After John Key – what next?

By   /   December 9, 2016  /   30 Comments

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We must build existing unions and form new ones that are able to struggle much more effectively that we have. We need to forge allies with everyone in the community being exploited and abused. We need community organisations willing to fight as allies.


John Key is resigning from his position as Prime Minister of New Zealand immediately and will retire from parliament at the next election.

Until evidence appears to the contrary I will take him largely at his words as to the reason why. He has been Prime Minister for eight years and seemed somewhat bored with the job. He is a multi-millionaire and has many other options. He was a very popular leader and simply chose to go while the going was good.

Key was not a very ideological right wing leader. He had a personal manner that seemed to appeal to many and never did anything that would upset people in significant numbers. That included making no changes to many policies of the Labour-led government that he had previously condemned as socialistic when in opposition – such as Working for Families and interest-free student loans. The one issue he seemed to have some passion for – changing the flag – was not exactly going to change the world and went down to a comprehensive defeat in the referendum.

Some policies he has continued including maintaining the minimum wage level at 50% of the average wage when its real value was allowed to decline significantly under the previous National-led government from 1990-1999. This government also felt compelled to introduce a stronger Health and Safety law in the wake of the Pike River disaster and continuing high death rates in industry – especially forestry.

Privatisations have also been largely limited to the three large power generators. Whilst unpopular it did not generate much anger given the generators are once removed from direct dealing with the public. A state housing privatisation process has been stalled in the face of significant public opposition.

This government was also elected just as the world financial crisis and subsequent recession hit in 2008. This was followed by the two large earthquakes that hit Christchurch in 2010 and 2011. This forced the government to abandon the dogma of only running budget surpluses and to open the tap in public spending. Net government debt to GDP had fallen under Labour from around 30% of GDP to an extremely low 5% in 2008. National took it back to 25% of GDP by the end of its second term and putting the brakes on. This was almost and orthodox Keynesian approach associated with social-democratic managers of capitalism rather than conservative right wing governments.

So we had the spectacle of the 1999-2008 Labour-led government running budget surpluses every year for nine years and paying off government debt in a fiscally very orthodox and conservative approach. Then National increased government debt from $10 billion to $60 billion in a few years with budget deficits of up to 10% of GDP equivalent – last seen under a previous National government led by Robert Muldoon.

These policies did moderate the impact of the world crash and recession beginning in 2008. The government was also helped by the fact that the Chinese government launched a massive rescue package for their economy that helped sustain exports and export prices from New Zealand to what is today this country’s largest export market. Australia also suffered less from the crash as a consequence of Chinese action which also helped sustain New Zealand’s exports. A speculative property price boom has also been allowed to get out of control to promote a feel-good factor of higher paper wealth which can be borrowed against by the private sector.

That means New Zealand’s debt levels for both public and private sectors are much higher than before as it appears we are heading into another cyclical downturn worldwide the consequences of which could be much more severe than the disaster of 2008-10.

Relatively speaking New Zealand and Australia did better than most advanced capitalist countries in Europe, North America and Japan. The recessions there were deeper and the recoveries have been very weak.

This government has, in fact, received criticisms from some business people and right wing columnists for failing to progress a more aggressive anti-worker agenda. That view is being given some expression in the leadership challenge from Judith Collins.

The fact that John Key felt the need to publicly nominate Bill English as leader when he resigned was probably a sign that his succession as leader was not necessarily a straight -forward affair. The more ideological right wing of the party remains strong. They want to weaken health and safety laws, rip up the Resource Management Act, push ahead with charter schools and bulk funding. Many would not consider English as the man to achieve these goals.

The problem for the National Party today is that it knows that without Key it will struggle to win the next election. His personal popularity was important to National maintaining its support. He has to be worth at least 3-4 percent of the Party’s support level.

Because the New Zealand economy has had a sustained period of modest growth the government was able to maintain a vote at around 47% and get through the 2011 and 2014 elections with relative ease – even given we have a proportional system of representation. With just a couple of extra votes from the right wing United Future and even more right wing Act Party they were able to secure a majority. They could then do a deal with the Maori Party to reduce their dependence on the others parties if necessary for particular legislation.

Labour suffered an awful period of internecine warfare after the 2008 election that saw the leadership change three times in a relatively short period. Unfortunately for them, from the public’s perspective, the factionalism seemed to lack any basis in genuine principles or policy alternatives. As a consequence, Labour has languished at around 30% in the polls since 2008. The party refused to commit to forming a Labour-Green’s government in the 2011 and 2014 election which just made them look unable or unlikely to be able to form a government since they were only polling around 30%. They needed a firm commitment from the Greens to make their bloc a realistic alternative to the strongly polling National Party.

That bloc was formed in June this year. With the Greens currently at around 14%, however, it means the difference between National and the Labour-Greens bloc is relatively minor.

New Zealand First is on around 8% means that their leader Winston Peters could well be the kingmaker after the next election.

In many ways, New Zealand First would have the greatest leverage over a possible National-led government as Winston could deliver all the votes they need even if National shed 4% of their polling support before election day. The National Party was his original home although on most policy issues he shares the views of Labour. He wants to protect the welfare state, he opposes privatisations, he favours an active state role in economic and social policy. He was a Minister in the 2005-2008 Labour-led government. But New Zealand First cannot be trusted to go with labour and the Greens. He went with National in 1996-1998 and could do so again if the price is right.

It is possible that the Maori Party will do a deal with Hone Harawira for the Mana Movement to withdraw candidates in seats the Maori Party can possibly win if the Maori Party doesn’t run against him. The combined vote of the Maori Party and Mana in Hone’s old seat of Te Tai Tokerau was much larger that the winning Labour candidate Kelvin Davis. In 2014 Kelvin could only beat Hone with the support of John Key, Winston Peters and Maori Party leaders all telling people to vote for him against Hone. However, three years is a long time in politics and Kelvin has been a very effective opposition MP and will have rebuilt support at the grass roots in ways not available to Hone.

It is also difficult to see how a principled “deal” could be done. The Mana Movement split from the Maori Party because they formed a governmental coalition with the National Party. Today the Maori Party is clearly the political wing of the corporate elite within Maoridom that has grown stronger in wealth and influence over recent decades as a consequence of the settlements won as part of the Treaty of Waitangi claims process. The Maori Party will never rule out going into coalition with whatever party is in government if it gives the corporates access to the trough of government.

However, I don’t believe a possible Labour-Green led government has anything to fear from the Mana-Maori Party accommodation taking some seats off Labour. If a Labour-Green coalition is possible with Maori Party support the Maori Party are almost certain to support that coalition rather than National – just to prove to everyone that they don’t favour National all the time.

From a union perspective, I favour a defeat for this government and the formation of a Labour-led government. I do not believe that such a government will make any fundamental changes to New Zealand society. Both Labour and the Greens are dedicated to running the system not changing it. However, I believe we can force some concessions from a Labour-Green coalition that would not be possible under a National government. In particular, Labour and all the possible coalition partners they could have, including New Zealand First, the Greens, the Maori Party and Mana have committed to making the minimum wage equal to two-thirds of the average wage. That number would be $20 an hour today. Unite will be campaigning to make the minimum wage a living wage for our members in 2017.

We will also be fighting for a broad range of measures that can be implemented almost immediately that can make a big difference to working people being able to fight for ourselves rather than relying on whoever is in parliament at any particular time.

Many of these measures may not appear very radical, in fact, the more reasonable the better. But they need to be able to empower workers and unions to build ourselves into a force capable of taking on the bosses in much broader and more militant way than we have been able to in recent decades.

In my view, we deserve a government that unambiguously takes the side of the working class majority in this country – just like National and Act do for their wealthy mates. To achieve that goal will require working people to get much more active in politics on a day to day level. We can’t denounce existing parties for not doing enough when they have never really been challenged to do more than they have.

We must build existing unions and form new ones that are able to struggle much more effectively that we have. We need to forge allies with everyone in the community being exploited and abused. We need community organisations willing to fight as allies.

When we get up off our knees we can also demand that existing parties stand with us in the struggles we face. Then we can judge whether we need a completely new party or whether the existing parties or parts of those parties are able to shift enough to be on our side for the duration of the struggle that will be needed to bring about a fundamental change in who hold power in society.

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About the author

Mike Treen

National Director of Unite Union


  1. Afewknowthetruth says:

    After John Key, more of the same, I’m afraid. That is, until the system collapses.

    The current economic-political system is run by transnational banks and corporations, for the short-term benefit of transnational banks and corporations. And that is not going to change any time soon.

    I see that Nicole Foss is finally starting to really get it:

    • Nick says:

      Fortunately, as AFKTT never tires of telling us, the world is going to end soon, so we are only talking short term for the misery of a National govt.

    • Blake says:

      Thanks for that link – afewknowthetruth – It is so true.
      I had to pass this one on to many as it is timely and very worth reading.

      I mean who really cares about the drama and dirt of politics etc. when we need to focus on much more critical and extremely important matters.

  2. whatsyapoint says:

    Great article Mike. Labour has lost much of its traditional support and respect from not recognising the large block of voters who support Green policy as much as they do theirs. Labour would need to show a real and committed approach to supporting the Greens (pre and post election) before I for one considered lending them my support again as I did in the past. I would also strongly suggest that Labour need to show a great deal more involvement and leadership in local issues which, in my experience they fail to do and hence are perceived as lacking in awareness and leadership on a community level.

    • Nick says:

      Labour still sees itself as a broad-church party, where specifics such as you demand are a step away from rather than towards their goals. They don’t feel they have to “commit” to the Greens, rather they share goals with them. Maybe it is for the Greens to do the committing, if you think it is that important. Everyone knows there is a lot of synergy between the parties, but it would reduce debate on important subjects if they were to formally unite in some way. They don’t see eye to eye on everything, nor should they, nor need they. I can’t see the value in a forced marriage – even electorally.
      Sure, more needs to be done at a local level. Which means more active people at a local level.
      People like you, Whatsyapoint.
      If not you then who?
      If not now then when?

  3. XRAY says:

    Your first 11 paragraphs are tinged with sadness for the loss of Key and the great work of National. I do not agree and I cannot be arsed with the hollow platitudes to Keys government!

    Trouble is, as with most things their changes to law were conditional. Health and Safety laws affected Butterfly breeding but did not touch the dangerous occupation of farming. Those kind of laws are a joke because its all about who you know.

    Our growth is in a large part propped up by rampant migration which has had the damaging effect of what is happening in Auckland, namely the housing sector is stuffed. So many people unable to buy a home and so many people in dangerous debt, not to mention New Zealand.

    So many people living in cars, garages and substandard over crowded housing. Small businesses pushed to the brink by spiraling rents and greed. State houses boarded up and sold off. The asset sales never stopped with just the power companies, they’ve continued ever since!

    And that leads on to our employment climate. Working people especially in Auckland struggling to pay rent and live at the same time. Student visa holders and other quick fix migrants were and are brought in as cheap exploitable labour to suppress wages and conditions which it successfully did but that makes every worker worse off.

    Environmentally our country is far worse off under National. Havelock North’s drinking water poisoned, and I wager that will not be the last town to suffer but the elephant in the room, livestock effluent, has been left of the investigation list. It appears most of our waterways are badly polluted or damaged by irrigation.

    Which dove tails nicely with Key again. The bar was set very low for ethical and moral behaviour. No wonder there were so many rotten ministers around. Jokey, beer around the barby, every mans rags to riches millionaire Key and his involvement in dirty politics left a very nasty taste, not to mention his “creative” deals with Saudi millionaires and sheep, or Sky City or Warner Bros or even telling the truth. Or the tax haven that was set up in this country for his fellow rich men. Or the fraudulent carbon credits bought by our government firmly cementing their attitude to climate change.

    He may HAVE been popular but toward the end he wasn’t even liked by two third of the voters.

    And finally if we are doing so well economically why the cut and frozen budgets to nearly every public service since National got in except for the spy agency’s? Says a lot about National, doesn’t it!

    • Geoff Lye says:

      And finally if we are doing so well economically why the cut and frozen budgets to nearly every public service since National got in except for the spy agency’s? Says a lot about National, doesn’t it!

      The answer to the above is National gave away $2,000,000,000 billion a year away in tax cuts which cause the budget cuts due to tax income decreases.

    • The increase in spy budget is ligit if not a display of self mutilation when the US and Isreal launch a sophisticated electronic attack destroying Irans nuclear fissility, opening the door for any number of crippling economic attacks by any one with a lap top, which is a ligitimate concern.

      You’ve also kindly listed a number of economic symptoms for the umpteenth time now, that I am familiar with, with out reading the whole lot. It’s not that I dispute your logic or data, it’s that every one is quietly looking for mechanisms of change and Mike Treens article does that for people.

      • XRAY says:

        The umpteenth time maybe, but there is an awful lot of revisionist history going on with Keys departure. Simply saying yes we know all that and lets move on is not cutting it. This government has any awful track record that is being rose tinted out.

        I mean Mr Treen is taking the PM at his word,an OMG moment if I have ever heard. Who would given Keys history although it is something you may have done with most previous PM’s but not Key simply because we never knew what his word actually stood for.

        • Point taken. We got taken for a ride. Any one can boost GDP by less than 2% when New Zealand’s debt to GDP doubles.

          Some people like to think they’ve achieved much through there own hard work. Truth is there hasn’t been any innovation that wasn’t publicly funded.

          It’s a pity hard right types like to ignore reality

    • Nick says:

      I’m reading that it could have been much worse. Fortunately, Key was a dilettante who abandoned his regular unpopular instinctive positions at the murmur of a focus group.

      But English, with his altogether more stolid approach, may feel that, to keep his Right Wing onside, he will have to guts through many more divisive Right-generated policies. That is both a menace and an opportunity.

      Or not. We shall see.

      In the meanwhile the Left have to look to their own rejuvenation.
      This means (for me) a new Deputy Leader (I don’t think Annette King should leave parliament. She is still way too good and too valuable, but the next generation must be introduced and Andrew, for all his organizing skills, won’t do that, but must stay on as leader, now). There must be a real emphasis on finding youthful,competent, charismatic candidates who are, at least in some cases, known to the community. Ideally, not just as TV weathermen.

      The reason to vote Left must be enunciated. If our reps can’t credibly do that, they have no right to be standing.

      The right election slogan to reflect that reason must be coined. That’s a slogan that makes the point every time it is uttered.

      I would suggest something like: “NZ Needs Everyone” or “No One Left Behind”. Which makes a general point about what the movement is about. Please, not “For a Caring Tomorrow” or “Working for You” or even “It’s Time for Andrew” (Or Time for anyone or thing else.) Which doesn’t.

      I thought it was smart for both Andrew and the Greens to suggest an early election. Makes it hard for English to call one. My thinking is that with a little longer, fault-line cracks will inevitably start to appear in National, while a more dispassionate analysis of the Key years of wasted time and timid Neo-liberal experiments will begin to dim that Media-polished aura.

      Tracey Watkins is usually a reliable National stooge, but she was right in saying in an opinion piece today that, if the Left are to seize the narrative, there will be no better time than now. It remains to be seen if they are capable of it.

    • Words says:

      +1 Xray

      “Your first 11 paragraphs are tinged with sadness for the loss of Key and the great work of National. I do not agree and I cannot be arsed with the hollow platitudes to Keys government!”

      Yeah, that got me too, quite surprising that a so called union man is soft towards the most dirtiest, corrupt and contemptuous politician this country has ever had. The damage that John key has done will take generations to sort, if it ever can be.

  4. Geoff Lye says:

    Also what we need as a NEW UNION specifically targeting “ALL WORKERS WORKING UNDER TEMP AGENCY CONTRACTS” who have no-one acting in their interests other than private employment lawyers.

  5. Andrea says:

    “taking on the bosses in much broader and more militant way” Exactly who are you talking about?

    Public sector? Councils and their spin-offs? Crown entities?

    Which corporates?

    And how will you deal with the frequently struggling ‘family businesses’ – or those that bring in exploitative practices from overseas and use them in very small enterprises on people who don’t know the groundrules here?

    Many Kiwis will put up with appalling conditions because ‘the boss is really nice. Treats us like family…They’re struggling. Etc.’ You know that. You’ve heard the excuses and the shuffling, I’m sure. The CFMEU wouldn’t have a maggot’s show here.

    And quite a few of your members will have side hustles as well as their day jobs. Split personalities. They’re TradeMe-ists as well as whatever their day job is. Or moonlighters – just because of the past 30+ years. Or volunteers down at the food bank or op shop.

    ‘Strong unions’ may mean more than equal power against the bosses – whoever they might be. The employed, self-employed, and barely supported on pittances, could do with informed and able advocates fighting on their side for something quite different from the days of the European wharfies.

    ‘Which side are you on?’

    • Nick says:

      Andrea is quite right.
      It is a complex and subtle world out there.
      Single, draconian solutions may sometimes do more harm than good.
      Best results will almost inevitably come by better representation, better analysis and better co-operation.

      Facing down or attacking the “Bosses” only works for the most egregious abuses. Even in the most hierarchical, industrialised societies it didn’t work as well as universal franchise did.

      Unions are necessary and desirable. But we can’t relitigate the past 50 years. We have to reimagine the next 50.

  6. Helena says:

    Those who served the dark agenda within Governments and the Banks are being wiped off the board. For those who know NESARA has arrived!
    Welcome to the Golden Age.

  7. Castro says:

    The two issues of housing and immigration are going to decide the election outcome. Let’s not forget that No Zealand, foolishly in the extreme, allows residents and not only citizens to vote. Haere ra No Zealand…..

    • Nick says:

      No they won’t.

      I can’t stress this too much, or reiterate it too often:
      the next election will be decided on liking the messenger, trust, confidence, enthusiasm for a better future and optimism. Solving individual issues may matter, but unless you get the other settings right, the phone is off the hook.

      Appealing to xenophobia and division, however well meant, will never, NEVER work for the Left. But not just those particular policies.
      Literally NO particular policies will motivate enough of the Electorate.
      And, by the way, any policy will put off just as many, unless the voters start by trusting you to produce universally positive change, not just fairer change.

      You begin, maybe, by reflecting that your leaders like and understand the average elector as well as their aspirations and can appeal to their better selves.

      Kiwis may be sleepy Hobbits. But you have to think that’s a good thing, or that characterisation will be counterproductive, accurate or not.

      Get this simple message or expect to lose the next election.

  8. BF says:

    What next after John Key?

    Ho, ho, ho, it’s Bill and Benn, the flower-pot men!


  9. JustMe says:

    I know many will not agree with me here but from observation over the past 8 years I have noticed increasing bias by the media towards this government. In fact it has been proven that the NZ Herald is biased towards to the National government. The NZ Herald is over-dosed with pro-National journalists. You only need to read articles supposedly written by say Audrey Young and Barry Soper to see the bias that is rampant in that now unworthy tabloid.
    And so what we get to read is heavily manipulated to suit this government media reports.
    Over a long period of time the NZ media has made a sustained attack on the Labour Opposition and the Greens.Labour more so than the Greens. And because of this I am sure many naive people read what the National government controlled media says and takes it as absolute Gospel. The result being that Labour and its Leader are made to look weak and almost gutless.
    The sustained attack by the state-controlled media towards the Labour in particular is a sham and a shame.
    We are only 10 short months out from the next election(if it will be held in November 2017).In that time I am sure we will be seeing more infighting amongst the National government. Considering there were 5 contenders for the two ‘top dog’ jobs in government in the last week shows there is uncertainty within the government. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the rot has set into this government and deservedly so.
    And whilst National MPs will bicker amongst themselves and fight amongst themselves I doubt they will have the time let alone the inclination to think about NZers and especially those on low incomes.
    So lets await and see how things work out. I am sure the Double Dipping MP for DIpton and the Vindictive(provide names of beneficiaries who criticse her)Deputy PM will be more concerned about their next back-dated pay increase than anyone else in NZ.

  10. Jack Ramaka says:

    NZF will definitely hold the balance of power this 2017 Election it remains to be seen whether Labour can get enough votes to govern outright with the Greens, I doubt whether Winston will go into a coalition with National after being shafted by Dame Jenny Shipley?

    • Words says:

      What’s in National that worth supporting anyway? Besides, Winston has a beef with National for a number of reasons.

  11. Mike in Auckland says:

    “Key was not a very ideological right wing leader. He had a personal manner that seemed to appeal to many and never did anything that would upset people in significant numbers. That included making no changes to many policies of the Labour-led government that he had previously condemned as socialistic when in opposition – such as Working for Families and interest-free student loans.”

    I take some issues with this, Mike Treen, maybe it is exactly why your union is also known to not care much about those on benefits, why you take this position.

    NO changes to Labour policies, what do you mean? He did cut the entitlement to the sole parent benefit like it was never cut before, so even those whose youngest child is only two have to go and look for work or face sanctions.

    He and his nasty social welfare snake head Bennett brought in work testing for sick and disabled, they abolished the damned sickness benefit, and forced those to move onto a Jobseeker Allowance benefit, for fuck’s sake.

    They also abolished the invalid’s benefit and the now called Supported Living Payment benefit is much more harder to get, as they use biased, “trained” hatchet doctors to declare as many sick and disabled as “fit for work”, as they get away with.

    They boast that they increased benefits, but they only did this to a small, selected group with kids, while being parents on benefits, and the meager 25 dollars are mostly abated, so most do get nothing near that, Mr Treen.

    Sick and disabled got NO increase for so many damned years, living in abject poverty, and those are the ones deserving more, same as those with little kids, but did Mr Key do anything for them? Nop!

    The whole work focused drive for those on benefits has driven so many into precarious work that is harming their health, not helping them, and that is what is the agenda, throw as many off benefits, to save damned costs, nothing else.

    Key is and was a criminal, who engaged in currency speculation to make a speculator agency and himself rich, and did stuff all for New Zealanders. Go to McGehan’s Close and talk to the people there, and where is Aroha, or what was her name? She now lives in Australia, I heard last.

    This apologistic bullshit so many offer when it comes to head crime syndicate operator Mr Key, it is disgusting, I am disgusted with this post, actually.

    When are you getting real and honest and name a criminal by what he or she is?

    ‚In the expectation of recovery’, Faulkner, Centre for Welfare Reform, Scrib
    (criticism of biopsychosocial model, Aylward et al)

    When you have “the left” present such simplistic and shallow information, as we often get, them not even researching stuff, and having virtually NO think tank, then it is no wonder that the misinformation, the spin and propaganda of this government so easily succeeds.

  12. Rob Glennie says:

    After John Key, you ask?

    A big swing to the right and hopefully a Labour/N.Z.F/Green victory in 2017.


    If not, a big swing to the right and a social policy bonfire of epic proportions.

  13. Words says:

    “He [Winston Peters] went with National in 1996-1998”

    Really surprised that the following fact was omitted; 2 years later Winston Peters walked away from National in 1998, and publicly apologized for supporting the National government, he has not supported National since. In fact, Winston Peters, unlike 1996, was not hesitate and lost no time in supporting Clark’s Labour government.

    Quite frankly, it’s not New Zealand First that cannot be trusted, given the party is largely on the same page as Labour and the Greens, it’s the Maori party that cannot be trusted, and they have proven that time and again over the last 8 years, and they most certainly don’t have the support of Maori either, who see the party as only being in it for themselves, that’s what I keep getting told.

  14. Words says:

    I can see parties able to work with Hone very well, but not National’s lapdogs, the Maori party. Hard to comprehend the pressure to gut Mana to give the Maori party another shot at sitting at national’s table.

  15. Steve Alfreds says:

    Eight years of a National government and I still haven’t had a Key supporter tell me what he’s done. A total waste of space. But even though Key’s gone Labour can’t afford to be complacent. Labour needs to get 35%+ in the polls and if that means allowing the Greens to be more left and it to be more centrist so be it. National could still win the election, but English and Bennett will be on borrowed time. I think National is on the cusp of a post election blood-bath whether they win the election or not. All of those tensions involving Collins, etc. are now coming to the surface. Key was like Clark, a powerful leader no-one wanted to cross, but now he’s gone the other National MPs and their rampant egos are coming to the fore.

  16. mosa says:

    After John Key ?

    Life will go on and we will continue to struggle until these people who call themselves New Zealanders but represent everything bad about our country are forced out and a real Labour party gets to work and returns to a level playing field and exposes these criminals and what they have done.

    I hope the court system will be busy and has extradition powers to bring Key and others back to face trial.