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Lisa Owen interviews Prime Minister John Key

On The Nation:

Lisa Owen interviews Prime Minister John Key

Prime Minister won’t say New Zealand is at war with Islamic State as we don’t have troops fighting them, “but some people could use those terms and would probably be appropriate in doing so”.

Says the job of degrading and defeating Islamic State in Iraq will “realistically probably not” be done in two years, but he has no intention of keeping troops there longer.

PM identifies controversy over health and safety regulation – “wormgate” – as something that he wish hadn’t happened this year or could have done better; isn’t worried about the fall in his personal poll ratings regarding honesty and capability.

Says we should be celebrating record high immigration and those arrivals “maybe or maybe not” driving up Auckland house prices.

“So do you want to say to a young entrepreneurial IT company, ‘We’re not going to allow you to bring in the very bright computer programmer from somewhere because we need to build a few more houses in Auckland’?”

Doesn’t accept that the government was slow off the mark in passing legislation to monitor deportees from Australia

“We’ve had to be somewhat reliant on Australia, both in terms of the flow of information, understanding who was coming back, whether we thought we needed to change, and, actually, that flow of information was quite slow out of Australia.”

Suspects at the 2017 election National will say it can work with Winston Peters and New Zealand First.

Lisa: We've got a special programme next week... which means this is our final time in the studio this year, so we wanted to talk to the Prime Minister about what's been a turbulent 12 months... from sending trainers to Iraq ... to outbursts about murderers and rapists... from a well-received budget... to ponytail pulling and high risk worm farms. So is John Key satisfied with his own performance? I spoke to him just before he left for the climate talks in Paris, and so first I put to him Simon Upton's view on The Nation last week that countries will arrive expecting to negotiate deeper carbon cuts at the conference... and asked, is he prepared to offer more?
John Key: Not at this point, but we have got a plan, and the plan is to say, ‘Here’s our target at the moment,’ which we actually think is thoroughly credible, because Simon Upton himself said New Zealand’s in this very unique position of being a developed country with a developing country profile. So I think a reduction of 30% of the 2005 base is credible, but I think we need to do more if and when we can find solutions to that agricultural portion, and I’m absolutely confident we will. The scientists who are working on it tell me they’re getting closer, and there’s a lot of money being thrown at that.
But if other countries move, are you prepared to move too, to do better?
Again, over time. I don’t think they will. I don’t think people are going to go there and say, ‘I was offering a 30% reduction off a 2005 base. I tell you what, I’ll make it 35.’ I think it’s going to be more about, ‘Here’s the direction of travel and no more of a 2 degrees increase, all of these sorts of things, and here are how the rules play around deforestation or whatever it might be.’
All right. Well, you will be in a country that has said it is at war with Islamic State.
Is New Zealand at war with IS?
Well, we’d like to— I don’t know whether you’d say it’s actually a war in a way that New Zealanders would think of a war, because it’s quite different. We don’t have troops fighting them. We have troops training the Iraqi soldiers. And they’re a terrorist group, so it’s a little different, but some people could use those terms and would probably be appropriate in doing so.
So you’re comfortable with the characterisation of being at war with ISIS?
Well, some— It wouldn’t be the way I would probably describe it, but what I would say is our job is to ultimately, if we can, be part of a coalition that will initially, if we’re realistic, degrade the threat of ISIL and over time eradicate ISIL, but we know that’s very challenging. We know that they move and reconfigure themselves. There are a lot of groups, for instance, who aren’t actually technically ISIL, but they want to associate themselves with it because they believe that gives them mana.
Well, let’s talk about that. You’ve been very clear about what you say is your intention – those are your words, as you put it – that New Zealand troops in Taji will be pulled out after two years, but shouldn’t that decision be one that’s dictated by conditions on the ground at the time?
Well, that’s a fair point, but I guess the issue here is what are we doing in Iraq? The answer is training Iraqi forces to give them more capability. So we’re doing two things from what I’ve observed when I was actually there. One is make them better soldiers, and that’s definitely working. And the second thing is actually debugging some of the myths that these soldiers really believe from the propaganda that they see from ISIL through social media. So the point is – in two years, will the job be done? Realistically, probably not, but I genuinely don’t believe we should be there forever. You could potentially be in Iraq for an awfully long time training their forces.
But forever and a few more years are two distinctly different things, so could you envisage a few more years might be necessary from us?
Well, that’s genuinely not my intention. I honestly believe that we’re going there to make a contribution, to make their forces stronger, but I think there should be a starting and ending point, and for me I feel comfortable at two years.
All right, well, let’s come closer to home – the Australian detainees and your outburst in Parliament. One day you were attacking Labour for siding with sex offenders. The very next day you said, and I’m quoting you here, ‘I’ve been standing up for them.’ Did you just lose your temper in the House, or was that a strategic shift?
Oh, no, it was a genuine attempt to make sure that people understood what Labour were doing, which is— I walked into the House, right, that particular day, and, in my opinion, there was a set-up from Kelvin Davis and a camera, and he started shouting at me that I was gutless. And to be blunt—
Yeah, but I’m asking about you and how you changed your position. One day you say Labour’s siding with them; the next day you say, ‘I’ve been standing up for them.’ So which is it?
Well, I’ve been standing up for New Zealand— My point is I’ve been standing up for all New Zealanders. All Labour has done, and, actually, in my opinion, the other Opposition parties as well, is—
Yeah, but that comment was in relation to the detainees, that you were standing up to the detainees, the so-called murderers and sex offenders.
Yeah, well, my— If you look at the whole context of everything I said there, I made the point very strongly and which I stand by, that, in fact, actually, I’ve been representing, I think fairly, all parts of this debate, you know, fundamentally the New Zealanders that could be subjected to these people when they come back, because some of them are potentially quite dangerous individuals, and that’s why we’ve had to change the law and put monitoring on them and all these sorts of things.
Yeah, well, given that you raise that, National passed a law last week to monitor detainees that are returning from Australia, but 167 offenders had already entered the country, so why monitor the new ones and not the old ones?
Yeah, because, actually, people have been coming back from Australia for a very long period of time over successive governments. It’s not new. What’s new is late December of 2014, the Australian government changed the threshold, and that increased the amount of people coming.
But it’s actually not new that people have been coming back.
That’s right, Prime Minister, and they’ve been coming back on your watch. Isn’t that a slip-up, then? Because you promised to defend New Zealanders, so that’s a slip-up, isn’t it?
No. No, I don’t agree with that. What’s changed is the sheer volume changes the situation. And we’ve already had, actually, extended supervision orders and public protection orders which our government has been involved in—
Yes, absolutely, it’s the volume.
…and those ones—
Prime Minister, 167, though, including murderers and rapists, some of whom have come in on your watch.
Yeah, but we’ve made substantial changes, including extensive supervision orders and public protection orders,…
Why are we—?
…which can be applied to the most serious of people. I mean, the situation—
But do you accept that you were slow off the mark?
That you could’ve done something sooner?
No, I don’t, actually, because we’ve had to be somewhat reliant on Australia, both in terms of the flow of information, understanding who was coming back, whether we thought we needed to change, and, actually, that flow of information was quite slow out of Australia.
Okay, well, let’s look at some of the things that you said you were going to make top priorities for this year. More action on poverty was a big one for you, and in the Budget you promised $25 extra a week for beneficiaries. How many beneficiaries are going to get that $25?
I can’t tell you off the top of my head, but independent living—
Well, the Greens have worked it out, and they say that fewer than half of all beneficiaries are going to get that. With one hand you’re giving, and then with the other hand you’re taking some of that away because you’re taking it in income-related rents and also out of their accommodation supplement so they don’t get the full $25, do they?
Yeah, well, all of that’s been there. There’s a big range. For a lot of them they will, but it depends on their individual circumstances, but the abatement’s tiny.
So is that going far enough?
It’s $5-plus for a lot of them.
It depends. Every circumstance is different, but, okay, if you go and have a look at what we’ve done as a government in the time we’ve been there, a) in the worst times and in the most difficult of conditions, we actually insulated everyone by maintaining Working for Families, by maintaining benefits and entitlements. Actually, a lot of other countries changed, said, ‘We can’t afford it,’ and they changed. We didn’t do that. The second thing we’ve done is we’ve increased the benefits for the first time in 43 years. And the third thing we’ve done is we’re putting more money into, for instance, really low-income housing, more people getting a chance to get accommodation supplements. And the last thing we’ve done is we’re growing the economy, and you are seeing quite a substantial reduction in the number of people on a benefit. I think it’s 30-odd thousand the rest of the time.
So can we expect more measures to reduce poverty next year or have you done, do you think, as much as we can afford?
Well, growing the economy is the fastest thing we can do to move people out of poverty.
All right, I want to talk about housing – Auckland housing specifically. Prices here in Auckland have gone up in the six years under National more than they did in nine years under Labour. Can you say that the Auckland property market is better? I’m talking about Auckland.
I think we will refute your stat, but we could spend all day arguing about those. No doubt that Auckland house prices have been going up reasonably rapidly, and there’s a number of reasons for that, but I think you’ve also got to look at a few things. Firstly—
But is it better now? Any better?
I reckon it is. For a start off, you have a look at what’s been happening in housing, we’ve got the highest level of construction we’ve had in 10 years, so that’s good. We’ve now got 106, I think, special housing areas in Auckland, and they are going to deliver a huge number of homes over time. I was in Hobsonville this week. Okay, they’ve just delivered their 500th house. They’re going to deliver 3500 on that site.
Well, you—
It is going gangbusters, as is a hell of a lot of Auckland.
But there’s pressure on the housing market, as you say. You’ve done stuff on the supply side but arguably nothing on the demand side. You’ve got record immigration. You can’t stop returning Kiwis who are wanting to come back and you don’t want to cut student visas, but why not cut the number of work visas to take some of that pressure off?
Well, firstly, I reckon we should be celebrating that particular stat. I mean, honestly, do we want to be in a country—?
But it’s driving up house prices, Prime Minister, so why not cut some of the work visas back?
Maybe, maybe, but maybe or maybe not. It has some effect on—
Not? Immigration is not driving prices up?
It has some impact on housing. There’s no question it has some impact on housing, but overall, actually, what’s happening is New Zealand and particularly Auckland, but New Zealand, is an attractive destination to come to. When I was the Prime Minister, 40,000 people crossed the Tasman and lived in Australia. We were worried about as a country people leaving—
So they’re coming back, and you can’t—that’s their right to come back.
What you can deal with is the work visas, so why not? My question is why not cut the work visas?
Because, as I said, the reason sometimes you can’t absolutely say what the impact is, is that a lot of these people that come here come on a work visa that sees them in the construction sector, maybe in the engineering sector, actually growing our economy. So do you want to say to a young entrepreneurial IT company, ‘We’re not going to allow you to bring in the very bright computer programmer from somewhere because we need to build a few more houses in Auckland’? We need to build more supply in Auckland; we’re doing that.
Let’s crunch some other numbers from the polls, actually. For the first time, your preferred prime minister ratings have been below 40 for four 3News Reid Research polls in a row. How worrying is that?
Not at all. In reality, poll numbers will always move around a bit anyway, and you’re really talking at the margin. I’m moving around about a per cent. But, look, in the end that’s not the important issue, is it? National’s polling as a party 47% broadly. And every poll’s a bit different. I mean, look, we poll every week—
But it is about you, Prime Minister, and when you dig into the polls—
It’s not. Sadly, it’s not all about me, no.
When you dig into the polls, your ratings for being an honest and capable leader are down this year. Why do you think that is?
Well, every poll is different and you get different outcomes and—
Yeah, but this is a trend, Prime Minister. This is over consecutive polls, so there’s a trend.
Well, it’s moving a bit. It’s moving a per cent, okay. The leader of the Opposition—
No, no, down – honesty from 44 to 39, capability 81 to 74. ‘Out of touch with the people’ is the one that’s rising – from 53 to 58.
So what did you do that offended them this year?
Okay, so there’ll always be a range of different things. You can pick your poison. It’s not for me to analyse always, but you’re still saying numbers—
Well, okay, I will pick a few things.
Okay, you can pick.
Flip-flopping on the refugees, losing the Northland by-election, pulling on a ponytail, worm farms being high-risk. Are you satisfied with that sort of performance through the year?
For the most part. There’s always going to be some—
Yeah, because I could list you a dozen things as well that the Government’s done that have been really good – getting back into surplus, as I say, record numbers of people coming to New Zealand wanting to be here, a growth rate that’s higher than most other countries, very high participation rate in terms of employment. I can go on all day on these things. There’s a list of things. Of course there’s some things that either you wish hadn’t happened or you could do a little bit better or the interpretation might be a bit different, but that’s life.
Pick one.
Well, that’s—
Pick one.
Well, the worm—
No, the worm-gate— the worm farm situation. But sometimes, actually, in government you’re under pressure to do a lot of things in a hurry, get information out in a hurry. It kind of is what it is.
All right, well, before we go, New Zealand First has had on or about kingmaking status in the polls since the Northland by-election. Could you consider making Winston Peters deputy prime minister?
So, he’s been in that position since 2008. In every election – you go back and look at the coverage – in every election he’s got up and said, ‘I’ll be the kingmaker.’
And given that…
In ’08, ’11 and ’14.
…would you consider making him a deputy prime minister?
Look, we’re two years from an election. As I said in ’14—
So you’re not ruling it out?
Well, what I said in 2014 was I thought we could work with him. We changed our position. I suspect that’ll be what will happen in 2017 – a similar position. But I just make the point – every election I’ve been in – ’08, ’11 and ’14 – every time I’ve been there, the commentators have said Winston Peters will hold the balance of power. In ’08 he didn’t. In ’11 he was gone. In ’14 on the night we governed alone.
All right, thank you very much for joining us this morning, Prime Minister.
Thanks, Lisa. No problems.
Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz


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