As John Key exits stage centre undefeated and to much applause, the question becomes who will be bold enough to take up his mantle in the middle? As voters start shopping around, who's looking the part to succeed him? 

John Key's resignation is an immense shock in a year of immense shocks, but it also lays down a gauntlet to those who would be in government next year. The speculations about where we go from here are delicious, but we know for sure today that Key leaves as the most popular politician since perhaps Kirk or Muldoon in their pomp and the person who wants to lead after next year's election will have to define themselves in response to him and the political landscape he has carved out.

The question now is who will seize this moment. Who has the courage to be bold? Or, perhaps, the courage to hold their nerve? Because every political door is now open. This is a rare moment where just about anything is possible. And we'll get to find out just how substantial the Key magic really is. 

For National, does Key's endorsement of Bill English carry sufficient weight to sideline the potential challenges? Is the party as stable as it has looked under Key, or without the glue of his popularity, will the factions arise? Politicians only get so many chances to run for leadership, and even fewer to be Prime Minister. It will be an immense test of discipline to avoid a leadership race. Unless...

And this is where the speculation arises. Does English want the Prime Ministership on his CV regardless and does he even want to commit to another four years in harness? It's a risk, personally. Yes, there's the chance he could win and help National break the nine year rule, but history is against him. Certainly, he can claim as much credit for National's strengths as Key could. But he's also risking becoming a two-time loser. There's every chance that he, a bit like Phil Goff (or himself in 1992), might end up taking a loss for the team while they identify a long-term successor.

At least, he may think, like a Mike Moore or a Jenny Shipley, he could claim the title, even if it is at the end of another's dominant era. He could still make his mark and have his name on the board. 

Part of that mark could be preparing the next generation. While the received wisdom tonight seems to be that he could bring Steven Joyce in as either deputy and/or finance, how much more forward thinking to bring the next generation into such roles? Why not make Amy Adams deputy and Simon Bridges finance? It says rejuvenation to the public, keeps them in his camp (for now at least), and readies the party, should he lose next year. (And, let's be honest, it keep Judith Collins at bay, something he will want to do).

The final question, should English step up, is whether he should or could go to the country. There's no constitutional justification, no need to steady the ship of state. But he could potentially argue that he wants a new mandate, thereby riding the Key wave before it crashes on the beach of public apathy.

When Winston Peters walked out on the National-New Zealand First coalition, Shipley chose stability over political risk. She decided to see out the term, perhaps for the best of reasons. But sometimes political opportunism works and, while it doesn't seem in his nature, English might be tempted to have a crack. 

Of course, it may not be a decision English gets to make. Will other potential successors, Collins included, be willing to wait? Or, like Mike Moore in 1993, might they be willing to take a short run at the job a) for the party's sake and b) just so they can have the top job on their resume? This bus only comes by so often.

Collins - and perhaps Bennett - has to consider whether they're best placed to seize the ring as it flies by or wait for a potential loss next year and come in with a fresh three year run from opposition. The phones will be running hot as Collins figures out how brave she wants to be at this stage.

But perhaps the biggest question of political courage lies at the door of Andrew Little. Arguably the luckiest man in New Zealand politics, he came to the Labour leadership at a time when another change was simply unimaginable and now he's been handed the political gift of a lifetime.

Has he got the nous and the hunger to see it for what it is and grab his chance. There's every possibility National's polls could start to slide - even plummet - without Key. Any successor will pale in comparison with the public. Suddenly, that magic figure of 35 percent for Labour doesn't look so impossible. 

But there's no law of gravity that says the soft National vote has to go to Labour. Winston Peters has a chance - if a somewhat slim one - or taking New Zealand First to new heights. So Little has to act decisively to see off Peters.

That's not what Labour's left wants to hear. They'll be arguing for the chance to win an election on their terms. That would be to look a gift horse in the mouth. 

This is Little's chance to grab the centre, if he heeds the call. Labour's angst about how much space to leave on its left and how much to cleave to the centre has been decided for it. Leave the left to the Greens; that does them little harm. They now have an unparalleled chance to regain relevance in the soft middle, to speak to the old Labour strivers who just want to see them and theirs doing a bit better year to year and know that their government isn't going to squander their hard work.

Maybe Labour could play National's trick, and steal some of its policies. Labour won't want to see it this way, but I'm going to say it any way. The coming weeks is a job interview for who gets to be Key's successor. (I said successor, not mimic). And Little is a candidate. Especially against Collins, but even against English. 

Who can find the words and make the connection? Because suddenly voters are going to be shopping around, looking at the same political goods in the new light. 

Little needs to accept that Key has been popular and has delivered policies a winning bloc of kiwis like. Little should not be so proud as to try to take Key's mantle in the middle. He will have plenty of time in office to paint it as red as he likes, but he's got to win first.

After almost nine years, and now without Key, some voters will be will willing to detach from National. But if Little genuinely thinks Mt Roskill or any other indicators suggest a sweeping mood for change, he's likely to squander this moment. 

Roskill was more than else a local result; a vote for candidates and issues, not parties. If Labour misreads that, this moment will pass them by. 

Little's goal now has to be to get big enough to lead a two party coalition. And, as hard as this will be for the Greens to hear, the second party is likely to be New Zealand First. Peters' biggest reluctance to change the government next year would be down to installing a party well behind in second place and ruling with (or being)  a third wheel. That's not his style. 

So Little should be looking to bring National down to 40, maybe a bit less, and then to be within the margin of error. Then, it's all on.

So the question tonight - as the MPs phone each other and make some of the biggest decisions of their careers - is who will be bold and seize this moment of change.

Comments (28)

by Alan Johnstone on December 05, 2016
Alan Johnstone

Whilst I never much cared for Mr Key, I have to admit that in terms of political ability he was almost, sui generis. He was up there with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in understanding the desires of the middle and speaking to them. (it's fun to write about him in the past tense)

In English there is an obvious safe pair of hands, However both Blair and Clinton left obvious, well established successors, who failed.  Continuity isn't going to cut it, no on one can replicate what Key's style, so it'll have to be change. 

The downside of having such as masterful political operator is that they outshine their colleagues every bit as much as they outshine their rivals. People like English, Brownlee, Joyce and Collins are suddenly looking like yesterday men.  Will one of the next generation make a move now? Might be better to wait for an election defeat. 

Obviously great potential for Labour if it's bold enough to move into the center, I think they are too much in thrall to special interest groups to do so, but hope I'm wrong.

The stage is set for the countries finest remaining political operator, Winston Peters, to pick up the centre voters. It's going to be fascinating 


by barry on December 05, 2016

So Little should move to the centre (i.e. be more like John Key)? 

Should he punish beneficiaries for being destitute?  Should he sell state assets?  Should he increase GST and give tax cuts to the rich?  Should he abandon the plan to build houses?  Should he increase the power of state agencies to spy on New Zealanders?  Reduce the power of unions?  Reduce the size of the public service when they are already demoralized and can't get their work done?

Or perhaps attacking education some more will be popular?

Abandon plans to stop NZ being a tax haven?

Give more carbon credit subsidies to big business and pretend we are doing our bit, while our emissions rise?

Which of these policies would be popular from a Labour prime minister?

Some of us have been waiting 8 years to see a change. 

Yes, I admit that John Key could have done worse, but he still has done a lot of damage to NZ society.  The increase in the prison muster, the increased number of people begging and sleeping in city streets; these are John Key's legacy, and you say that Little should emulate him?

by Lee Churchman on December 05, 2016
Lee Churchman

The race for the New Zealand Prime Ministership. The infighting will be absolutely vicious because there is so little at stake. 


by Tim Watkin on December 05, 2016
Tim Watkin

Barry, that's exactly the attitude that National will hope Labour will take. Give them the centre, kick into the most popular politician in a generation. I don't think many, if any, of those things you list are centrist. So no, I don't think it wise to do those. But you've got to appreciate how this changes everything. You don't have to score points over Key anymore; the door is open. 

But while you might have been waiting for change, most voters haven't. So Little would be wise not to misread the mood, because otherwise he won't get he won't get to change squat.

by barry on December 06, 2016


Yes the game has changed and Labour can exploit it  by being more positive, looking like a government in waiting.  

However you are talking about Labour changing policies.  So which policies should Labour adopt to make them seem more centrist?

by Rich on December 06, 2016

I feel National needs to take a bold step and find a candidate from outside Parliament, somebody who reflects the post-truth political zeitgeist, somebody attuned to the interwebz, who has been a beneficiary, struggles with their own intellectual disability, has a strong following amongst low-achieving white males.

Has to be Cameron Slater.

by Murray Grimwood on December 06, 2016
Murray Grimwood

Can we - it won'r be Tim in a million years, but maybe a commentator - please ask the real question?

And the real question is:

What are the next few years going to look like? (Read Tim's piece, above, and you're none the wiser).

It's almost certain that the growth/doubling-time/energy depletion/EROEI depletion/Climate Change/destruction/extraction/degradation/debt overshoot/population overshoot pigeons will come home to roost in that period.

Who knows enough to be a leader through that phase? is the question to be asked of leadership possibilities.

by Rich on December 06, 2016

I think Obama just illustrated the problem with "grabbing the middle ground" - which translates into "managing business as usual corporate capitalism better".

The living standards of wage earners in most of the developed world are in decline and have been since the 80s. In NZ, this has been masked by property inflation, which has given Aucklanders a convincing illusion of "wealth". In the US, that blew up in 2008 and since then it's pretty much all negative for a large chunk of the population.

The Obama administration was great for identity-politics liberals - a black guy in the White House; moreover, a black guy who was "one of us" (an academic). For workers, less so. And because he didn't do anything to change the economic structure to benefit average wage earners, his administration ended with them more disgruntled than before.

So they voted to knock all the pieces over and elect an idiot. If Labour take that path and get elected, then 3 (or 6, or 9) years down the track, they'll be in a similar position. Maybe NZ will then be lucky and take the Greek/Icelandic (maybe) path - or maybe they'll succumb to a Trump. Cameron Slater, probably.



by Murray Grimwood on December 06, 2016
Murray Grimwood

That's nonsense.

Yes, 'living standards' have been getting lower. What else can you expect on a finite planet with ever more people wanting ever-more processed resources?

But changing leadership, or yin-yanging parties, won't change that.

All the depletion problems continue regardless of the name at the top. You can see why major (local, this is the first and only time we can ruin a global decline-and-fall) civilisations failed. At the overshot point, all they could do was more of the same - yet the 'same' was what was stuffing them.





by Wayne Mapp on December 06, 2016
Wayne Mapp

Rich and Murray,

You are both plain wrong. Over the last 5 years living standards have not been decreasing, they have been increasing. Why don't you actually check out NZ Statistics on this (I am not good at links), rather than mindlessly repeating leftist mantras.

This is a different issue to housing affordability, at least in Auckland where property inflation is well ahead of general inflation (although obviously home owners have benefited from this).

This blindness to what is actually happening as opposed to what you seem to believe means it is impossible for you to understand why Key and National have succeeded in winning elections, and why the "right direction/wrong direction" consistently shows the majority of New Zealanders saying that New Zealand is going in the right direction. 

So a hard left turn by Labour will result in certain defeat. That is precisely why Tim says "cleave to the centre", though presumably a Labour version of it.

As for who will be the next prime Minister, well I will keep my own counsel on that one.


by Katharine Moody on December 06, 2016
Katharine Moody

I think the situation in the Selwyn River where groundwater allocation for irrigation is 134 per cent of the limit (link below will shock you) perfectly illustrates Murray's point, that at the overshot point, more of the same (which is what we are doing in NZ) is what will stuff us in the end.


by mudfish on December 06, 2016

Wayne, I struggled for a few minutes to relate your criticism of Murray and Rich to the topic, perhaps because they were somewhat obscure (Rich) or oblique (Murray) to Tim's post. For both, the last 5 years NZ statistics are not what they were talking about. Rich was clearly talking internationally, Murray is (again) all about the unsustainability of our current growth agenda (either main party). Murray's convinced major change is imminent, but I don't see his message as sitting anywhere in particular on the left-right spectrum, it's a pure environmental-limit message.

You and Tim are clearly immersed in the short termism of the all-important election cycle that dictates where we are headed while Murray is yelling iceberg dead ahead. I just hope we've got time to slow the ship down.

You and Murray call each other blind because you're looking in completely different directions.

Now, I can't help you with who's going to be the next leader or whether Little goes left or right, nor which direction the mood is going, that's completely why I read Tim's post because he seems to have his finger on the pulse and ask interesting questions. But I follow some of Murray's leads too...

by Tim Watkin on December 07, 2016
Tim Watkin

Barry, you're right. But I'm not in a position to suggest which policies. But consider this. Labour has already said it's going to try to focus on a narrow six or seven popular policies for the election next year. We already know three years tertiary education, 10,000 houses built, and more cops. There are a few more for next year that will already be decided.

The housing and education policies are popular with their base. If you're trying to win an election, you'd want to (as National as in reverse) steal a couple of National policies to show people they are listening. And keep some key ones close, but not identical to, NZF's.

Yes it's short-termism. This isn't about a vision for government, it's about winning.

by barry on December 07, 2016

I am sorry Tim,

You can't get away with saying this, without giving examples of National policies that Labour could adopt.

My analysis is that Labour policies are already pretty centrist and largely popular.  National has succeeded in spite of having unpopular policies.

by Murray Grimwood on December 07, 2016
Murray Grimwood

Yes it's short-termism. This isn't about a vision for government, it's about winning

Thanks for the honesty Tim.



by Flat Eric on December 07, 2016
Flat Eric

barry you are just plain wrong when you say Labour policies are largely popular. Unless you mean largely popular with people who agree with you. The poll of polls shows Labour is not popular with the electorate. I would love to hear how you think National has increased its support with its unpopular policies.

by Ross on December 07, 2016

This isn't about a vision for government, it's about winning.

Yet you whinge about what the government has done (eg, Saudi sheep deal). I find that having my cake and eating it is great - the only problem is I get fat.

If it's all about winning, little wonder that so many youth seem disengaged with politics.

by barry on December 07, 2016


It was clear that asset sales were unpopular with the electorate yet National still won the previous election.

It is also not a given that popular policies translate to support for the party espousing them.  Labour policies must be popular or National would not steal them.  Generally when asked by pollsters, the policies themselves are seen to be popular.

All I want to know is which of National's policies should Labour adopt to become more popular?  (and which policies should they abandon?)

by Stewart Hawkins on December 07, 2016
Stewart Hawkins

Andrew Little. A man that makes Bill English positively shine forth as the very sunlight of political charisma. As long as Little remains Labour leader even a ferret could lead National to victory in 2017.

by Tim Watkin on December 07, 2016
Tim Watkin

I think there are promises around economic restraint and stability that Labour could make to avoid National's 'tax and spend' attacks, but if you're focusing on policies you're missing the point.

Yes there are signals you can send on that front, and Little showed an understanding of that when he first came in when he rejected CGT and raising the super eligibility age in his first term. Both of those are poor policy choices to my mind (and I think he'd agree), but he recognised that politics isn't always about what you want, but being real about what is. He made the calculation that they were weighing down support for his party and that voters saw them as code for a certain world view they wouldn't subscribe to.

It was mimicry of Key, who quickly dispensed with the questions about National's commitment to the anti-nuclear, sucked up his opposition to Working for Families and Kiwirail ownership, for example. Those weren't visionary decisions, but practical politics and a reading of the mood. Don't get me wrong, I prefer it when parties stand for something and fight their corner. But a wise leader who wants to win under MMP doesn't get too far ahead of the public. Or Winston, for that matter.

New Zealanders are typically sceptical of political visions, especially since 1984. And under MMP visions offer little that is real; our system of government is now based on negotiation and incrementalism, not grand schemes by bold leaders. And let's be honest, Little is no Kirk or Lange. If he's going to win, it'll be by giving people a sense of security and authenticity, not inspiration or revolution. Playing to his strengths.

So all I'm saying is that Labour has to read the mood much better, if it wants to win next year. It's a party in real trouble that's just had incredible luck. It's solidly in the 20s, yet this is a rare moment when the polls could actually become quite volatile, and regardless of policy, Labour needs swing voters to see it in a very different light.

My view is there's limited mood for change, so Little should be sending signals that he's Key's successor, not English, Collins or Coleman.

Instead, he's banging on about Mt Roskill in interviews, as if that means anything or anyone cares. While National seems to be holding its discipline in a short leadership contest and only reinforcing its sense of stability. Tick tock.

by Ross on December 08, 2016

he rejected CGT and raising the super eligibility age in his first term. Both of those are poor policy choices to my mind...

Why are they poor policy choices? Do you believe that it's better to put off until tomorrow what you could do today? If so, better for who? It might be better for you and me because we don't have to face the consequences, but what about the next generation?

The apparently apolitical Retirement Commissioner has consistently stated that the age of eligibility for super needs to rise, albeit gradually. She states that 18 OECD countries have raised the age of entitlement for super to over 65.To think that super can remain in its current form is the stuff of fantasy.

The following is from economists:

If there are no changes to superannuation, the Treasury has estimated that growth in healthcare spending would need to be limited to 7 billion dollars by 2031 if government spending is to remain about 45% of GDP. The health budget would need to grow at half the pace it has in the past. This obviously has implications for access to healthcare services. We must ask ourselves if this is a trade-off we are willing to make. Relying on finding savings from healthcare is a risky strategy. International experience shows that making lasting changes to the growth in spending on healthcare is extremely difficult. The changes would need to be radical.

A far easier and more certain way would be to control the cost of superannuation. One approach would be to target eligibility, based on some form of means testing. While New Zealand is lauded for the simplicity of its universal system, it may need to be looked at. But if that is too radical or complex a change, there are two other, even simpler, options that ought to be considered. One of these options is to increase the age of eligibility to New Zealand Superannuation from 65 to, say, 67. Other countries have gone down this track, recognising ever-increasing healthy life expectancy.

People would need to be given time to adjust to such a policy change. If people were given 10 years to prepare, and a higher age of eligibility were introduced in 2022, it would reduce the number of eligible people by over 100,000 a year. This is equivalent to 2 billion dollars a year.  But, while helpful, it only shifts the budget pressure out by a few years; it does not change the rate of growth.

A more meaningful change would be to limit the growth in the amount people get paid. Currently the rate of New Zealand Superannuation cannot fall below 65% of the average wage. But this floor could be lowered to a more affordable level.

So, Tim, would you like to see massive cuts to the health budget or a modest and gradual adjustment to super?

by Ross on December 08, 2016

The last paragraph from the NZIER piece is blunt:

The discussion will not be easy, as there are some major questions of intergenerational fairness to be resolved. But New Zealand Superannuation cannot be treated as a holy cow. If we choose not to touch it, we are choosing to touch healthcare, education and other areas of government spending that are possibly more important for our long term wellbeing and prosperity. There is no free lunch.

When you say making changes to super is a poor policy choice, what you're really saying is that cuts to health, edcuation and welfare are good policy choices.

by Tim Watkin on December 08, 2016
Tim Watkin

@Ross, Key and Peters like to quote the estimation that super (in its existing form) as a percentage of GDP will top out at under 8% of GDP and so is affordable for the future.

However, you misunderstand... I said Little's policy choices were poor. That is, it was a poor choice to kick those for touch, when both a CGT and super reform are inevitable and best done over time. So we're in agreement. 

by Tim Watkin on December 08, 2016
Tim Watkin

And my point was that I reckon Little probably agrees to. He's just reading where the electorate and what he can get away with. If he manages to win, I'm sure he will be planning to go into the 2020 election promoting a CGT of some kind.

by mudfish on December 08, 2016

Key and Peters like to quote the estimation that super (in its existing form) as a percentage of GDP will top out at under 8% of GDP and so is affordable for the future.

I hear Andrew Little is talking up investment in education. Forgive my ignorance, but what are the projections for education as a percentage of GDP over time - will ageing demographics help balance the budget here? I understand the dependency ratio will grow over time but don't know what will happen to education needs.

by Murray Grimwood on December 09, 2016
Murray Grimwood

Mudfish - the ageing thing wouldn't matter if there was enough high EROEI energy available for the oldies to harness. An 80-year-old can do much more with a digger than a fit 20-year-old with a pick-axe.

But ultimately, we had to go through a population reduction and a power-down, for which education has to play a more important part that it does today.

Forget GDP - its a nonsense measure in its own right, even before you start trying to compare things to it. Compared to our total effort, we'll have to put a massive shove into educating (as compared to Education).

Tim - in a non-growth world, either some get richer at the expense of others, or they don't, and either way it's short-term. If we keep on with the profit/interest/dividend/CG regime, the rich will get richer then the system will fail. A CG tax has to therefore ramp to 100%, and the other have to be reduced to zero.

by Tim Watkin on December 11, 2016
Tim Watkin

Well Mudfish, I'd like to think we're educating people for their own sake... but also cos the more educated the next generation is, the better placed we will be as a country to pay for all those bloody retired boomers!

by Murray Grimwood on December 11, 2016
Murray Grimwood

'Pay' isn't the problem; 'Power' is. (As I pointed out, first para above).

The Roman Empire debased its coinage for decades, but that didn't fix the problem because paying wasn't the problem.

The boomers are actually soaking off the young now - every landlord (unless, arguably, they built a brand new renter) is a partasite of a tenant income. Or off a tenant debt.

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