Bill English is about to face troubles that John Key never had

by Richard Prebble / 07 February, 2017

British Prime Minister Theresa May with NZ counterpart Bill English on the steps of 10 Downing Street. Photo/Getty Images

John Key’s departure and Donald Trump’s arrival change everything.

Even before taking office, Trump destroyed the goal of successive ­governments’ foreign policies, a free trade agreement with the world’s biggest economy, the US. Trump killing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a major setback.

Now it is likely that he will start a trade war. New Zealand may be collateral damage. President Trump may have rolled back his pledge to jail Hillary Clinton, but he keeps repeating his anti-trade rhetoric. Members of his new administration even favour leaving the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Whoever is our Prime Minister will be fighting to preserve our trade access. This is a bad time to be losing Key. National has picked a leader who says that foreign affairs is not an area he knows well. In none of his press statements, the Budget Update or in parliamentary debates has Bill English mentioned the Trump presidency and the challenge it presents New Zealand. He is not alone: nor have any other party leaders. It may be the most important issue for the next government.


Also read Mike Williams: A change of government this year is a real possibility - here's why


As our trade hopes in the Pacific collapsed, English chose to make Europe the destination for his first overseas trip as PM. I was surprised he didn’t visit Australia before Christmas to get ­Malcolm Turnbull’s view on the post-TPP world.

Visiting Europe is sensible, but overhyping our prospects of a free-trade agreement with Europe is silly. Canada negotiated a free-trade agreement with the EU for 10 years. The end result was a disappointing deal that was almost vetoed by a handful of Belgian farmers. Europe is too preoccupied with Brexit, the euro and failing Italian banks.

The UK may offer us a post-Brexit free-trade deal, but it is already clear that Brexit is going to be messy. It is no substitute for a trade agreement in the Pacific.

Cartoon by Steve Bolton.

I don’t think National will recover from Key’s departure. History has shown that changing leaders is risky. Jim Bolger to Jenny Shipley, David Lange to Geoffrey Palmer did not end well. English’s best chance was to take up Andrew Little’s ­invitation to hold a snap election. No one voted for English to be Prime Minister. He faces a year with no ­electoral ­mandate for new policy.

Sources tell me the challenge from Jonathan Coleman was real. ­English was forced to buy support with offers of office. I was part of Palmer’s election-year Cabinet reshuffle to “refresh” the Government. It was not a success. New ministers struggled to come to terms with their portfolios. Replaced ministers were bitter. Humiliating Judith Collins seems likely to have a sequel.

Mile-high polling has kept the National caucus loyal. The certainty of re-election reduces civil-service leaks and keeps interest groups in check. As National’s polling falls, with it will come troubles that Key never had to face.

Announcing surpluses for as far ahead as Treasury can predict and saying the only issue is how to spend the money could prove fatal. Key won all his victories because the electorate thought the economy was the major concern and Key the most competent economic manager. English has inadvertently told us it is safe to vote for a big-spending Labour government.

Little cannot believe his luck. Key has gone. English did not accept his challenge to hold a snap election. Best of all, English has announced that National will fight the election on Labour’s agenda using Labour’s language – “affordable” housing and “investing” in welfare. The party that sets the agenda and language usually wins the election.

National’s record in housing is awful. Appointing three ministers of housing is a sign of confusion rather than a solution. Although National can point to some improving social statistics, Labour is relishing the prospect of a campaign dominated by social-spending policies rather than the economy. Labour may be intellectually and financially bankrupt, the election deal with the Greens foolish, but all Little needs to say is, It’s time for a change.”

The only poll since the leadership change ­indicates Labour, not the Greens, is the beneficiary of Key’s departure. The Greens have a great brand, but the electoral deal with Labour makes them look like any other political party. My prediction is that the Greens’ vote will not collapse until they get what they want, seats in Cabinet. The history of coalitions under MMP is that it is poison for the third party.

Marama Fox is the feistiest Maori MP in ­Parliament. I live in Te Ururoa Flavell’s electorate and it is hard to see him losing. If the Maori Party does a deal with Mana, the result could be Fox losing her list seat. If the tide goes out for National, it could take the Maori Party with it.

Peter Dunne’s resilience is ­remarkable, but the same tide may end his long career.

There is no tide in Epsom. The electorate is fond of David Seymour. Bill English’s adoption of Labour’s priorities should give Act plenty of scope, but it’s a big ask of a first-term MP.

The election will see a number of wacky new parties. It is unfair to dismiss Gareth Morgan as the anti-cat, tax-on-your-house party, but that is his fate. The election campaign will be derailed for a week by another conspiracy book from Nicky Hager. And Winston Peters will threaten to be kingmaker.

He believes 2017 will be his year. Rumour has it he has recruited Shane Jones and received promises of significant funding from Chinese businessmen – the irony. Would Peters as foreign minister have got us entangled in the Israel/Palestine ­dispute? Trump has already tweeted his displeasure. Our stunt at the United Nations is not going to make it any easier for English to get an invitation to the White House when we need one.

Who better to send to play golf with Trump than Winston? He no longer wishes to be kingmaker but to be king. The price of his support is the keys to Premier House.

2017 may be our own Donald Trump’s year.

Richard Prebble is a former Labour Cabinet minister and Act Party leader. Next week’s column will be by former Labour Party president Mike Williams.

This article was first published in the January 28, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter. 

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