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Cablegate: (C) Mr. Nice Guy - New Zealand's New Opposition

VZCZCXRO4704
PP RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHFK RUEHHM RUEHKSO RUEHPB
DE RUEHWL #0198/01 0640341
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 050341Z MAR 07
FM AMEMBASSY WELLINGTON
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 3979
INFO RUEHZU/ASIAN PACIFIC ECONOMIC COOPERATION
RUEHZS/ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN NATIONS
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHDC
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC
RUEKJCS/OSD WASHINGTON DC
RHEHAAA/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHDC
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHINGTON DC

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 WELLINGTON 000198

SIPDIS

NOFORN
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 03/05/2027
TAGS: PGOV PINR NZ
SUBJECT: (C) MR. NICE GUY - NEW ZEALAND'S NEW OPPOSITION
LEADER

Classified By: Consul General John Desrocher for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d
).

(U) This message was drafted by ConGen Auckland and approved
by Embassy Wellington.

1. (C) Summary. New Zealand opposition leader John Key's
persona in private meetings with USG officials has differed
little from the face he has presented to the New Zealand
public since taking charge of the National Party last
November. Key comes across as modest and moderate,
determined not to alienate the broad New Zealand political
middle by promoting policies significantly different from
those of the ruling Labour government. Likewise, Key's
public and private statements to date suggest any foreign
policy changes under a Key-led government would be changes of
tone rather than substance. Key's determination not to
offend begs the question of how he will persuade voters that
there is any reason to shift their support away from Labour.
End summary.

2. (C) In recent meetings with USG officials, and in public
statements, New Zealand's National Party chief and opposition
leader John Key made clear that his goal, at least for the
time being, is to give the party a more congenial public face
rather draw dramatic distinctions between National and the
ruling Labour Party. Key met with visiting DAS Glyn Davies
on January 23, after the latter's visit to New Zealand to
mark the fiftieth anniversary of U.S.-NZ cooperation in the
Antarctic and, before becoming opposition leader, with ConGen
Auckland PO.

3. (C) During these conversations, Key declined to describe
a distinctive National Party foreign policy. Asked how New
Zealand foreign policy would differ under a National
government, Key said the change would be more in tone than in
substance. Indeed, one of Key's first public statements
after becoming opposition leader affirmed National's support
for the country's anti-nuclear stance. Key and his advisors
recognize that foreign policy is a weak spot. To strengthen
Key's foreign affairs credentials, the party announced that
it will form a think tank of former senior National
politicians, including former PM Bolger, to advise Key.

4. (C) While we may not see much new foreign policy
substance, we can expect a far more friendly tone from a
National government. Key described Prime Minister Clark as
"fundamentally anti-American," citing then-Duty Minister
Anderton's remarks highly critical of the President's Iraq
policy speech. While Clark disavowed Anderton's comments,
Key is convinced that Anderton was only echoing the sort of
remarks Anderton has heard the Prime Minister make in
private.

5. (C) The conventional wisdom holds that Key's predecessor,
Don Brash, was doomed at least in part because he had been
labeled "conservative" or, even more fatally,
"neoconservative." Key takes a different tack. He told
Davies that National would not differentiate itself from
Labour with a conservative economic program because a
"socialist streak" runs through all New Zealanders - "not
like Sweden, but it's there." Key described the New Zealand
polity as a bell curve, with the bulk of voters occupying the
center. A move to the right, Key said, would lose far more
voters than it would gain. Key is also reluctant to show his
hand because he fears Labour will adopt any popular ideas he
puts forward regarding, for example, tax cuts. Given that
the next election is some time away, the ruling Labour Party
would have plenty of time to make Key's good ideas its own.

6. (C) Hewing to the center is not simply an electoral
strategy - the center is where Key feels most comfortable.
When he was National's finance spokesman, Key spoke privately
in very positive terms about his counterpart, Finance
Minister Cullen, describing him as an intelligent and skilled
policymaker. Asked what National would do to improve the
business climate in New Zealand, Key had little to say. He
declined the opportunity to bash Labour or describe how he
would do things differently. He suggested that New Zealand's
business environment is strong and identified "brain drain"
to Australia as the only significant problem. In remarks to
the press shortly after becoming National leader, Key backed
away from the previous National position that New Zealand's
labor laws undermined labor market flexibility.

WELLINGTON 00000198 002 OF 002

7. (C) Key's private remarks to the Auckland CG reinforced
the impression that he does not see a big role for Wellington
in improving New Zealand's economy and is not seeking big new
ideas for promoting growth and higher incomes. Key expressed
support in a pro forma way for tax cuts, but otherwise
suggested only that New Zealand concentrate on adding value
to its core strengths - agriculture, tourism, and
aquaculture. He avoided the usual platitudes about high tech
and globalization being the keys to New Zealand's future.

8. (C) Comment. Key's move to the center makes sound
political sense. It was probably inevitable given how
effectively Labour exploited his predecessor's alleged
right-wing tendencies in order to frighten New Zealand's
essentially Social Democratic electorate. Key is also a more
natural politician than his predecessor. Key can join a
pickup volleyball game with a group of teenagers without
looking entirely fake, while Don Brash's public events often
were reminiscent of Governor Dukakis's disastrous
tank-driving outing. However, Key's easygoing and
inoffensive approach has already generated accusations that
his National Party is no more than "Labour-lite." What is
impressive about Key is that he has clearly thought through
his strategy and is both aware of and comfortable with its
inherent tradeoffs. He appears to know it will be a
challenge for him to distinguish National from Labour in a
meaningful way without unsettling those voters most
comfortable on the middle ground. End comment.
Keegan

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