What really happened to Mike Sabin, John Key and the Housing Minister?

by Graham Adams / 16 January, 2017
Andropov's funeral following his 'cold'. Photo - AFP/Getty

Russians were usually told their disappearing politicians had a cold. Here, we’re often left wondering too.

It was always amusing when officials in the Soviet Union explained the absence of a prominent figure on account of a cold. In October 1983, when the nation’s leader, Yuri Andropov, had been absent from public duties for months, the Tass news agency released a letter attributed to Andropov that said, yes, he had a cold.

He didn’t appear atop the Lenin Mausoleum for the annual Revolution Day military parade in Red Square on November 7 and the rumour mill went into overdrive.

In fact, it wasn’t long before the “cold” would prove fatal to the former KGB chief and “butcher of Budapest”, who crushed the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He died in February 1984, of kidney failure.

As Time magazine noted, “Colds are dangerous in Russia. Leonid Brezhnev had a ‘cold’ and it turned out he was gravely ill, addicted to sedatives and barely functional; Konstantin Chernenko also had a ‘cold’ and vanished behind Kremlin walls; Yuri Andropov had a ‘cold’ and was dead in weeks.”

In New Zealand, when politicians and public figures disappear from their posts, we’re sometimes not much wiser than the inhabitants of the USSR were about the real reasons for their leaders’ absence.

The public has never been given a satisfactory explanation, for instance, why Northland MP Mike Sabin resigned in early 2015, apart from being told that he was under investigation by police over an assault complaint.

John Key campaigning with Mark Osborne. Photo / Getty

So in March 2015, Northlanders voted in a by-election mostly unaware — except for the rumours — about why they were going back to the polls so quickly after the general election.

Australian broadcaster Derryn Hinch, an expat New Zealander, wrote on his blog about the by-election: “If you think politics in Australia gets crazy around election time, just have a look at what is happening across the ditch... The [Northland by-election] is shrouded in so much mystery and rumour and censorship that the people don’t even know the reason why the sitting member resigned to force the by-election.”

The thumping majority Sabin had won just a few months earlier disappeared for the new National candidate, Mark Osborne, and Winston Peters romped home. I guess Northlanders didn’t like being taken for fools.

Now the very popular Prime Minister who won the last general election two years ago has exited stage left, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. Was it a cold, we wondered. But John Key assured journalists he was in good health, and, no, his wife hadn’t pressured him.


John Key's departure: End of the Lullaby PM

In the absence of more convincing information, rumours abound. The most prominent is Kim Dotcom’s assertion that the real reason Key resigned was a two-terabyte cache of emails taken from New Zealand government servers to be released before the next election. Dotcom has emphasised that he is merely passing on a rumour and it’s nothing to do with him but it’s clear the rumour has long legs. It has already entered the mainstream media, with Stuff journalists predicting on January 1: “There will be one more political bombshell in 2017 that will change the course of the election and install Andrew Little as prime minister”. This, of course, has been interpreted as an oblique reference to the dump. 

Kim Dotcom says a massive email dump will reveal why John Key resigned. Photo / Getty

This threat will hang over the new-ish government lineup headed by Bill English and Paula Bennett as they get into the swing of election year. As, indeed, will Key’s resignation. Once the flurry of summer holidays have passed, I imagine many National voters will find themselves not best pleased by having been left in the lurch by their Messiah. And many will have doubts about the explanations offered for what convinced Key to quit.

The result will be persistent speculation about the real reasons. And a sense of betrayal.

When everyone resurfaces in mid-January, they will have to make sense of what has happened. English has no popular mandate to be prime minister and the circumstances of his elevation to PM are confusing at best. If English knew, as Key claimed, that he had been told months earlier of the resignation, why did he need a day to decide whether he wanted the top job? Was that just a cover to make the handover appear less of a jack-up between him and Key? Or is English merely indecisive?

And what happens next? Key has said he plans to step down as an MP before the 2017 general election, at a time close to it. Or will he suddenly resign around May 1 when English completes his cabinet reshuffle so that a by-election in his seat of Helensville need not be held? Will he suddenly find that he has an international job offer he can’t refuse and bow out near that date?

What is certain is that few will believe anything Key now says about his intentions given he told journalists not long before he quit that he fully intended to seek a fourth term.

Of course, Key’s quitting is not the only absence that will haunt the National-led government. Bill English’s decision to not formally have a Minister of Housing will also hang over his tenure.


Bill English as PM: Roll up, roll up to see the new-ish ringmaster

It’s a move that has been widely interpreted as an admission of failure in keeping a lid on house prices. Defenders say that nothing has changed except that Nick Smith is now “Minister for Building and Construction”, and it is true that it wouldn’t matter at all if the incumbent had been wildly successful in his role as Housing Minister. But changing Smith’s title when he has failed dismally in the portfolio is important symbolism that serves only to emphasise the government’s impotence.

When he announced his new Cabinet that lacked a Housing minister, English explained: “In terms of housing prices, that’s a product of the demand with low interest rates and how many houses are coming onto the market — the government doesn’t control that. I don’t think we should give the impression that we do.”

English has set himself up to be taunted as the Pontius Pilate of New Zealand politics, busy washing his hands in public so as to not offend his property-owning voter base by actually doing something effective about rampaging prices through crimping demand. Rather, he will continue clearing the way for more houses to be built in the future — a slow process which doesn’t have much chance of lowering prices given the thousands of immigrants pouring into the country month by month.

As soon as he announced the Minister of Housing was missing in inaction, English passed the buck to the Auckland Council: “The government does not set house prices in Auckland. The Auckland City Council sets the rules that help determine those house prices.”

Only an ostrich that hasn’t come up for air will buy the line that the government doesn’t set rules that affect house prices — which is a gift to Labour and its housing spokesman, Phil Twyford. It’s obvious, for starters, that the government controls taxation around housing, as well as immigration levels and opportunity for foreign speculation. Furthermore, the Reserve Bank needs government approval to regulate debt-to-income ratios, but English has so far stalled on making a decision.

If English thinks he has defused the housing issue with a simple “hands-off” announcement, he’s dreaming. Perhaps it would have been simpler to say: “Auckland’s mayor, Phil Goff, is the new Housing Minister. We’ve outsourced the role. The previous Housing Minister has a cold.”

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