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Q+A: John Key


Prime Minister John Key, who’s been in New York this week to address the United Nations General Assembly and chair a meeting of the UN Security Council, says he won’t be taking a traditional path after his stint as prime minister comes to an end.

Speaking to Q+A’s Corin Dann, Mr Key said being prime minister was his focus and he intended to win the next election.

But at the point when he was to leave, any new role “won’t be at the United Nations and won’t be as an ambassador for New Zealand, those kinds of traditional paths that you’ve seen former prime ministers go down, and that’s because it’s just not my area of interest and I don’t think it’s my area of speciality.”

Mr Key talked to Corin about the UN and efforts to make peace in Syria, saying the big players – Russia and the US – came at the issue for different reasons.

“In Russia’s case, they probably want to prolong Assad and they’ve got issues in the region. In the United States they don’t want to see Syria as a failed state and they care a lot about the plight of those refugees, which is not to say the Russians don’t care about them. That’s probably not their primary focus yet.

“Let’s be honest – Putin wants to be relevant on the world stage. He wants to prove he can fix things and you have to come to Moscow to make things happens. It’s all partly about Vladimir Putin and how he sees himself,” Mr Key said.

“But the point is – I think they will get to a solution in the Security Council and the work we do at the UN can actually support that over time.”


Q + A
Episode 29
Interviewed by CORIN DANN

GREG Political editor Corin Dann spoke to John Key after the Security Council meeting. He asked whether it was time to accept that the UN can't solve this crisis.

JOHN I don’t think that’s right. I think what you can say is, yes, it’s been a terrible situation. We have called out the Security Council and other countries and the major players for failing to resolve the issues so far. But ultimately what you’re talking about here is will it carry on forever? Well, if we all believe it will, then Syria ultimately has to end up as a failed state, and I’m a bit more optimistic than it’s going to end up as a failed state. So at some point I think you are going to see a ceasefire, and at some point you are going to see a bit more normality return. But at the moment what you’ve got is you’ve got some groups like Al-Nusra, who are Al-Qaeda’s affiliate, essentially, in Syria. They don’t want to see the end to this because the whole point of what they’re doing is to try and cause chaos in Syria so that they have a place, a failed state, to effectively grow terrorists and export those to the world. That’s their aim, actually.

CORIN And if we do have a situation like that and we have perhaps a new president in the United States, shouldn’t it be that New Zealand joins the fight and actually gets engaged in Syria?

JOHN I don’t think it’s hugely likely. I mean, I’ve learnt the hard way to say you always have to consider those things on their merits when they happen, but that’s not what, for instance, if you look at Iraq, we’re there because the Iraqi government have asked us to be there. So we run an independent foreign policy. We’ll always go and look at things on a case-by-case basis, and ultimately you’ve got a very serious situation in Syria. You’ve got 13 million displaced people.

CORIN But, I mean, Australia’s there, aren’t they?

JOHN They are.

CORIN They were involved in that bombing, so why we naturally also throw our weight behind that, given you’re trying at the UN, but it’s not working?

JOHN Well, firstly, I think over time it will fund enough work. I think, as I said, Russia and the US are coming at this for different reasons. In Russia’s case, they probably want to prolong Assad and they’ve got issues in the region. In the United States they don’t want to see Syria as a failed state and they care a lot about the plight of those refugees, which is not to say the Russians don’t care about them. That’s probably not their primary focus yet. Russia also— Let’s be honest – Putin wants to be relevant on the world stage. He wants to prove he can fix things and you have to come to Moscow to make things happens. It’s all partly about Vladimir Putin and how he sees himself. But the point is – I think they will get to a solution in the Security Council and the work we do at the UN can actually support that over time.

CORIN You can understand how a lot of New Zealanders will be very cynical about the United Nations, and the problem is the use of that veto, isn’t it?

JOHN Well, we’re cynical ourselves about how effective the Security Council can be while the veto sits there, and that’s our point.

CORIN But realistically how could you ever take away the veto from those countries? They’re never going to give it up.

JOHN Okay, so France and the United Kingdom believe that there should be reform. Over time the power of the public’s view about a veto being used when mass atrocities are taking place, I think that can gain momentum over time. So it’s not going to be something that the Chinese, the Russians and the Americans are going to give up easily, but I reckon over time it can. Now, when, how long a timeframe, I don’t know, but, look, eventually reform is coming to the United Nations. It’s just a question of when.

CORIN Isn’t that part of the problem for Helen Clark too, isn’t it? She herself has said she’s seen as a strong leader, yet does the United Nations, and in particular those big powers, do they really want a strong leader of the United Nations?

JOHN Well, that’s always a risk, isn’t it, that they want more secretary and less general. That’s the potential argument. Now, we’ve tested that as much as you can with the leaders that I talk to and the P5 leaders, and we’ve said to them while she is a much stronger leader, we believe, than maybe others that have assumed the role, on the other side of the coin she’s very careful. She has amazing understanding. She understands the delicate nature of international relations, and that’s one of the things that happens when you’re prime minister. You can’t just shoot from the lip every five seconds, because if you do, you can cause all sorts of long-standing issues, and so she understands all that. And I think in the end, again, if they don’t get a stronger leader over time, it just makes the United Nations look more ineffective.

CORIN You’ve gone around and talked to those P5 leaders this week, so at the end of the week, are her chances better now than they were?

JOHN Well, they certainly haven’t worsened. Look, there’s no secret that there are strongly vested interests and some people want the rotation system to be maintained, and the rotation system argues an Eastern European or a very Western European getting the job, and on that basis, life is quite challenging for her.

CORIN What you’re saying is that despite your best efforts, she hasn’t really made much progress this week?

JOHN Well, we’re trying pretty hard. I mean, will we get there? I don’t know. I mean, look, where this gets a bit more interesting is a veto can be applied and you don’t necessarily get dropped out. In fact, Helen Clark will probably pick up vetoes when they do that, but they may not necessarily be vetoes that can’t be reversed. So initially you might get that the French might veto, for instance, because they might say her French-speaking capability’s not strong enough and then they negotiate offline. But are there vetoes which are just intractable, where they say, ‘We will not have this candidate, and we’ll just keep applying the veto’? That’s possible for other candidates, of course also for Helen Clark, but it’s possible for other candidates. If that happens, then what ends up happening is a country that might be supporting a candidate that is no longer a viable option have to think about who is their viable option. She’s always been the compromise candidate. If she was going to win, that’s always the way she was going to get there. And I think she can still get there on that basis.

CORIN Looking at President Obama this week and his big speech on refugees, he called for countries like New Zealand to take more refugees. Did that expose New Zealand a little bit in terms of his call for developed countries like New Zealand, wealthy countries like New Zealand, to take more refugees? Because New Zealand, when you look at the ranking tables and not quota; numbers of refugees, we’re well, well down the list.

JOHN We’re a much smaller country, so—

CORIN Per capita, though.

JOHN Yeah, but I looked at his numbers. He was talking about 80,000 coming into the United States. I mean, if you look at the relative populations, they’re 321 million people. To me, the numbers weren’t a million miles out. We do a really good job when people come to New Zealand. We’re pouring money into camps and the likes. I mean, isn’t the real argument here, of course New Zealand— No one’s arguing New Zealand couldn’t put up its hand and say, ‘We’ll take another 100 people or another 200 people, whatever the number might be.’ But the question is – is that more important or is it more important to say there are potentially 13 million displaced people, and if we could resolve what’s happening on the ground in Syria—?

CORIN But that takes time, and we’re talking about immediately affecting people’s lives by getting them into New Zealand, where they can be safe.

JOHN And I accept that, but I just go back to that fundamental point – the United States is talking about taking 80,000, maybe moving to 110,000. So even if you add up all of those countries, those numbers pale into insignificance compared to if we could allow Syria to return to normality or ensure Syria returns to normality and give those people a genuine pathway back to their home.

CORIN You did say this week that potentially New Zealand could take more refugees. What would that look like? What would it mean? More Syrians?

JOHN Well, at the moment what’s happened is we’ve increased the quota from 750 to 1000, and we’ve got the special quota of Syrians that we’re taking. Look, it’s always possible for us to take more.

CORIN More Syrians?

JOHN Yeah, I mean, the United Nations, the programme that we’re part of, which is part of that quota, UNHCR, actually don’t like us going in there and saying, ‘We want Syrians or we want this.’ Their argument is the plight of a refugee in a camp in Darfur—

CORIN They’re the refugee crisis, though, aren’t they? So that’s where we’ll take them.

JOHN Well, Obama in his comments himself actually said, look, there are 21 million refugees around the world, and they basically come from three really big areas, so Syria’s one big part of that. It’s the most top of mind, but if you’re at a camp in Darfur, you probably think your plight is genuinely just as bad.

CORIN I wonder if there are political considerations here. There are political parties in New Zealand that have raised concerns about Syrians and the need for tighter screening of refugees and asylum-seekers. Is that a factor for you?

JOHN Well, I think there’s a happy medium in terms of what you take. So I think New Zealanders are generous people, they’re open-hearted, and they want to help.

CORIN They’re hearing Donald Trump, aren’t they?

JOHN Well, I think they would generally say we’ve got it about right. Some would say you could take a few more. Of course, some would say take a few less. They want confidence that our systems vet people that come in and that they’re genuine refugees. But most people have seen New Zealand take refugees over a long period of time, and a lot of them have been very successful in New Zealand. So I’m not too worried about that. Look, if the numbers were huge, as you’ve seen in Germany— Whether people want to admit it or not, in Germany those numbers and the government support have fallen dramatically because the number of refugees has been much larger than probably on balance the German public are happy with. But that’s not the situation in New Zealand.

CORIN You talked about protectionism in your speech to the UN. You were really talking about Donald Trump, weren’t you? Donald Trump was the driving force for that?

JOHN Well, he’s more vocal than that, and the base he’s trying to tap into are the disaffected workers of Michigan or whatever it might be. So there is a real risk there that he, if he becomes president, he pushes the case that says the United States doesn’t need other countries because it’s 321 million people; it’s a massive consumer base; one in four dollars spent in any household in the world spent here in the United States. And so you can superficially make that case. Yeah, we do worry, but mind you, Hillary Clinton’s also saying some anti-trade—

CORIN But I wonder if it’s deeper than that and we are seeing those similar sentiments in New Zealand. Inequality – those without assets not getting ahead. Isn’t that what is driving the backlash against globalisation?

JOHN Of course there will be some New Zealanders who would say, ‘I agree with Donald Trump,’ and they would say, ‘Winston Peters talks about and that sort of stuff,’ and they would say, ‘That’s why we support his perspective on the world.’ But equally, though, I think you look the mass of New Zealanders, and the mass of New Zealanders, I reckon, as a general rule say when New Zealand’s engaged on a global stage, when it has all of those consumers to sell things to and when it’s part of a global world, it’s doing better. And, you see, this is the problem when you do what arguably Trump is sort of saying, which is just make America just focus on itself, is that of course you can put up protectionist barriers, but what really happens to your companies is that they become a bit fat and happy. They don’t have to worry about competition, because it’s not there. And then in the end, the long-term, you’re much weaker.

CORIN I’d argue that perhaps it’s a wider sentiment than that and that it’s deeper and we’re seeing it in New Zealand as well.

JOHN Yeah, but I think— Well, firstly, there’s a lot of different changes that have happened in the world, and social media provides opportunities for different sort of debates, and there’s a range of different things. But the one difference in New Zealand, I think, compared to, say, even a country like the United States, is New Zealand has very comprehensive support for people. So if you earn 55,000 or less and you’ve got two kids in New Zealand, you pay zero tax because Working for Families gives you the money back. Turn 65, we give you superannuation. Healthcare’s largely free; so is education. Now, of course, there are contributions that people make, but for the most part it’s free. If you lose your job, there’s support in New Zealand. You come to the United States, you lose your job, despite Obamacare and everything else, your kids aren’t necessarily going to college, you’re not necessarily getting pretty good medical support, there is not superannuation in the same way. Even in Australia those things are a little bit different. But it’s quite different, I think, from the sort of 99% to 1% debate.

CORIN Finally, Prime Minister, you’ve been here at the UN this week – a big, high watermark for you in this government. Have you started to give thinking to what you would do next after you’re prime minister, I mean should you lose at next election or should you leave at some point?

JOHN No, I haven’t, but I can tell you now it won’t be at the United Nations and it won’t be as an ambassador for New Zealand, those kinds of traditional paths that you’ve seen former prime ministers go down, and that’s because it’s just not my area of interest and I don’t think it’s my area of speciality. So, yeah, we’ll have elections and hopefully we’ll win them, but, yeah, the point is, of course, by definition every political career at some point ends. But you’ve got to know what you’re good at and what maybe you’re not and maybe where you think you’ll want to deploy your talents, and for me I don’t want to be the Secretary General of the United Nations. I don’t want to be New Zealand’s ambassador in Washington. I want to be prime minister and that’s my focus, but I don’t want the other things.

CORIN And will you see out another three years if you do win the next election?

JOHN That’s the intention. I mean my intention is to stay. And if I’m running, I’m staying, so that’s my intention.

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