am a pragmatist. I am interested in what works – not where it has come from or who is promoting it. I don’t trust anyone who believes they have all the answers on everything. They are setting themselves up for a rather large fall.
- My career in business taught me a lot about managing people, reaching consensus and taking people with me as we work together for a common purpose. In my view, good business leaders listen to the people they serve and fight fiercely to protect those interests. In that regard, if I am privileged enough to be elected Prime Minister, I plan to be an unashamed cheerleader for this country on both the national and world stage.
- In reference to my upbringing, I believe I was tremendously lucky. I had a mother who set extremely high standards, who pushed us as children and never once tried to limit our ambition. Mum taught us that life is what you make it, that there is no dress rehearsal, and unless you make the most of your opportunities you may live to regret that. I try to give my kids the same sort of freedom and share with them the same sort of values that my mum gave to me. That is, if you work hard and don’t give up when you hit the hurdles – almost anything is possible. Believe in yourself.
What parties would you consider as possible coalition partners? Specifically the Maori Party, the Greens and NZ First?
- J.K.: National remains focussed on its own policies to lift after-tax incomes and provide the social safety nets that we have all come to expect and deserve. MMP means that we may have to speak with other parties after the election, and we will do that. But it would be an insult to the people of New Zealand to start talking about those things before they’ve even had their say. Frankly, National will work with the cards we are dealt by the public, that is what MMP is all about. I have not ruled ‘out’ any party, nor have I ruled ‘in’ any party. These are matters that the public must have a say in.
What kind of tax-cuts package are looking at implementing if you win the election?
- J.K.: National will be announcing an ongoing programme of personal tax cuts closer to the election. We have been consistent with our view that reducing personal taxation should be a routine part of Government business in a growing economy. At its heart taxation is an argument about trust. National thinks New Zealanders should be trusted with more of their own money, Labour does not. National understands that taxpayers are the generators of the income that provides the social safety nets we deserve and expect. We will recognise that with a programme that gives people more incentive to work hard and get ahead under their own steam.
Will it require any cuts to any public services?
- J.K.: No, in fact the fallacy of that argument is being laid in front of New Zealanders by the current Finance Minister, who, faced with embarrassingly large surpluses and growing resentment among those paying his bills, now says he accepts he was wrong and that National was right. Frankly, I do not think he can be trusted to do as he says on taxation. The only personal tax cut he has ever offered to New Zealanders was cancelled to pay for his other spending promises – but only after he’d been re-elected.
How are you looking at closing the gap between Australia and New Zealand in terms of the economy?
- J.K.: Starting to close the gap between Australian and New Zealand after-tax incomes is something I take very seriously because I want New Zealand and New Zealanders to be optimistic about their futures. I don’t want them forced to move to Australia to make ends meet. The wage gap that has been allowed to widen in recent years will not be closed overnight – but we must start trying. Michael Cullen once said New Zealand was ‘probably better off’ without those who left New Zealand to live in Australia, but I strongly disagree.
- National has a 5-point plan for boosting New Zealand’s economic performance. We will bring discipline to government spending, boost investment in infrastructure, cut bureaucracy and red tape, create an environment to reduce pressure on interest rates and introduce an ongoing programme of personal tax cuts.
What kind of improvements are you looking at making to the health sector, such as hospitals and ambulances?
- J.K.: Our health system is currently in a mess. For all of Labour’s extra spending on health, the public still don’t think the services are that much better. Despite the thousands of extra bureaucrats, the sector continues to lurch from one crisis to the next. National is committed to delivering better, sooner and more convenient healthcare for all New Zealanders. To do this we will put patients first, move to integrated care, put greater trust in health professionals and encourage innovation and sharing of resources in the health sector.
- It is a very complex sector, with complex demands. We have a discussion document currently out for consultation, it sets out ours ideas for health in greater detail.
Your party opposed interest free student loans at the 2005 elections. Should students looking to study in 2009 have anything to fear when considering voting National in 2008?
- J.K.: National knows that education and training is the gateway to opportunity and independence. We will be releasing our full education policies closer to the election but we have already announced our intention to lift educational standards and a youth guarantee that promises funding for education or training for all students up to the age of 18 to gain school level qualifications. National will also keep interest-free student loans for tertiary students. As an incentive to encourage faster payment of loans and help borrowers get out of debt sooner, we will also offer a 10% bonus on a loan balance for voluntary lump-sum payments of $500 or more.
Do you feel the country should not be concerned at your mistakes you made on live television?
- J.K.: In public life it is often difficult to please all of the people all of the time, often you have to make calls that some people won’t like. But unlike many of my opponents, I have not been a politician for decades. I am comfortable with my style of leadership, which is very future focussed. No one in National is under any illusion about the task that lies ahead. I am the first to admit that we’re all human and make mistakes from time to time. I think most Kiwis appreciate that. The important thing is to learn from your mistakes and I’ve certainly done that.
Why do you feel the country keeps backlashing when you announce policies? Why did you take so long to start putting out policies?
- J.K.: I disagree with the assertions in both of these questions. National has released many very popular policies. In fact, some have been so popular that Labour has taken them on board. I can cite tax cuts, changes to charities’ rules, NGO funding, and Emissions Trading to name a few. More recently there’s evidence of a government shift in health policy, and moves on housing affordability – all after National had tackled these ideas publicly. Our law and order policies have been welcomed by victims and the public alike. We are only four months into the election year and National has released many policies. We have a lot more to come, we are only getting started. We have a strong focus on creating opportunity and growing our standards of living, so there will be a lot more to come this year.
- We understand the public are eager to see more of our policies and we will have a solid programme of exciting announcements in the lead up to the election.