Audrey Young

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Jet-setting week with the leaders

John Key has just finished a week in Asia at the Apec and East summits, capping off the most intense period of international travel in his five years as Prime Minister. The Weekend Herald's political editor was with him in Asia and spoke to him before he headed home

John Key, second from left, with leaders at the East Asia Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. Photo / AP
John Key, second from left, with leaders at the East Asia Summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei. Photo / AP

How many leaders have you met withduring the Pacific Islands Forum in the Marshall Islands, Britain and France and the United Nations last month and Apec in Bali and and the East Asia Summit in Brunei this week?

[Calculates aloud] Seventy. In my time as Prime Minister, this has been the most intense.

Who made the strongest impression on you this week and why?

Xi Jinping [China's President] has a lot of presence about him. He has a very different style to Hu Jintao. Hu Jintao was less communicative - he stuck to the script whereas Xi Jinping, you feel like you are developing a relationship with him. It's actually very true of Li Keqiang as well [China's Premier]. They [have] quite a different style to the previous Chinese leadership and they interact with you. You get feedback on how things are going.

Which leader would you have liked to have spent more time with?

Funnily enough, the one person I didn't spend a lot of time with this week is Yudhoyono [Indonesia's President and Apec host] because he was really busy. I had a talk to him last night and he said, "Look I'm sorry I didn't spend a bit more time. All the others we've had lots of exposure."

Which of the leaders you've seen this week are you text buddies with?

Aquino in the Philippines, definitely. Najib in Malaysia, obviously Tony Abbott in Australia. Funnily enough I don't but I could, actually, with [US Secretary of State] John Kerry; we've had a lot to do with each other now with TPP this week when he was representing [US President] Obama.

Yingluck in Thailand, definitely we could, PNG definitely, we know each other pretty well with Peter O'Neill. I'd say with all of them, I'd be absolutely comfortable picking up the phone and having a discussion with them about anything. Someone like Manmohan Singh is very friendly but very formal. The Sultan of Brunei is actually very personable guy but he is formal.

Do you get a greater sense of the New Zealand character on trips like this such as [our] sense of informality and casualness?

The personality is reflected in the style of our Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I think we do a really good job of presenting our arguments, of being quite efficient in the way that we communicate. They don't give me big interventions to read out [during bilateral meetings with other leaders].We have a discussion before I go in there about what I might talk about, then we tend to talk extemporaneously as opposed to reading things out. That's what people like about us. It's uncomplicated, it's straight forward and it's consistent. Most of [the leaders] have been to New Zealand, all of them have really enjoyed it. They like the personality of the country. So I think there is a huge amount of goodwill towards New Zealand.

Why didn't we ask for a bilateral with Russia?

We are getting quite close to signing the FTA but the trade ministers haven't actually finished off a deal. The main thing we want to talk to [Russian President] Putin about is the deal and I talked to Lavrov about it [Russian Foreign Minister] today in the margins, but if we do it in a formal meeting, we think the risk is that it might stop us getting it rather than make us get it because it sometimes creates more confusion in the system.

Would you like more New Zealand kids to do their OE in Asia?

Yes and we've been looking at ways that we can maybe encourage them to go to these universities. If you take somewhere like China, the two internationally prestigious universities are Peking University and Tsinghua University. There are New Zealand students studying there but Australia is talking about sending both academic staff and students to study in Asia - almost a reverse of the Colombo Plan. I think there is some merit in New Zealand considering more of that.

Would you like more young New Zealanders to learn an Asian language?

I think that would be very sensible and I think it is one of the advantages of the ultrafast broadband. The argument that has been put up by the education system is that there aren't enough Mandarin speakers in New Zealand to teach Mandarin in all of our schools. That may or may or may not be correct. There's an awful lot who live in New Zealand who could teach, who have Mandarin or other Asian languages they can use. An advantage of having ultrafast broadband is that we can run virtual classes online with a limited number of teachers. The Malaysian Prime Minister Najib said to me last night we should think about teaching more Bahasa Indonesia.

Would you consider incentives for schools to teach Asian languages?

Incentives probably to get the staff to allow them to teach, I think would be the way to go.

Where do you rate chairing the TPP meeting in your career highlights?

One of a small number. You could see by the number of media there, how significant people took that meeting. Once you get countries like the United State and Japan saying this is an historic point which will either make progress or there'll be real issues, you know that it's very important. And it wasn't completely straightforward. I think it's fair to say that the feedback we've had is that we did a really good job of chairing it. I don't like saying that myself but that is the general feedback we've had. People were happy with the way it was chaired and we got the outcomes we wanted.

How surreal was it having the Indonesian president strumming the guitar while you sang Happy Birthday to Vladimir Putin at the Apec meeting?

Unexpected, because it came out of nowhere. All of a sudden, he just walked over, sat down, picked up the guitar and I thought "what on earth is going on here?" and then started singing Happy Birthday to Vladimir Putin, who was not standing very far from me. It was somewhat amusing.

How many games of golf did you play in Bali and in Brunei and who with?

One with [Indonesian Trade Minister] Gita. He bought along a few guests, the Interior Minister, and the Economic Minister. But he also brought along this guy whose first name is Terry. He owns all of the factories that make Apple in China. We left the hotel at 10 to 5 and we teed off at 5.35am, when it was light. I normally get up about 5.40 am or 5.45, so it wasn't really that early for me and we were back by 7.30am. We played nine holes, so it was pretty quick.

You're an elder statesman at Apec now.

If I was to reflect back to the first Apec in Peru in 2008, in a sense it shows you how much you learn in five years in the job. There's always things you don't know and always things that change but you get so much more comfortable and familiar. Five years ago, Kevin Rudd was the Australian Prime Minister and he went around and introduced me to a lot of the leaders because I really didn't know anybody. This time I introduced Tony Abbott to people. Funnily when I was chairing the TPP meeting I didn't feel at all nervous. We took it really seriously but I wasn't nervous. It was a fun part of the job.

Perhaps you'd like an international job like Helen Clark after politics.

I'm touched, but no thanks.

Is the Empire Hotel and Country Club in Brunei the flashest you've ever stayed in?

No. It's extremely flash but it is 12 years old. We went to dinner [at Apec in Bali] with [Canadian Prime Minister [Stephen Harper] and Tony Abbott. Tony, Stephen and I went to the St Regis - that is an unbelievable resort. But I reckon the flashest room I've ever stayed in the world was the presidential suite at the Taj Hotel in India, in Mumbai. I've stayed at some really flash places but it was unbelievable. That was the place where the terrorist attacks took place so they had just completely redone the hotel. Funnily enough, I stayed there when I was with Merrill Lynch. Slightly different room.

Is there such a thing as obscene wealth?

I think there is excessive consumption. I guess in the end when people have vast amounts of wealth, they have got to do something with it and it is just consumption as a level that most people, including myself, can't comprehend. But it has got to be seen against the level of income they have.

Why did you have dinner with Tony Abbott and Stephen Harper in Bali?

For the first time in a long time you've got three centre-right governments, so it was just a catch up - politics.

What is the Sultan of Brunei like?

He is a really thoroughly nice guy, very polite, quite softly spoken. If you didn't know he was fabulously wealthy, you wouldn't know.

Is there nothing ostentatious about him?

Well he's beautifully dressed. His clothes are expensive and they look expensive but he's the polar opposite of ostentatious in his personality. He's obviously got lots of wealth and clearly expensive toys but he just doesn't flaunt it when you are talking to him.

What are your first impressions of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe?

I really like him. What is absolutely crystal clear is that this is his second time as Prime Minister and he has come back with a strong view that he is going to reform. And that, in my view, includes trade policy and other strands of economic policy. He is crystal-clear about what he wants to do.

It's been a long week. What are you looking forward to most when you get back home?

Getting home to see Bronagh. It has been a pretty tough week for her obviously. She has had to deal with the funeral of her stepmother. So it will be nice to be home.

- NZ Herald

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