What will it take for John Key to lead National to a 4th term? Could he ever be NZ’s longest serving PM?

On election night September 20th, centre right supporters, flush with the enthusiasm of National’s historic win seemingly achieving the impossible of being able to govern alone under MMP, talked excitedly of a 4th even 5th term and for John Key to be able to challenge the long standing record in continuous office of Richard John Seddon. But what is the likelihood of Key pulling this off. David had a more detailed post on this subject

Can National win a 4th or even a 5th term?

that covers some of the more technical aspects of governing that National must pay heed to – the suggestions in this post arise from studying the history of other 4th term governments and emulating their successes and avoiding their failures.

Since the commencement of the modern party era in New Zealand, Australia and UK (late 19th century) there have only ever been eight four term governments with four in New Zealand (these are highlighted below with an *). All eight are listed below in order of their longevity with the number of elections won in parentheses. Please note that UK Parliamentary terms have a maximum of 5 years and elections are called at the whim of the sitting Prime Minister. Australia, whilst also having the same 3 year term as the NZ Parliament, have held more snap elections than NZ due impasses in their Senate leading to what are called double dissolutions (snap elections of both the House and the Senate):

Australian Liberal Country Government 23 years (1949 to 1972) – 8 terms (won the 1949, 1951, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1961, 1966 and 1969 elections)

* NZ Liberal Government 21 years (1891 to 1912) – 7 terms (won the 1893, 1896, 1899, 1902, 1905, 1908 and 1911 elections)

UK Conservative Government 18 years (1979 to 1997) – 4 terms (won the 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992 elections)

* NZ Reform Government 16 years (1912 to 1928) – 4 terms (won the 1914, 1919, 1922 and 1925 elections)

Australian Labor Government 15 years (1983 to 1996) – 5 terms (won the 1983, 1984, 1987, 1990 and 1993 elections)

* NZ 1st Labour Government 14 years (1935 to 1949) – 4 terms (won the 1935, 1938, 1943 and 1946 elections)

* NZ 3rd National Government 12 years (1960 to 1972) – 4 terms (won the 1960, 1963, 1966 and 1969 elections)

Australian Liberal National Government 11 years (1996 to 2007) – 4 terms (won the 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2004 elections)

The list of New Zealand Prime Ministers and their length in continuous office is listed below. Long serving Australian and UK Prime Ministers are added as a frame of reference:

Robert Menzies (Australia 1949 to 1966) – 16 years 2 months

* Richard Seddon (1893 to 1906) – 13 years 1 month

* William Massey (1912 to 1925) – 12 years 10 months

John Howard (Australia 1996 to 2008) – 11 years 9 months

Margaret Thatcher (UK 1979 to 1990) – 11 years 6 months

* Keith Holyoake (1960 to 1972) – 11 years 2 months

* Peter Fraser (1940 to 1949) – 9 years 9 months

* Helen Clark (1999 to 2008) – 8 years 11 months

Assuming the 2017 election is held at a more traditional time of the year (mid November) and also assuming that nothing occurs in the 3rd term of the 5th National Government that causes John Key to resign as Prime Minister, by the time Parliament rises in November 2017, John Key will have served for almost exactly 9 years thus becoming NZ’s 5th longest serving Prime Minister. If he is re-elected for a 4th term then in that term by early 2020 he will eclipse Keith Holyoake and become NZ’s 3rd longest serving Prime Minister. He would need to be re-elected for a 5th term and not resign or be ousted from office before midway through 2021 before he could claim the crown of NZ’s longest serving PM off King Dick.

In examining the experience of these eight 4 term (or more) governments, several key tactics emerge that should be closely adhered to by John Key and his inner circle. Suggestions for National are in bold.

1 – Economic conditions affect a government’s popularity

Economic good times underpinned National’s 2014 3rd term re-election. They kept the Liberals in power in Australia for an unprecedented 23 years – Robert Menzies presided over a 50% growth in real incomes in Australia through the 50’s and early 60’s. Share market and wider economic growth saw Thatcher and the 4th Labour government in NZ re-elected in the mid 1980s.

Likewise sour economic conditions, contractions and high unemployment have cost many governments power (Labour in 1975 and 1990 was swept out of power on the back of very adverse economic conditions). Likewise the Tories in the UK and Labor in Australia in 1996 and UK Labour in 2010 were ejected due to tougher economic times. A collapse in the terms of trade, a severe global contraction on top of the fall in dairy prices could reverse National’s path to surplus and leave it hard pressed to deliver on budget promises making re-election in 2017 much tougher. National’s growth agenda must proceed apace with greater thought given to easing economic reliance on dairy exports.

2 – You must have a plan of transition of power to a rival(s) rising in your own party ranks and this must be carefully managed

In Australia John Howard’s protracted wrangle with Peter Costello as to when he would hand over power destabilized the Howard government. Keating had to fight Hawke to take over Labor. The same tension was evident between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in UK Labour. Holyoake should’ve had Muldoon as his deputy and sooner to satisfy his ambition as his handover to his gentle old friend Jack Marshall meant he was easily outshone by the younger feistier Muldoon. Bolger’s poor handling of Winston Peters led to Peters leaving and forming NZ First. Clark’s failure to have a transition plan is why Labour is in the pickle it is in today.

Robert Menzies was the only long serving PM to leave at the height of his power on his own terms and to ensure he had a successor that was popular (Harold Holt). Menzies won the 1966 election (his 7th) and then after being sworn in as PM resigned as leader and then resigned his Melbourne seat one month later and exited Parliament altogether. The Liberals went on to win one more election and governed for six more years under four different PMs after Menzies left.

Managing Judith Collins will be one of John Key’s crucial tasks in his 3rd term. Mishandling her could result in backbench disquiet that might coalesce around a Collins challenge if National began to consistently poll poorly. Even if the failure to advise her of the delay in giving her the Honourable honourific was unintentional, it created ill will that could fester and was an early unforced error by Key. If she is cleared of any wrongdoing from the Feely SFO interference inquiry, Key should tell Collins privately that she will come back into Cabinet in the next reshuffle if she continues to exercise restraint with her behaviour and public pronouncements.

3 – Disunity destroys governments ….and oppositions

A case in point was Labour in 1990 – its internal civil war was one of the main reasons for its near annihilation. Its disunity in Opposition since 2008 has assisted National’s two re-elections. Menzies stayed in power so long because Australian Labor was disorganized, faction fraught and led by so many leaders. The Rudd v Gillard civil war made it easier for Tony Abbott to win their 2013 election. Australian Labor infighting in the late 90’s and 2000’s helped keep Howard in power. Key and his inner circle must make ongoing caucus and party unity a continuing priority.

4 – Whilst excessive reforming zeal can erode popularity, so can excessive caution

Labour’s flat tax in 1987 was a bridge too far for a centre left party and it led to the Rogernomics related revolt inside Labour that rent it asunder. Howard’s industrial reforms in 2007 were too radical for Australia with its entrenched union power. Margaret Thatcher’s Poll Tax almost killed the Conservatives until reversed by Major.

Holyoake was steady as she goes for too long especially as economic conditions in NZ worsened after Britain joined the EU. Kirk showed energy and vision versus a tired National Government under an old school PM. National in 1949 defeated Fraser’s tired worn out 1st Labour government. Key should not be content to do a Holyoake and just carefully manage the economy – National need to have fresh new policies but ones that are not too radical.

5 – Stay in touch with and listen to middle, centrist swing voter aspirations rather than the media elites, beltway types and the chattering classes

John Howard won several elections against the odds because he followed that advice. The media and opinion shaping elites pounded him over his hard line over illegal asylum seekers. He pushed for major Australian involvement in the War on Terror after 9/11 and he backed Tasmanian loggers jobs over the influential environmental lobby groups. Key kept pressing on with asset sales and the reform of the GCSB in the face of vociferous media opposition knowing that they were beltway issues not influencing middle NZ voters. Similarly his aggressive stance against Nicky Hager and Kim Dotcom in the face of a virtual media obsession on reporting these sideshows in the last election campaign was found to be largely in line with the majority of voters. Cynics will call this poll driven politics but Key has been remarkably adept at staying in tune with centrist voter sentiment and he should not swerve to the right to carve some kind of policy legacy.

6 – Arrogance in office is a vote killer

Her ‘my way or the highway’ attitude in Cabinet ended Margaret Thatcher’s long run as PM as she was ousted by fed up and humiliated Cabinet colleagues. The 5th Labour Government attempt to shut down political dissent with the Electoral Finance Act and its retrospective legislation legalizing the pledge card rorts were acts of arrogance that angered voters. Part of Keating’s problem when he came to fight his second election was a perception of arrogance. Key must do all in his power to keep arrogance out of his office and from his Cabinet no matter how fractured the opposition may be.

7 – Introducing more extreme policies from the more right or left wing base of a governing party is usually unpopular

Keating moved Labor from a careful centrist mild reforming position to more union friendly industrial reforms, aggressive native land title reform and pushes for Australia to be a republic. Clark’s 3rd term was littered with nanny state interventions like telling school tuck shops to stop selling pies, regulating shower nozzles, banning incandescent light bulbs and flirting with regulating sausage sizzles outside supermarkets. Allowing socially liberal legislation to come to the House (legalizing prostitution and civil unions) distracted from core economic policy and came to dominate the agenda a bit too much.

Roger Douglas’ flat tax proposal was too right wing for even the right leaning 4th Labour government. Howard’s aggressive anti-union legislation proved to be too right wing for the Australian electorate. Likewise Labour’s lurch to the left since it has empowered its harder left base with the change to its leadership election process and its need to fight with the Greens for the left vote has made it less electable. A classic example was the suite of envy taxes it proposed – staple fare for left wing parties but not popular in the wider electorate. National should continue to hew a careful mildly centre right agenda with incremental gradual reforms that allow prior reforms to bed in. National’s welfare reforms have been implemented successfully by following this strategy. National should attempt further reform of the RMA in a similar incremental fashion.

8 – Do not create too many enemies inside your own party

John Gorton the longest serving Liberal PM after Menzies in the late 60’s was toppled by his own party for this reason. David Cunliffe created many enemies in his caucus. Under Labour’s old rules, he would never have been elected and his presence as leader exacerbated factional tensions in Labour. Thatcher’s treatment of her Cabinet was legendary in its rudeness and arrogance. In the end they turned on her.

Key must be careful to manage the egos inside Cabinet and not get too far away from the opinions and views of his wider caucus. He should never become isolated on the 9th floor and hide behind staff and he should consult regularly outside his inner circle of Joyce and English.

9 – Refresh your caucus and front bench regularly

Holyoake’s government was tired by the end. Ditto Labour under Clark. Many 4th term governments succumbed to this and the voters tire of the same faces. National under Key has been superb at revitalisation and Key must continue to foster, develop and promote National’s talent inside and outside of Parliament

10 – Exploit the weaknesses of your opponents

All of the long serving PMs were adept at this. Rather than just watch their opponents fight among themselves, they threw down banana peels to kick this process along. John Key is brilliant at this – he uses Parliamentary Question time to hammer his opponents in the split second before they use Points of Order to object. He is also very good at exploiting the tensions between his rivals on the left driving wedges wherever he can between Labour and the Greens. Key’s tactics of attacking his opposition rivals with cheeky humour and quick, good natured barbs must continue.

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