Driving force

He led New Zealand through some of the most tumultuous events in recent decades, dared to suggest a change to the national flag and shocked the political world with his sudden departure. But rather than regrets, Sir John Key remembers his time in Parliament as the most remarkable and exciting time in an eventful life.

“Don’t do it. You’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

Two decades on, that warning from former Prime Minister David Lange remains a vivid memory for Sir John Key.

John Key Speaking

Key came armed with a sharp business mind, a winning smile and, as it turned out,
a little too much patience.

As head of global foreign exchange for Merrill Lynch, Key had been flown back from London in 1999 to speak as a financial expert at an event where Lange was MC. “He was an amazing guy and a hilarious speaker,” recalls Sir John. “But when he asked me if I was going to stay in London forever, and I told him no, I was going to come back and run for parliament, his whole face and demeanour changed. “He said ‘I don’t care who your run for, just don’t do it. It was a terrible experience for me.’” Wise words or not, Key’s mind had been made up decades earlier. “I wanted to be Prime Minister when I was 11 years old. I was always fascinated by the role.” In 2001, the 40-year-old millionaire (another childhood goal ticked off) left the high-rise buildings of the financial world bound for a tiny one-story weatherboard building, housing the National Party’s office in the re-established Helensville electoral.

“Up until that point, the average length of time it took someone to become a member of parliament – and then ultimately, if they made it, Prime Minister – was 18 years. “So, I thought, if I’m the average, I would go in at 40, become PM at 58, last on average four to five years. Based on this I’d be 62 and ready to retire. “The only problem with that is that I got the top job in six years; the fastest political run to the top in New Zealand politics in a century. And I was there for quite a long time, so the plan didn’t quite work out,” he says. Instead, Key would be 55 when he stepped down as leader of the National Party and Prime Minister at the end of 2016 after three terms in office. “I did something that most politicians didn’t do. Normally a Prime Minister is thrown out by the public or their own party; I felt it is better to go a year early than a day late. Most PM’s stay a bit too long… and speak a bit too long too.”

Two years after his political mic-drop, Key looks exactly like the weight of a nation has been lifted off his shoulders. The location may help; he’s just driven his Bentley Continental GT 90 minutes north from his Parnell home to play golf at the stunning Tara Iti course near Mangawhai.

His government led New Zealand through the global financial crisis, the Christchurch earthquakes and the Pike River disaster. Still, in his resignation speech Key called his eight years in charge as the most remarkable, satisfying and exciting time of his life. But he also admitted at the time, “I have nothing left in the tank.”No Crown limousines anymore; Key enjoys doing his own driving, both in the Bentley and on the golf course. Key got serious about golf and Bentley’s at the same time. Golf offered rare quality time with his son Max during his political career, while he fell for the first-generation Continental GT immediately. “When that shape came out, I was hooked. It became a long-standing joke in the house; everyone knew I wanted a Bentley, and little model ones would turn up now and then.”After stepping down, Key wasted no time seeking out a full-sized version. “I thought ‘What the hell, I’m going to do it’. I decided it was time. You only have to sit in a Bentley for 20 seconds and your mind is made up.”

Golf led to a solid friendship between the President and Prime Minister. “In 2014 I went to Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa. We started chatting about our Christmas plans and as we were
both going to Hawaii, he said, ‘Why don’t we play golf?’ So, we did.”

Post-politics, Key’s focus is spending time with family. Any travel will now be family (or golf) focused as he and Bronagh, his wife of 34 years, visit daughter Stephie who is a performance artist in London, and Max who has taken a break from music producing to travel.

Talk of the koru leads to the flag referendum. Would he do it again?

Last year, Golf Digest ranked Tara Iti as the sixth best golf course in the world. Key no doubt helped put it on the map when he hosted former US President Barack Obama there.

I wouldn't have a flag referendum: i'd just change it. I think its one of those things where all hell would have broken loose for a couple of months; then we would have worn it, gotten used to it and been proud of it.

“I still believe that, as a small country at the bottom of the world if we want people to know us, we need a symbol that is ours.” Had he taken that approach, he would have been following the advice of his late mother, Ruth. “Mum always said you get out of life what you put into it. Yes, you need luck, but you also make your own luck.” Luck was in rather short supply soon after Key started primary school. His British-born father George died suddenly, leaving Ruth with three young children, little support and
even less money. “Dad had owned a series of businesses in Auckland, and when he died Mum went to the accountant who told her ‘Basically, your businesses are broke. I might be able to preserve the family home but not much else’.”

It wasn’t the first time Ruth had dealt with losing everything. She had arrived in England in 1938 as a 16-year old Jewish refugee, following Hitler’s annexation of Austria. Five decades on, Key remembers the experience vividly. “Mum took it personally and sold the family home, repaid as much of the debt as she could, and we moved to a state house in Christchurch. “We were a poor, single-parent household, but it was a house with huge amounts of love and affection. It was a tough background from an economic perspective, but that gave me a better understanding of where people came from.” Ruth’s influence, however, stopped at politics; “My mother was a Labour voter,” says Key. “You can’t change your background.” Key never took his mother’s political advice; treating it a bit like David Lange’s dire warnings to avoid politics. But after 15 years of chasing votes, shaking hands and facing unrelenting scrutiny from every direction, was it worth it? Key doesn’t hesitate. 

“I definitely have a great work-life balance now. Friends might say I’m still travelling too much, but I’m not. Most of the time its Bronagh and I travelling together,” he says. There were overseas job offers within days of his resignation, but Key was never going to consider leaving, saying it would have seemed odd to have run the country for a long time, and then run off overseas. So Key looked closer to home, becoming chairman of the country’s biggest company, ANZ Bank (New Zealand). He also jokes about “still being in the state service” due to his place on the board of Air New Zealand, which is 52% Government owned. “We are the beating heart of what a lot of kiwis identify with as a quintessential New Zealand company. You know when the koru turns up in London or Los Angeles, there is that pride you feel as a New Zealander.”

It was the best decision of my life.

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