John Key has over-turned the most difficult decision of his Prime Ministership without answering the central questions this u-turn raises
So what's changed? That's the over-arching and as yet unanswered question that follows National's decision to abandon its commitment to a two year deployment in Iraq.
This is as big a flip-flop, u-turn or simple change of mind as John Key has yet had as Prime Minister. His decision to commit trainers to Iraq, while small and nuanced, was arguably the toughest he has made as Prime Minister, and he has said as much. And in making that decision he was as definitive as he has ever been.
Key is not a man of political certainties; a modern political manager with a knack of not backing himself into corners, he's always been willing to follow poll trends, even if they contradict an earlier position. Rather than see him as flakey, voters have listened to his explanations and mostly given him the benefit of the doubt. What's more, his changes of mind have been from a less popular to a more popular stance, such as when he backed down on mining on conservation land and class sizes and switched his position on refugees in the time it took for Aylan Kurdi to be washed up on a beach.
But some changes of mind have been against the grain. He promised no increase in GST, then increased it. He promised to do everything possible to recover the bodies from Pike river, then didn't. Funding the Super Fund, Waitangi Day visits, foreign trusts... Key has always been flexible.
Except on Iraq. Key was asked and asked and asked and has repeatedly stuck to his promise that New Zealand trainers would stay only two years. Here he is with Patrick Gower on The Nation in February 2015:
So if IS isn’t defeated in two years, as you don’t think they will be, will New Zealand stay on?
No, because, in my view, it’s the difference between an ISIL which is massively powerful and strong. If you think about what was happening even only about six months ago – they had an unrelented march to a territorial gain. I mean, whether it’s Mosul or anybody else— any other place, that’s what they were doing. The air strikes actually stopped that. It’s forced them to act like a normal terrorist group. So our role is to degrade them. Of course, a perfect world would be to say ISIL would go away, but in some form, those teachings have been around since 600. So, really, and, I mean, it’s a bit unrealistic for a New Zealand prime minister to say, ‘In two years’ time, with a small, modest contribution we’re going—‘
But are we out, then, in two years’ time?
Yes. And so the question is, well, why in two years and why not longer? Firstly, the Americans themselves are saying they don’t want to be there for a long time. They want it for two years. But secondly, if after two years we haven’t done a good enough job or haven’t achieved enough in terms of training trainers and training people, will it make any difference if it’s five or 10 years? I mean, in some senses I think this is about making a contribution and leaving. We could be in the Middle East forever if we don’t take that approach.
So how concrete is this? How concrete is this?
Look, I’ve made it quite clear, for instance, to the Australian prime minister that we’re out in two years. That’s our mandate that we’ve got. That’s what we intend to follow through. And I actually fully expect that it’s quite probable Australia will stay longer, so they’ll either backfill with more people of their own or maybe they’ll find another training partner or whatever. But, yeah, I think the thing with New Zealand is that we have been a reliable and dependable country to do things to help people. Whether it’s Ebola nurses or Iraq or reconstruction in Afghanistan, we’ve been there. Ramsay, you know, in East Timor, you name it – we’ve done it. But we’re a small country, we’ve got a limited amount of capability, and I think we deploy it for a period of time and not forever.
But all of this assumes that our involvement in Iraq makes things better.
Well, it will.
Now I've said before I thought it was a clever position; the two year deployment was literally the least New Zealand could do. We were contributing at minimal risk to our troops and of attracting Islamic State's attention, but with maximum credit.
And I've also got no problem with a leader changing their mind when the evidence changes. So I've less problem with the "u-turn" this week as with the certainty over the past few years. Why was he so insistent in the first place?
Presumably because of the 2017 election. And I can only assume his political calculations have now changed, because nothing much else has.
Gerry Brownlee said today that we're staying to help stave-off attacks such as those seen in Orlando recently. Put aside the fact that I-S seems at this stage to have played a tiny role in that, such attacks are nothing new. New Zealand's watchlist was being discussed when Key made his decision, so it's hardly a reason to stay now.
Brownlee also argued its "a rapidly evolving" situation in Iraq. Except it's not really. It's proceeding pretty much as expected; perhaps even better than some thought. The Iraqi army is being trained, the Fallujah push took place much when it was planned. It's right on schedule. This is not about "staying the course" as the situation deteriorates.
The government can hardly argue it's because our training is going well, because the counter-factual (as Key likes to say) would be that they initially thought it was a tokenistic waste of time.
Perhaps American pressure? At the time, as you can see in that interview, Key said the US didn't want to stay long. But maybe as America has come to the conclusion that Obama's withdrawal at the start of his presidency was pre-emptive, it has become more comfortable about staying longer. And is now leaning on its allies to do the same.
The real damage for Key is not the flip-flop per se, but the issue of trust. About reliability. Because if you are so certain of your position when it comes to the life and death of serving men and women, and then you're not, it makes you look flippant; like a fickle Commander-in-Chief.
When it comes to the lives of our troops, Key has to do more than just say "I've changed my mind". He has to explain what's changed on the ground to justify his re-think. And he has to answer his own question from last year: If we haven't achieved enough in two years, what makes you think any extra time will achieve anything more?