How does John Key's legacy compare to the Bolger years?

11:43 am on 29 December 2016

Analysis - John Key stepped down as Prime Minister on his own terms this year. But what legacy will he leave behind, and how does it compare to the National Party's previous long-serving PM?

Jim Bolger steps down as Prime Minister in 1997, while John Key resigned from the role this year.

Jim Bolger was replaced as NZ Prime Minister in 1997, while John Key stepped down from the role this year. Photo: AFP / RNZ

After eight years in power, John Key left the role of Prime Minister still on top.

Not many leaders get to do that. They either get turfed out by the voters or rolled by their own colleagues. In Mr Key's case, by going surprisingly early, he avoided either fate.

At the time of his departure, his own personal rating remained high and National continued to have a large lead in the opinion polls.

Within the political commentariat Mr Key has been highly regarded, mainly on the basis of his political style. He led National for three consecutive terms in government. He was quick to dump any political unpopular policies before they did terminal damage to his government and he had an uncanny knack of skating through the most embarrassing political gaffes with little damage, if any, to his political reputation.

What other Prime Minister, for example, would have escaped with their political credibility intact after revelations they had repeatedly pulled the ponytail of a waitress at their local cafe?

But while Mr Key has enjoyed a remarkably successful political career what legacy does he leave after eight years in power? The best comparison can be made with the previous long-serving National government Prime Minister, Jim Bolger.

Bolger's legacy

Mr Bolger became Prime Minister towards the end of 1990 and held the job for seven years before being ousted by Jenny Shipley. Mr Key was Prime Minister one year longer and left voluntarily.

Mr Bolger was responsible for three significant changes, all of which affect New Zealanders today, 20 years later.

It was his government which changed the electoral system after a referendum, began resolving Maori grievances and raised the pension age to 65.

Mr Bolger was instinctively opposed to MMP but still delivered on the promise to hold a referendum. As a result, New Zealanders voted for a fundamental change from the first-past-the-post system to proportional representation. It brought to an end single-party government, which had been dominated by Labour and National since 1935. From 1996 on, both parties have had to rely on support parties to form a government.

He was also the first MMP Prime Minister and showed the way for future Prime Ministers, including Mr Key, to govern under the new electoral system.

While the previous Labour Government had passed the Treaty of Waitangi Act, it was Mr Bolger who led the way in settling Treaty grievances. He did so at a time when dealing with Treaty claims was not popular within the National Party nor, at times, the broader electorate.

It was not unusual to attend National Party conferences in the 1990s and hear delegates complaining about the government giving away too much to iwi. But Mr Bolger was adamant it was the right thing to do and argued his case persuasively within the National Party and publicly.

It paved the way for Mr Key - and his Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson - to continue the process of settling Treaty grievances. And not a whisper from the National Party in complaint.

Finally, it was Mr Bolger's government which progressively raised the age of eligibility to New Zealand Superannuation to 65. Again it was not a popular move and National's political difficulties over the superannuation issue appear to be behind Mr Key's promise to resign if he ever tampered with the age of eligibility.

The real conservative PM

All three initiatives were significant and not without political difficulty. In contrast it is less easy to identify a significant policy change pursued by Mr Key which might have as a similar impact 20 years from now.

He did help manage the country through the Global Financial Crisis and the Christchurch earthquake. But National was left a legacy by the previous Labour Government - a healthy set of government books - which gave it the financial buffer it needed to deal with both crises.

Mr Key's possibly only real attempt at creating a legacy was his ill-fated push to change the flag. But that proposal was defeated at the referendum.

Ironically, many would label Mr Bolger the more conservative politician but he was prepared to take more political risks to get things done. There is little doubt that as a result he struggled to win and keep public support and he certainly lost the support of his colleagues. It led in the end to his downfall when Ms Shipley replaced him as Prime Minister.

On the other hand, Mr Key retained a strong grip on power - with no suggestion of unrest among his MPs - and was able to stand down voluntarily from the job.

History might judge Mr Key the better politician. But who was the better Prime Minister?