National Party Spice Boys



Where does John Key fit in the pantheon of significant National Party leaders over the last half‑century? Is he a moderating influence on policy, a man of the centre, like his predecessors? Or is he, as often depicted by left-wing activists, really a sneaky Trojan Horse representing the one percent?

Key is the fourth significant National national leader since the 1960s. Maybe we can call them, respectively if not respectfully: Kiwi Spice, Scary Spice, Potato Spice, and Sneaky Spice?


Kiwi Spice (1960-72)

Our leaders have to be understood in terms of their times. The 1960s was a special time in which equitarian values prevailed across the political spectrum, in which the economic policy consensus was diametrically opposed to the present consensus, and in which political left-right division was expressed through Cold War rhetoric.

The universal welfare state, ushered in by Labour in 1938 under Michael Savage, reached its full fruition in the 1970s. It was an equitarian period in which the public interest was understood, clearly though implicitly, as a separate interest from the interests of labour and private capital. Taxes were high, and everybody got something back. This social compact was relatively easy to fulfil in the prosperous early 1960s, and was defended effectively by both Labour and National governments in the economically difficult 1970s.

Kiwi Spice (‘Kiwi Keith’ Holyoake) epitomised this era. Though pompous in formal speech, he was accessible and unpretentious. His governments maintained Holyoake’s commitment to the equitarian policies and institutions which began with the Savage-led government. The 1967 Ross Report on taxation was predicated on equitarian principles.

TDB Recommends


Scary Spice (1975-84)

Scary Spice is of course Robert Muldoon. Finance Minister for 15 of the 18 turbulent years centred on the 1970s – and Prime Minister for half of those 18 years – he oversaw the extension of universalism through the welfare reforms associated with the 1972 McCarthy Report, and through the introduction from 1976 of what is now called New Zealand Superannuation. (See my paper New Zealand’s Income Tax in the Rollercoaster Muldoon Years: 1967-84, presented this year to the 2014 Asia Pacific Economic and Business History Conference, for a discussion of income tax circa 40 years ago.)

Muldoon, possible more than any other New Zealand leader, recognised that everyone had a stake in New Zealand Inc., and that every New Zealander was a beneficiary of the public interest. There was no distinction between the deserving employed and undeserving non-employed.

His scary style however was both part of his strength, his ability to push through policies that little miserly men might have resisted (including the Open Information Act and a number of liberalisations that are commonly presumed to have occurred after his time), and his weakness. His style put too many people offside, and meant that the transition in the mid-1980s from equitarian to neoliberal governance was very rapid indeed.

In 1981 the three parties that dominated were explicitly equitarian. (So was the fourth party, the incipient green Values Party, which had declined somewhat from its early 1970s heyday.) 1981 was also, I understand, the year of least inequality in New Zealand’s history. Yet politics was fractious, reflecting the global economic turbulence (and another high point in the Cold War), and New Zealand’s historically low terms of trade arising from that turbulence. Social Credit was high in the polls, and the Social Credit candidate defeated Don Brash in the East Coast Bays by-election.

The first shot in the neoliberal coup d’état was the deposition of Bill Rowling as Labour Party leader, replacing him with the economically naïve David Lange. Next was the Karori campaign to unseat National in its Wellington stronghold. Neoliberalism was already in the ascendant in the United Kingdom and in the USA. The right-faction of the National Party was embracing the new Friedmanite monetarist dogma, which already had gained substantial sway in New Zealand academia. (It was actually during the Sunny Jim Callaghan Labour Government in the UK, and the Peanut Jimmy Carter administration in the United States, that monetarist policy prescriptions were first implemented. Thatcherism and Reaganomics were simply extensions of policy programmes already in place.)

The public face of the Karori campaign became Bob Jones, who, while never actually wanting to gain any seats in Parliament, formed the New Zealand Party. This party, economically neoliberal and socially liberal, was formed explicitly to end the Muldoon government by splitting the National vote. Bob Jones himself stood in Karori to undermine the National vote there. It proved to be the first of many electoral accommodations that facilitated Peter Dunne’s long political career. Jones and Lange were particularly chummy on the 1984 campaign trail. The ‘Jones Party’ gain 12 percent of the vote. Jones himself has always been a bit of a prankster; see his latest blog.

(The other agenda of the New Zealand Party was to put an end to Social Credit. Jones’ most rhetorical rhetoric was anti- Social Credit, not anti-Muldoon. Jones always liked Muldoon on a personal level. While the demise of Social Credit as a political force in New Zealand was slow, the fatal arrow was that fired by Jones in 1984.)

After the 1984 election, the Labour Government essentially ditched its party’s own brief manifesto (brief because the 1984 election was called early) and implemented the New Zealand Party’s policies. Peter Dunne needed no accommodation to retain Karori in 1987 for Labour.


Potato Spice (1990-97)

Jim ‘Potato’ Bolger was neither a neoliberal nor an anti-equitarian. (‘Potato’ refers to both his rural and Irish Catholic roots.) Further, he has one of New Zealand’s greatest ever political legacies, the introduction of proportional representation (MMP).

The most prominent neoliberals in Bolger’s National governments of the 1990s were Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley. Indeed the right faction of National turned to Ms Shipley to firstly dump Bolger in 1997, and then deal to Treasurer Winston Peters. Peters is interesting as a political remnant from the equitarian-left of the Muldoon National Party. (Indeed today Peters remains much more in tune with the actual concerns of ordinary New Zealand workers and non-workers than do Cunliffe, Robertson or Parker.)

New Zealand’s neoliberal putsch ended in 1994, though was revived in 1998 with the electricity reforms. We have to thank Jim Bolger for taking his administration back to the political centre. A combination of second-term government moderation and improved economic conditions saw the all-time-low right-wing vote of 1993 turned around, enabling a third-term National-led government. (The huge growth of income inequality in New Zealand took place almost entirely between 1984 and 1994; while it’s plateaued since then, we have seen a substantial increase inwealth inequality in the last ten years.)


Sneaky Spice? (2008-?)

From 1999 Labour developed its own brand of neoliberalism, in which beneficiaries continued to be marginalised as second-class citizens. The targeting, the flattish tax system, monetary policy, and Ruth Richardson’s ‘Fiscal Responsibility Act’ became entrenched. Helen Clark’s work-ethic neoliberalism created a new bipartite consensus, consigning the equitarianism of Holyoake, Kirk, Rowling and Muldoon to the history books, some of which have been written from a neoliberal standpoint. (Michael Bassett was a cabinet minister in the Lange government. Historiography is representation of the objects of study coloured by the zeitgeists of historians’ own times.)

(Note that the apparent conservatism of the mainstream media is due it being almost completely bound to the prevailing consensus; far more bound to it than even the politicians themselves.)

The Key-led National Government reflects these twenty-first century assumptions, as has the Labour Party for the last twenty years. I think the perception that Key is, like Bolger, a consensus-builder is valid. He is to the left of his own party, but not as far to the left of his party that Muldoon found himself during his 1981-84 last term.

Is John Key unusually sneaky? I take this tag to mean that he presents himself as being to the left of his party while in reality promoting the interests of the top one-percent. I do not accept that view. Indeed rich men in power are often to the left of their own parties. (Take Macmillan and Heath in the UK, during our Holyoake period.) We should probably accept that Key is our ablest politician within the prevailing consensus; noting that an able politician is one who is both able to manage the competing factions within his government, while governing on behalf of all his constituents.

Further, if it is sneakiness we are concerned about, then a good book to read would be the recently published biography of Richard Seddon (Richard SeddonKing of God’s Own, by Tom Brooking). Seddon (God’s Own Spice?) was our longest-serving practitioner of the black art. Seddon’s legacy has stood the test of time well; he was undoubtedly at least as sneaky as John Key.



On the whole, the National Party ‘Spice Boys’ have served us well. For the left to make progress today, the present consensus epitomised by Clark and Key needs to be shaken. That shaking needs to be undertaken on the basis of principles and policies, not personalities.


  1. What a neat summary, and from the point of view of this baby-boomer, quite accurate.

    Your tripartite division of political concerns into a common regard for welfare, and only then into choices about labour and capitalism, encapsulates the political consensus of the day: look after the citizens above all else. We’ve lost that prime focus to neo-liberalism and the worry now is that only fossils (like me) remember how it used to be: the sense of security and engagement engendered by being part of a relatively like-minded social and politcal nation. Two generations now regard this kind of thinking and social engagement as history, not part of their “real” world: and we are all the less for that.

    Thank you for reminding us.

  2. Well .
    I see .

    You paint a grand and sweeping picture of our Great Nations Political monarchs @ Keith Rankin . Like the Grand Men toiling like Stalinists on those bold posters of Cold War Russia . Misguided , but at least right for their devotion and eternal struggle , no matter how indeed , misguided .

    Powerful NZ men and women , intent on carving their names in granite as their legacy for us to stand in awe at , one hand on our hearts , one hand on our wallet and one hand over our eyes . Yes , that’s three hands , I know . As absurd as your Post as far as I’m concerned .

    It’s this simple .

    A small number of people make [our] money by manufacturing , then selling their stuff off-shore to wealthy , other people to eat and wear . ( I should mention here that it wasn’t even that simple a process . Farmers grew [ manufactured , if you prefer ] their goods then once a price was agreed upon , under duress and pressure from the banks and ‘ producer boards ‘ , the farmer would wave goodbye to his / her product to never be seen again . Not only by them by way of what should have been their true financial rewards but to us as a population of people living here , on this land so should have been able to enjoy the fruits of our own loom . Instead , I remember the day the Apple and Pear Marketing Board forbid growers from selling their first grade fruits to us from their road side stalls .
    I was told by a French wool buyer that the NZ Wool Board was stock piling bulk wool to deliberately force up wool prices by creating a demand within the textile industries in EU and also playing poker with the exchange rates . This was after the wool was bought and paid for from the farmer by the Wool Board ! ( In the meantime , the farmer was having the squeeze put on him / her by the banks via interest rates to keep ‘ em producing wool at fire-sale prices . Are you getting the picture yet Keith Rankin ? )
    As the product left the cockies gate and trundled down those iconic , NZ country Roads ( Excuse me … A little mist in my eye and I hear bell birds . I see old men waddling about talking cheeses . Awwww ! Sniff ! I’m so proud to be a Kiwi …. so proud . )
    Once the farmers product fell into the hands of those whom you mention above , a feeding frenzy churned our clear , clean waters like a school of Great White Sharks with diarrhoea . They ate everything . They ate our farmers , they ate their own country people and they will , in time to come , eat each other .
    The politicians , whom you laud , quickly adapted methodologies to wade , knee deep into that income stream and are still in there , gorging themselves while the rest of us barely survive . It’s that simple . Yes , it is . It’s that simple .

    No values , no morals , no empathy , nought but greed and the determination to maintain the status quo for their own bank accounts . Remember dirty little muldoon coming back from Switzerland ? That most excellent B & W photo of him slithering off the plane ?

    You , perhaps by virtue of the insular nature of your academic back ground have no fucking idea what went on , and still goes on do you ? You , like so many others , have not one small clue as to why our rich lands with so few people with such a suspiciously large and complex politico are in such turmoil and distress .
    We are a land of only 4.5 million . We have a land the size of the UK but with a population of about Melbourne . We invented refrigerated shipping that gave us access to the massive markets of Europe and the USA … and yet we’re broke as Bro . What went wrong there ??? Ever ask that tiny , itty bitty , little question ? What went wrong with our trade arrangements into Europe and the USA ? Could it have been that those same few bastards who were swindling the NZ Farmer fucked off our trading partners so they snipped us out of the picture for not wanting our few puffed up political crooks telling them what to do ? Europe and the UK were becoming dependant on the food we could send them but what did we do ? We got greedy and fucked things up . And remember this ? The mid sixties was only thirty years down the track from when people were forced to eat each other during the siege of Leningrad . You don’t believe me about us Kiwis being swindled ? Look it up . You’re going to have to look closely mind you . It’s not something you’d read in University History books .
    The Farmer , and the normal ( I don’t like the word ‘ average ‘ . ) Kiwi were , and are , being swindled .

    Yet overall , you paint such a gentle , John Constable-esque picture of our politicians . The hard working Nationals with their best intentions … ? You have got to be kidding me ?

    Here’s a statement and one of mine ok ?

    The Left Wing politician who can bring the NZ Farmer over from the icy , deviant and evil grip of the National Party / Neo liberal / Criminal Underworld Mobsters and Unite them with the normal , working people of New Zealand will herald in a new dawn in New Zealand / Aotearoa .

    As a consequence of that one simple unifying act New Zealand / Aotearoa will become the jewel in the crown of the world .

    A grand statement I’ll grant you that . But hey ? No harm done . What do I know right ?

    Does it not strike you as odd , that we are so dependant on agriculture , yet farmers are so overlooked and under represented ? Unless you call being vilified , demonised and generally despised and loathed as being represented .
    And when the Media do don gumboots and dare to muddy the staff car , they find the most dismal , red faced , wind blown dope they can and force twin syllables from his clenched teeth ? Surely , the media isn’t be being selective for their masters cause ?

  3. You should have started with Sid Holland the toady of the US in the 1950s who took NZ from Labour’s insulated economy under the tutelage of the British Empire, to a US client state under ANZUS.
    Labour and Nation govts then tried to stop that insulated boat from rocking as the boom deflated. Muldoon tried to prevent external shocks flowing from the US-led neo-liberal attacks on protected economies.
    That failed and Lange was given the poisoned chalice of talking nuclear independence but sacrificing NZs economic independence to US economic rule and the Washington Consensus.
    National and Labour kept on course as the global economy worsened until Key the US proxy subordinated the NZ economy to a bankrupt US that is bullying the rest of the world to pay for its bankruptcy

  4. “The 1960s was a special time in which equitarian values prevailed across the political spectrum”

    What do horses have to do with it. Or do you mean “egalitarian” values.

  5. Another really interesting post from Keith Rankin, especially so for us oldies who grew up in the Holyoake years. And kudos to TDB for publishing his stuff.

    • As one of the original starters of an NZ discussion on a Universal Basic Income Keith Rankin remains worth a look. But his last few pieces have veered rightward in my opinion from when I first read his work in the old “Political Review” and some unemployed movement publications.

      Disagree with Mr Rankin’s analysis here, tory governments then might look better by some of todays comparisons. However all through the earlier periods there were communist organisations that drew attention to the NZ comprador capitalists, NZs deputy dog role for US foreign policy and the usual exploitation the workers and colonised underwent.

      Key serves modern finance capital that digitally shifts funds around each night. He does not need to be openly repressive or especially identifiably “neo lib” when the Reserve Bank Act and all manner of PPPs are in place already. And when the surveillance state powers on via manufactured consent from the “sleepy Hobbitses”. Key is a placeholder in many respects but the employing class still want to smash what is left of union power. They want absolute labour market flexibility, or at least the SMEs or tinpot employers do. The scumbags that eschew research and development or more hires in favour of the bach and HSV Commodore.

      The working class at this time is atomised into individuals with ‘choices’ and little institutional memory of the like of national awards and so on. Much of Keys work has been done for him already. The flat screen and boxing day sale consumers love him in their compliance.

      • Yes….a placeholder is quite correct…the machinery is in place, the working people are indeed divided nicely thank you very much according to neo liberal dogma.

        Worse….the days of the Keynesian economic model are dim in the minds of most…yet that is what is needed to return to , at least , ….. politicians with some semblance of that and social democratic policy/principles.

        It is those we need to base our decisions on when we vote…those quality’s ,…a process of gathering around those ones who adhere to the latter.

        Or else we simply repeat the same old circumstances and nothing will change.

  6. “The 1960s was a special time in which equitarian values prevailed across the political spectrum”


    Anti equine bills didn’t pass in those days because everyone voted ‘neigh’

  7. The “Spice Boys”, really? A pretty bland bunch I’d suggest except maybe for Muldoon who had a sort of acrid charm.
    Which of these chaps made our Kiwi hearts beat a little faster, made us more proud, gained us mana, stamped our mark in the bigger world?
    Again, perhaps only Muldoon.
    Kiwi Keith rode on the pig’s back and did nothing to future proof us from the inevitable end of exports to Britain.
    Muldoon, who was laughed at for “Think Big” may well have been right in the long term but ironically Labour/Douglas undid the value we might have got from our own synthetic fuel plant etc selling out (? or giving away) that precious infrastructure. However, a more divisive figure would be hard to imagine.
    Bolger was a weather vane who’s most famous pronouncement was “bugger the polls” after he’d been captive to them.
    Which leaves us with Sneaky Spice (aka the “smiling assassin”) who having increased our debt by $60bn odd, will sign the TPPA (if it proceeds), cosy up to Uncle Sam, sell off any remaining assets and preside over the greatest transfer of wealth from poor to rich but possibly go down as a flag changer.

    So, these are the boys who “have served us well”.

    • For all Piggy’s faults..he was one of the last post war , hard nosed politicians who at least talked of and had in mind the Kiwi battler ….and endorsed the welfare state principles…..

      And I reckon if he was to come back to today….and reenter politics..he’d make mincemeat of the namby pamby , weak bastards that pass for politicians these days.

      And totally demolish Key. Totally.

      It would have been hilarious to watch 🙂

      And he would probably endorse InternetMana and the Greens as closest to his heart !!…and be highly irritated that his ‘prodigy ‘ Winston Peters went feral and did what he did to Hone in Te Tai Tokerau.

  8. For the left to make progress today, the present consensus epitomised by Clark and Key needs to be shaken. That shaking needs to be undertaken on the basis of principles and policies, not personalities.

    This to me ignores the point that neoliberalism is not really an economic, but a political project (see David Graeber on this) designed to prevent reasoned discussion of any alternative principles or policies.

    Yes, the left need to articulate principles and policies, but this cannot be done as long as our political and economic system is engineered to diminish the role of reason and evidence in public affairs. Neoliberalism was designed to end “modernity” to prevent private power from being supplanted. It’s about the only thing it has managed to do a decent job of.

  9. […] Last week I used the word ‘equitarian’ as an adjective for a distributional system based on equity; much as a person who believes in the primacy of liberty might be classed as a libertarian. I was somewhat alarmed to find, from comments raised, that some people use the word equitarian to mean ‘equine veterinarian’, a shockingly narrow use for a big-picture word. […]

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