Where would chairing the UN Security Council rank in your career highlights?

Right up near the top, primarily because of the significance of what took place. Everyone can see it is a very dire situation in Syria. Ultimately either a solution is found or it is going to turn into a failed state and if it turns into a failed state, the long-term consequences are quite dramatic.

I think Russia and the United States are unified in wanting a ceasefire but for completely different reasons. I think the Russians want to continue to support Assad. They want him to stay. They've got interests in the region and they want to prove that they are relevant, that they can solve issues. It's all partly about the way Putin wants to position himself on the world stage, whereas I think for the Obama Administration it is partly about if Syria turns into a failed state, the implications for terrorists and the export of that threat of global terrorism. I think they are a bit more focused on the human aspects of it, displaced people, refugees, all that.

I'm not saying the Russians aren't but I think their motivations are a bit different.


Is it time for New Zealand to have a firmer line against the Assad regime. Sometimes I feel we just sit on the fence too much?

We probably were harder initially. Certainly early on in the piece I think there was fairly much a view that said he has got to go. The reason the position morphed into a more nuanced position, which is "we don't see a long-term future for him but there may be a transition", is because that is probably realistic in what our partners are saying.

And that is more likely to bring him to the table?

Yeah. If he knows it is absolutely all over and there is no hope, why would he play ball at all?

Did you get any good feedback from Bronagh?

I asked her later on what she thought and she found it really fascinating. She just listened to each of the debates as someone like any other New Zealander, looking at it, but she is not as intimately involved as you get when you are around MFAT as I am. But she really enjoyed the experience and thought we did quite well.

Did she give you any personal feedback on your chairing?

She liked my gavel work. She thought it snappy. Not too loud. Not too quiet. She'd give me high pass mark for that.

Obviously it wasn't a forum for levity but you seem to have become more serious this year in terms of jokes and stories that were once part of your repertoire. Is that deliberate?

Yep. In the end, there are plenty of occasions where I can still crack lots of jokes and I do that. But to be blunt, the media can construe things the wrong way and I just became a bit tired of having to explain something and so I just thought I'd take it out.

Is it working for you?

I think so. In the end people know I've got a sense of humour and they know that I'm approachable. I'm not trying to take myself so seriously I can't laugh at myself. But I just have to be a bit more careful because people can set me up and so I just being a little bit more cautious.

What new leaders did you meet on the sidelines at the UN who made a mark on you?

The Croatian President [Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic]. I sat next to her at lunch. I hadn't met her before, and [Petro] Poroshenko [Ukraine's President]. I was going to say [Rodrigo] Duterte [the Philippine President] but that was at the East Asia Summit. There was [Abdelfattah al] Sisi, the Egyptian President. Theresa May in her capacity as [British] Prime Minister. I had spoken to on the phone and I had obviously met her as Home Secretary but we had the bilateral with her.

Prime Minister John Key meets British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo / Audrey Young
Prime Minister John Key meets British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo / Audrey Young

How did that go?

I was really impressed with her. I thought she is definitely in a listening mode. And we probably talked a bit more in that bilateral than I might in one with a major leader because she was just asking lots of questions about different things. And sort of genuinely wanted us to answer them.

Like what?

A lot about Asia. What was happening in China. What our perspective on different things were. Where they thought things would play out. I always had a great relationship with David [Cameron] and I still talk to him but I'm pretty sure I'll have a good working relationship with her.

You said you'd introduced Helen Clark to Theresa May this week. Are you more or less optimistic about Clark's chances after this week of networking at the UN?

The same, which is it is really tough but not physically impossible. You sit there and you say there's a lot of people above her; there's a lot of vested interests to get an Eastern European over the line or a European at worst and so you sit there and go: OK, in a world where she doesn't have a champion in the way that you really need it, you need one of the really big guys to be ploughing the field in front of her, but it can all change dramatically.

My original thinking was she would score much better in the early straw polls. If it was just capability, she would be way higher up. We didn't think they'd play quite as hard ball as they did. So once that happened, we realised, OK, they're playing for keeps. There was no generosity of human spirit early on, just to say let's think about everyone and give them a go. But having said all that, from what we can see, some candidates are going to get vetoed out. She'll pick up vetoes as well, I think.

For instance, I might be wrong, but someone said to me that the French will almost certainly veto her because she doesn't speak French, but it's kind of not serious. Then you sit down with them and negotiate with them and prove to them you are doing your French lessons. I wouldn't be surprised if the Russians veto her because they may veto every candidate that is not Eastern European. Even if she gets vetoed, it doesn't mean it is the end. It's a really weird system.

Prime Minister John Key with UNDP chief Helen Clark at the United Nations Assembly in New York. Photo / Audrey Young
Prime Minister John Key with UNDP chief Helen Clark at the United Nations Assembly in New York. Photo / Audrey Young

Who is the better networker, you or Clark?

Clark knows more people, I reckon. The people I know, I know them really well because I have been around a long time. But she knows lots of African and Caribbean leaders and people that I don't know because of UNDP [United Nations Development Programme]. She loves the UN system. She is match-fit to be the secretary-general. She is very happy to be there 365 days of the year.

Would you count Helen Clark as a friend now?

Yeah. I don't think she wants to have barbecues with me but I trust her and my view has been there is such a small group of people that have fundamentally been prime minister, who understand what you go through. And in most mature places in the world - not in some countries where they lock up their former [leaders] - there is a system for saying why wouldn't we use their expertise for the greater good. You see that in the US system where they'll be rolling Jimmy Carter out or they'll be rolling Obama out in years to come. I've always just taken the view: why can't we be a bit more grown-up about it? I'm not competing with Helen for anything. Last time I looked, she's not coming back to be leader of the Labour Party. I just think New Zealanders would expect me to be a bit more mature about it.

Did you meet anyone interesting the CGI [Clinton Global Initiative] last night?

We could have met Bill [Clinton] but we didn't because we were running so late but he mentioned us in his remarks when he started. He said: We are here with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, blah blah. But it was quite an incredible speech. There was a line he used in his Democrat Convention speech and he said, "for those of us who have had more yesterdays than tomorrows, this is the way we look at the world". There was quite a bit of that. He is 70. It is the end of the Clinton Global Initiative. It may be this amazing future if Hillary wins the White House but he was quite reflective.

He is the greatest story-teller on the planet. Him and Obama are the two great orators of the world but for completely different reasons. Obama delivers a prepared speech - I can't think of anyone in the world that does it better. But Clinton never uses notes. He just tells human stories. You feel hopelessly inadequate when you listen to that guy speak. From South Sudan to the Congo, he has been involved. It is incredible.

That role gives him the capacity to do things and he can encourage people to make donations, he can encourage people to do things. That's just what happens when you are the former leader of the free world.

Is he a role model for you after politics?

It would be different for us because on a localised basis, yes I could do things because I would be known, but internationally, it wouldn't be the same as what he is doing.

Are you captivated by the US election?

Yeah. It's fascinating. I don't know how many parallels there are with New Zealand.

I know in the end, like everything in life, every story is local. But it is very different in a lot of ways. When Clinton was talking yesterday, he was obviously making a reflection on what was happening in the election, he said in life when there are zero sum games, I win and you lose.

That is not the way the world should be and the world should be where there are not zero sum games, where we both can win. His sense at the moment is a lot of Americans think it is zero sum game and they are the person losing. You can go on all you like about the ugliness of the campaigns but there is something happening when, on both sides of the political spectrum, the Bernie Sanders supporters and the Trump supporters feel as though they have been so left out.

I think the average New Zealander really struggles to understand why that is resonating. I think the difference in New Zealand is not to say there aren't New Zealanders who don't do well or there aren't people who aren't down on their luck. There'll always be that, sadly, in every country. But I think for the most part, New Zealanders can see with their own eyes that the economy is performing a lot better and, for a lot of people, they feel a lot more confident about where the country is going, even more confident relative to Australia, I think.

How do you rate New York?

It is the most vibrant city in the world. It just never stops. And funnily for such a massive, bustling multicultural place, it has got a folksy bit to it. You don't see it in the streets where people don't talk to each other or they think you are about to get mugged. But if you go into a restaurant or a bar, they're friendly. There's a very New York way of doing things. I came here every second week for seven years from London so I know New York really well. I like it. I just like the buzz of the place.

Are you missing home? You've been away a lot.

It's great when Bronagh's with me because it's far more fun travelling with her when I'm away for weeks on end because even when I'm away, then I'm straight back into Wellington, and so I'm away from home. That's the bit I don't like. But the kids are so much more grown up. Anyway, we're the sort of family where we send each other pictures all the time. We send them every five minutes. We got one of the cat eating before.

Eating what?

Its dinner. I really didn't need that. It's pretty mundane I've got to say.

If it was a rat I'd understand.

No no, it was just its Jellimeat or whatever.