Sir John Phillip Key (born 9 August 1961) is a New Zealand retired politician who served as the 38th Prime Minister of New Zealand
from 2008 to 2016 and as Leader of the New Zealand National Party
from 2006 to 2016. After resigning from both posts in December 2016 and leaving politics, Key was appointed to board of director and chairmanship roles in New Zealand corporations.
Born in Auckland
before moving to Christchurch
when he was a child, Key attended the University of Canterbury
and graduated in 1981 with a bachelor of commerce
. He began a career in the foreign exchange market
in New Zealand before moving overseas to work for Merrill Lynch
, in which he became head of global foreign exchange in 1995, a position he would hold for six years. In 1999 he was appointed a member of the Foreign Exchange Committee
of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York
until leaving in 2001.
Key entered the New Zealand Parliament
representing the Auckland electorate
as one of the few new National members of parliament
in the election of 2002
following National's significant defeat of that year. In 2004, he was appointed Finance Spokesman for National and eventually succeeded Don Brash
as the National Party leader in 2006. After two years as Leader of the Opposition
, Key led his party to victory at the November 2008 general election
. He was subsequently sworn in as Prime Minister on 19 November 2008. The National government went on to win two more general elections under his leadership: in November 2011
and September 2014
. Key was expected to contest for a fourth term of office at the 2017 general election
, but on 5 December 2016 he resigned as Prime Minister and leader of the National Party.
He was succeeded by Bill English
on 12 December 2016.
As Prime Minister, Key led the Fifth National Government of New Zealand
which entered government at the beginning of the late-2000s recession
in 2008. In his first term, Key's government implemented a GST rise
and personal tax cuts. In February 2011, a major earthquake in Christchurch
, the nation's second largest city, significantly affected the national economy and the government formed the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority
in response. In its second term, Key's government implemented a policy of partial privatisation
of five state-owned enterprise
s, while voters in a citizens-initiated referendum on the issue
were 2 to 1 opposed to the policy. In foreign policy, Key withdrew New Zealand Defence Force
personnel from their deployment
in the war in Afghanistan
, signed the Wellington Declaration
with the United States
and pushed for more nations to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Early life and education
Key was born in Auckland, New Zealand, to George Key (1914–1969)
and Ruth Key (née Lazar; 1922–2000),
on 9 August 1961. His father was an English
immigrant and a veteran of the Spanish Civil War
and World War II
. Key and his two sisters were raised in a state house
in the Christchurch
suburb of Bryndwr
, by his mother, an Austrian-Jewish
Key is the third prime minister or premier of New Zealand to have Jewish ancestry, after Julius Vogel
and Francis Bell
He attended Aorangi School
and then Burnside High School
from 1975 to 1979, where he met his wife, Bronagh.
He went on to attend the University of Canterbury
and earned a Bachelor of Commerce
degree in Accounting
He also attended management studies courses at Harvard University
Career before politics
Key's first job was in 1982, as an auditor at McCulloch Menzies, and he then moved to be a project manager at Christchurch-based clothing manufacturer Lane Walker Rudkin
for two years. Key began working as a foreign exchange dealer at Elders Finance
in Wellington, and rose to the position of head foreign exchange trader two years later, then moved to Auckland-based Bankers Trust in 1988.
In 1995, he joined Merrill Lynch
as head of Asian foreign exchange in Singapore
. That same year he was promoted to Merrill's global head of foreign exchange, based in London
, where he may have earned around US$2.25 million a year including bonuses, which is about NZ$5 million at 2001 exchange rates.
Some co-workers called him "the smiling assassin" for maintaining his usual cheerfulness while sacking dozens (some say hundreds) of staff after heavy losses from the 1998 Russian financial crisis
He was a member of the Foreign Exchange Committee
of the New York Federal Reserve Bank
from 1999 to 2001.
In 1998, on learning of his interest in pursuing a political career, the National Party
president John Slater began working actively to recruit him. Former party leader Jenny Shipley
describes him as one of the people she "deliberately sought out and put my head on the line–either privately or publicly–to get them in there".
Early political career
Early years in Parliament
Auckland's population growth led to the formation for the 2002 general election of a new electorate called Helensville
, which covered the north-western corner of the Auckland urban area. Key beat long-serving National MP Brian Neeson
(whose own Waitakere
seat had moved on paper to being a Labour
seat through the boundary changes) for the National Party Helensville selection. At the 2002 general election
Key won the seat with a majority of 1,705, ahead of Labour's Gary Russell, with Neeson, now standing as an independent, coming third.
The National Party was heavily defeated in the 2002 election, receiving only 20.9% of the party vote – the party's worst-ever election result.
Following the fallout a leadership coup
against the incumbent Bill English
was launched by Don Brash
, another of the 2002 recruits, in October 2003. English and his supporters offered Key the finance spokesman position for his vote and were confident they had the numbers with him on their side. Brash narrowly won 14 votes to 12 and at the time it was thought Key had changed his support to Brash. The votes were confidential, although later Key stated that he did vote for English.
Key won re-election at the 2005 general election
, garnering 63% of votes cast.
He increased his majority again in , gaining 73% of the electorate vote.
The low numbers in the National caucus meant Key was given more opportunities and responsibilities than most new Members of Parliament
After serving as deputy finance spokesman under Brash, Key was promoted to the Opposition front bench
es in 2004 as party spokesman for finance.
Key was up against Michael Cullen
, the Minister of Finance
and a veteran of 23 years in parliament. There was concern he would be out of his depth going up against Cullen in his first term and there was talk among the party of trying to "protect" Key. During the 2005 election campaign
political commentators felt Key matched Cullen in the debates, although he may have benefited from Labour focusing their campaign on discrediting Brash.
Although Brash lost the election, Key remained as finance spokesman.
He was promoted to number four on the list, partly due to his success at selling the party's tax package during the campaign.
While Keys ambition to become leader had been telegraphed from early in his political career, he was now beginning to rate highly on preferred Prime Minister polls.
Rumours that Key was looking to take over the leadership circulated and there was an unofficial agreement between Brash and Key that he would be the natural successor.
Things came to a head earlier than expected. In November 2006. Brash resigned as leader, citing damaging speculation over his future as the reason. His resignation followed controversies over an extramarital affair, and over leaked internal National Party documents that were later published in the book ''The Hollow Men
''. After months of speculation, Key stood for leadership of the party and was elected unopposed
Leader of the Opposition
On becoming leader Key convinced Gerry Brownlee
, deputy leader under Brash, to step aside and promoted his main rival English to deputy leader and finance spokesman. He showed a ruthless streak by unceremoniously pushing Brash out and refusing to allow another one of the 2002 recruits, Brian Connell
, back into the caucus.
In his maiden speech as National Party leader, Key spoke of an "underclass" that had been "allowed to develop" in New Zealand, a theme which received a large amount of media coverage.
Key followed up on this speech in February 2007 by committing his party to a programme which would provide food in the poorest schools in New Zealand.
In opposition he was instrumental in promoting National's change of policy regarding keeping superannuation and Kiwibank
He also supported interest-free student loans and early childhood education funding.
He relented on his stance in opposition to Sue Bradford
's Child Discipline Bill
, which sought to remove "reasonable force" as a defence for parents charged with ''prima facie'' assault of their children.
Key and Prime Minister Helen Clark
agreed a compromise – giving police the discretion to overlook smacking they regarded as "inconsequential".
In August 2007 Key came in for criticism when he changed his position regarding the Therapeutic Products and Medicine Bill. At the same time Labour's Trevor Mallard
hinted in Parliament that Labour would try to link Key to the 1987 "H-Fee" scandal, which involved Key's former employer Elders Merchant Finance
and a payment to Equiticorp
Chief Executive Allan Hawkins. Hawkins and Elders executive Ken Jarrett were later jailed for fraud. Key declaring that he had left Elders months before the event, that he had no knowledge of the deal, and that his interview with the Serious Fraud Office
(SFO) during the investigation into the affair could only have helped to convict the people involved. Then-SFO director Charles Sturt publicly supported Key's statement.
Labour MPs criticised Key for not releasing specific policy information at their annual conference. Key responded that National would set its own policy agenda and that there was adequate time before the next election for voters to digest National Party policy proposals.
Prime Minister (2008-2016)
First term: 2008–2011
Key became Prime Minister following the general election on 8 November 2008
, which signalled an end to the Labour-led government
of nine years under Clark. The National Party won 45% of the party vote and 59 of the 122 seats in Parliament, overtaking the incumbent majority Labour Party.
National negotiated with smaller parties to form a minority government
with confidence and supply
from the classical-liberal ACT Party
, the centrist United Future
and the indigenous-rights-based Māori Party
Key was sworn in as Prime Minister and Minister of Tourism
and also appointed as a member of the Executive Council
on 19 November 2008, along with his nominated cabinet. He chose Bill English
as his Deputy Prime Minister
and Minister of Finance
. During his first term in office National remained high in the polls and one commentator described support for Key as "stratospheric". In 2011 he was nicknamed "Teflon
John" in the popular media, as nothing damaging to his reputation seemed to "stick" to him.
Key's government introduced several bold economic policies in response to the global economic downturn
that began shortly after he took office. The government introduced a plan of personal tax cuts, reducing taxes on all income; the top personal tax rate was lowered from 39% to 38% and then 33%. In its first budget
the government raised the rate of Goods and Services Tax
(GST) from 12.5% to 15%, despite Key previously stating that an increase would not happen under a National government.
In January 2009, after addressing Chinese New Year celebrations at the Greenlane ASB Showgrounds, Key tripped after coming down a small set of stairs in front of cameras, leaving him with a broken right arm and "embarrassed".
Later that year, when arriving at the Ngapuhi
Te Tii Waitangi Marae the day before Waitangi Day
, Key was briefly shoved and grabbed by two protesters before diplomatic protection officers pulled them off. He told reporters he was "quite shocked" but continued onto the marae
and spoke, while police took the two men away and charged them with assault.
Key was tied with the National Cycleway Project
since its conception at the national Job Summit in early 2009. He proposed it, and as Minister for Tourism, was instrumental in getting NZ$50 million approved for initial construction work.
Key launched New Zealand's campaign for a Security Council
seat at the UN General Assembly
meeting in September 2009. He met briefly with US President Barack Obama
and former US President Bill Clinton
. While in New York City
, Key appeared on the ''Late Show with David Letterman
''. He read out the Top Ten list, 'Top Ten Reasons You Should Visit New Zealand'.
In foreign policy, Key supported closer relations with the United States, an ANZUS
defence partner. On 4 November 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
and New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully
signed the Wellington Declaration
. The agreement signalled an increase in the strategic partnership between the two nations and covered areas of co-operation including nuclear proliferation
, climate change and terrorism.
This was followed in June 2012 by a companion document, the Washington Declaration. Since 2008 Key has also engaged in Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations
with the United States and other Asia-Pacific
On 22 February 2011 a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck Christchurch
, causing widespread damage to the city region and significantly affecting the national economy. It was New Zealand's third deadliest natural disaster
, killing 185 people.
Addressing the nation, Key said that the disaster "...may well be New Zealand's darkest day". On 29 March 2011, Key created the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority
(CERA) to manage the earthquake recovery, co-operating with the government, local councils and residents.
On 8 March 2011, John Key advised the Queen to appoint Jerry Mateparae
as the next Governor-General of New Zealand
The Queen of New Zealand
made the appointment later that day.
In October 2011, Key was caught up in a controversy over the replacement of 34 three-year-old Government BMW limousines
with new ones at a time of economic restraint. Initially, Key denied any knowledge of the plan, although reports later surfaced showing that his office was aware of the deal. Political opponents accused Key and his government of hypocrisy; he later apologised, calling it a "sloppy" deal, effectively placing most of the blame on his chief of staff.
Shortly before the general election in November 2011, a recording was made of a conversation between Key and ACT Party candidate John Banks
that they considered private – though the conversation took place in a public cafe. Key made a complaint to the police and compared the incident to illegal phone hacking
in the ''News of the World''
scandal in Britain.
The recording allegedly concerned the leadership of ACT and disparaging remarks about elderly New Zealand First
supporters. Journalists and opposition parties demanded the release of the tapes
and the affair was nicknamed 'teapot tape
A senior barrister criticised Key, stating that the comparison of the recording to the phone hacking scandal was a "cheap shot".
Statements made by Key regarding New Zealand's national credit rating
proved controversial. In October 2011 he claimed that Standard & Poor's
(S&P) had said that "if there was a change of Government, that downgrade would be much more likely". S&P contradicted the claim, bringing Key's credibility into question. National won the election, but New Zealand's credit rating was subsequently downgraded anyway – by two different agencies – Standard and Poor's and Fitch Group
Second term: 2011–2014
The general election on 26 November 2011
saw National increase its share of the vote and gain a seat, while Labour suffered further losses. Key called the election a "very happy night" and a "strong and solid win" for his party.
The Prime Minister re-negotiated confidence and supply agreements with United Future,
the ACT Party
and the Māori Party, to secure a second term of government.
In 2012, Key was implicated in the arrest of Kim Dotcom
and the subsequent revelations that the Government Communications Security Bureau
(GCSB) had illegally spied on Dotcom. As Prime Minister, Key was directly responsible for the GCSB, which is not allowed to spy on New Zealand citizens – and Dotcom had been granted permanent residency. Three days later, Key apologised for the illegal spying. "I apologize to Mr Dotcom. I apologize to New Zealanders because every New Zealander…is entitled to be protected from the law when it comes to the GCSB, and we failed to provide that appropriate protection for him." It subsequently came to light that Deputy Prime Minister Bill English had been asked by the GCSB to sign a "ministerial certificate" suppressing details of the bureau's involvement in the case while Key was overseas – the only time this had been done in the last ten years.
The fallout from Dotcom's arrest continued in December when the High Court ordered the GCSB to "confirm all entities" to which it gave information, opening the door for Dotcom to sue for damages – against the spy agency and the police. Later that month, Key's rating as preferred PM dropped to 39% – the first time in his four years as prime minister that his rating had slipped below 40%. It emerged that Key had known Ian Fletcher
, head of the GCSB, since they were at school, but Key denied he had 'shoulder-tapped' Fletcher for the role.
Later Key's office released a statement saying he rang Fletcher and recommended he apply for the position at GCSB.
Key said he hadn't originally mentioned the phone call because he "forgot". Political commentator Bryce Edwards
called it the "most appalling political management since he became Prime Minister back in 2008".
Key continued New Zealand's push for a spot on the UN Security Council while in New York in 2013. There he accused rival candidates Spain and Turkey of using aid money to buy votes from small African countries, and said New Zealand would not be spending its way onto the Council. While in New York, Key suddenly fell ill, but recovered in time for meetings with representatives from other countries ahead of the General Assembly.
In April whilst visiting Chinese president Xi Jinping
, Key made headlines by suggesting New Zealand would back any United States
n military action against North Korea
. The following day he backtracked, saying the chance of New Zealand troops entering North Korea was "so far off the planet".
Third term: 2014–2016
The general election on 20 September 2014
saw the National Government returned again. National won a plurality with 47.0% of the party vote and 60 of the 121 seats. On election night counts the party appeared to hold the first majority since 1994 with 61 seats, but lost a list seat (for Maureen Pugh
) to the Green Party
on the official count (including special votes) of the party vote. National re-entered a confidence and supply arrangement with United Future, the ACT Party and the Māori Party.
In October, Key created a new ministerial portfolio called the Minister of National Security and Intelligence
to serve the newly established Cabinet National Security Committee
. The Prime Minister assumed the new portfolio while the Attorney General Christopher Finlayson
became Minister Responsible for the GCSB and Minister in Charge of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service
(NZSIS), portfolios which have traditionally been held by a prime minister. Key was elected Chairman of the International Democrat Union
(IDU), an international alliance of centre-right
political parties. The National Party was a founding member party in 1983.
In April 2015, Key acknowledged that he had pulled a waitress' ponytail multiple times over several months; when Key learnt she had taken offence, he apologised. International media reported the incident as "ponytail-gate".
Key had long supported changing the flag of New Zealand
, and during the 2014 general election
campaign promised a referendum on the issue. Following the election win, two New Zealand flag referendums
were held in November/December 2015 and March 2016. The second resulted in the retention of the current flag.
Critics (both national and international) charged that the referendums were unnecessary, expensive and a "wasteful vanity project".
and the negotiation of free-trade agreements
were a priority in Key's third term. He was a leading advocate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership
(TPP), also supporting the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership
(TPSEP). Both agreements provide for a multilateral free-trade area
in the Asia–Pacific region. In a September 2016 speech to the Council of Foreign Relations
, Key said "PP
will boost our economy by at least $2.7 billion a year by 2030. It will help diversify our economy and create more jobs and higher incomes for New Zealanders". Key was particularly intent on securing the participation of the United States in the agreement; to this end, he discussed TPP with President Barack Obama in April 2016, and hosted Secretary of State John Kerry
in Wellington, 9–13 November 2016. The finalised TPP proposal was signed on 4 February 2016 in Auckland
, concluding seven years of negotiations. In January 2017, US President Donald Trump
signed a presidential memorandum
to withdrawing the United States' signature from the agreement, making its ratification virtually impossible.
In February 2016, Key reached an agreement with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull
to grant New Zealanders living in Australia a pathway to citizenship if they were earning five times over the average wage. As a result of this agreement, the Australian Government introduced the "Skilled Independent visa (subclass 189)" in July 2017 to fast-track the Australian citizenship
naturalisation process for New Zealanders living in Australia. New Zealanders living in Australia for at least five years and earning an annual income over A$53,900 were eligible for the visa. By late February 2018, 1,512 Subclass 189 visas had been issued. However, this visa scheme was criticised by the "Ozkiwi lobby" since two-thirds of New Zealanders living in Australia did not meet the qualifying wage.
In March 2016, Queen Elizabeth II , Queen of New Zealand
, approved the appointment of Dame Patsy Reddy
as the next Governor-General of New Zealand
, for a five-year term starting in September 2016, on the advice
of John Key.
Key resigned as Prime Minister and leader of the National Party, effective 12 December, and instructed the party to put into motion the processes to elect a new leader. He expressed interest in spending more time with his family, stating that he had "never seen imself
as a career politician
" and that "this feels the right time to go". Media reports described the decision as unexpected, and noted the popularity of Key and his party.
He was succeeded by Bill English
Following his resignation, Key stated that he would leave Parliament before the 2017 general election
. However, he stated that he would resign within six months of the election so as to not trigger a by-election
in the electorate.
He gave his valedictory
speech in Parliament on 22 March 2017 and formally resigned the following month, on 14 April.
In May 2017, Key was appointed to the board of directors
of Air New Zealand
, and took up the position on 1 September 2017.
He was also appointed chairman of ANZ Bank New Zealand
, taking up the position on 18 October 2017.
On 31 March 2020, Key stood down as a director of Air New Zealand.
Political and social views
Key's views were largely aligned with his own party's view. However, he noted that his differences from his predecessor are more of style and focus rather than view. Key noted others' concern at the pace of asset sales, but stated that the arguments against selling assets in the 1980s were largely irrational. In a 2002 interview, he said that "some form of orientation towards privatisation" in health, education and superannuation, such as giving firms tax breaks for employer super schemes, made sense. After his party won a plurality in the 2011 election
, Key rejected claims that the National Government lacked a mandate to partially privatise state-owned assets.
Key had a mixed voting record on social issues. In 2004 he voted against the bill creating civil unions
, stating that, while he personally supports such unions, he acted in accordance with his electorate's views. However, in 2005, Key was part of a large bloc of MPs voting to defeat a bill that defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. Key stated in 2008 that he did not oppose same-sex couples adopting children. In 2013 he expressed support for same-sex marriage
and voted for the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Act 2013
In 2008 Key voted for an attempt to raise the legal drinking age from 18 back to 20, but ignored a Law Commission
recommendation to increase levies on alcohol. He claimed there was "no appetite" for such a move. A report on public attitudes to alcohol law reform was later discovered, which indicated that in 2010, when he made this claim, 56% of New Zealanders supported a price increase.
Key says that global warming
is a real phenomenon, and that the Government needed to implement measures to reduce human contribution to global warming.
Key committed the National Party to working towards reducing greenhouse emissions in New Zealand by 50% within the next fifty years. Commentators note that as late as 2005, Key made statements indicating that he was sceptical of the effects and impact of climate change
As a first-term MP in 2003, Key criticised the Labour-led government's stance on the Invasion of Iraq
, claiming that New Zealand was "missing in action
" by failing to support its ANZUS
allies, the United States
. In August 2007 Key claimed that he would have taken a similar position to Clark and not sent troops to Iraq.
In response, the Government argued that his comments from 2003 suggest that Key would have deployed troops had he been Prime Minister at the time.
Like his predecessor Helen Clark, Key views a New Zealand republic
as "inevitable", although probably not for another decade. "If Australia becomes a republic there is no question it will set off quite an intense debate on this side of the Tasman", he said. "We would have to have a referendum
if we wanted to move towards it."
Key later stated that he was a monarchist
, and that a New Zealand republic would "Not appen
under my watch". In 2009 Key's government restored titular honours
, including knighthood
s and damehood
s — the abolishment of these titles in 2000 had been seen as an advancement towards republicanism.
During the 2020 New Zealand euthanasia referendum
, Key has publicly expressed support for the End of Life Choice Act 2019
, saying that his mother's struggle with Alzheimer's disease
prior to her death convinced him to support the decriminalisation of euthanasia
On 25 July 2008, Key was added to the New Zealand ''National Business Review
'' (NBR) Rich List for the first time. The list details the wealthiest New Zealand individuals and family groups. He had an estimated wealth of NZ$50 million,
which made him the wealthiest New Zealand Member of Parliament. In the 2016 NBR Rich List, Key had an estimated wealth of NZ$60 million. Most of his financial investments are held in a blind trust
Key married Bronagh Irene Dougan in 1984; they met when they were both students at Burnside High School.
She has a BCom degree, and worked as a personnel consultant before becoming a full-time mother. They have two children, Stephie and Max.
Max is a night-time radio host for George FM
, and is also a singer. Stephie is a performance artist.
In 2008 Key stated that he attended church frequently with his children, but was an agnostic
He has said that he does not believe in an afterlife, and sees religion as "doing the right thing".
On 3 August 2010, Key gained the style "The Right Honourable
". Previously, as he was not a privy councillor
, he had not been entitled to use the style—his predecessor ended the appointment of New Zealanders to the Privy Council. However, in 2010 the Queen approved the use of the style by prime ministers, governors-general, speakers of the House
, and chief justices.
Key was appointed a Knight Grand Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit
, in recognition of "services to the State", in the 2017 Queen's Birthday Honours
. Later Key was appointed an honorary Companion of the Order of Australia
, for "eminent service to Australia-New Zealand relations", by the Governor-General of Australia
on the personal recommendation of the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull
On 7 August 2017, Key was awarded an honorary doctorate
by his alma mater
, the University of Canterbury
, to become a doctor of commerce.
* Electoral history of John Key
* List of New Zealand ministries
* Contents of the United States diplomatic cables leak (New Zealand)
at New Zealand National Party website
at Parliament of New Zealand website
Releases and speeches
at Beehive website
Category:21st-century New Zealand politicians
Category:Honorary Companions of the Order of Australia
Category:Knights Grand Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit
Category:Leaders of the Opposition (New Zealand)
Category:Members of the New Zealand House of Representatives
Category:New Zealand agnostics
Category:New Zealand monarchists
Category:New Zealand MPs for Auckland electorates
Category:New Zealand National Party MPs
Category:New Zealand National Party leaders
Category:New Zealand people of Austrian-Jewish descent
Category:New Zealand people of English descent
Category:People educated at Burnside High School
Category:People from Christchurch
Category:New Zealand politicians awarded knighthoods
Category:Prime Ministers of New Zealand
Category:University of Canterbury alumni