A commonly asked question of leaders when they enter office is what is your vision? A commonly asked question when they leave is what is your legacy?

Considering Prime Minister John Key had neither, he had a remarkably stellar career and history should treat him well.

Wanting to leave a country in a better state that you found it is not a vision.

Nor is being ambitious for your country. If that were so, everyone has the same vision.


This week was about John Key's legacy after eight years in office.

Much of the reflection blurred the concept of a political legacy with his leadership style, how he made people feel and what he will be remembered for.

A legacy is an achievement that will endure beyond the next leader and beyond different Governments.

It is for example the welfare state, ACC, deregulation, MMP, Treaty of Waitangi settlements, Kiwisaver, and the Cullen fund.

When I've asked people this week what they thought Key's legacy was, many have said he gave New Zealanders a greater sense of confidence, especially about New Zealand's place in the world.

That is true but it is a state of mind. It could just as easily disappear through circumstances well beyond our control.

It has been said that Key's handling of the global financial crisis and the Canterbury earthquakes was his legacy.

They were defining events in office that magnified his qualities of empathy but they were not a legacy to New Zealand.


The three regrets he cited this week would all have been enduring and significant legacies had they been successful: changing the flag, the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Kermadec ocean sanctuary.

Getting rid of the wretched flag would have been a wonderful legacy for the country.
But Key underestimated the extent to which Opposition parties wanted to deny a Tory politician any such victory.

Their cynicism about the process turned a large section of the electorate against any change.

The failure of the Obama Administration to get the Trans Pacific Partnership across the line in time for it to be examined and ratified in the 12 member countries was a fault of the US, not Key, because it controlled the timetable.

The work New Zealand and the US did together on what would have been the world's biggest trade pact brought the two countries even closer politically.

But in the end, the US controlled the process.

It didn't set clear enough parameters at the outset about what sort of agreement it wanted, which countries it wanted involved and what its timetable should be.

The failure to get the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary passed into law on Key's watch was his own stupid fault.

He paid too much attention to Environment Minister Nick Smith and not enough to Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson.

It was a great idea but in order to allow Key to announce it with all the attendant hoopla at the United Nations, proper process was sacrificed for a fast secret process which has now been legally challenged. If it was worth doing, it was worth doing properly.

Key and Finlayson have made stunning progress on the Bolger-Graham legacy of treaty settlements with an amazing number of settlements with iwi in the past eight years.

If it weren't for the spoiled record in the Kermadec issue, Key may almost have established a legacy in the advancement of his relationships with Maori.

His decision to include the Maori Party in Government even though its vote has never been required took governance to a new level.

It may not be a legacy because future governments may not follow suit.

There are two other areas I consider to be legacies for the Key Government although he has not claimed them as such: the Ross Sea sanctuary and the modernization of New Zealand's spy agencies.

By modernization I mean that Key oversaw their transition from agencies run by the old boys network of ex-soldiers and intelligence community insiders to normal public servants; they also transitioned from agencies run with a "trust-me" philosophy and meagre oversight to ones that are overseen by an independent Inspector General.

The reform was precipitated by spying on Kim Dotcom but Key did not have to be dragged kicking and screaming to it. He encouraged it.

It is highly likely that Key would have headed in that direction anyway. A civilian outsider had already been appointed to run the GCSB, and issues of improper spying overseas would also have alerted Key to the need for review and reform.

The acceptance of the Ross Sea region Marine Protected Area by the 25 member countries of the Commission for the Conservation of Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) represents a huge legacy by the Key Government and the Obama Government, although it has not been claimed by them as such.

Covering 1.55 million square kilometres, it is the world's largest marine protected area.

Key took ownership of the Kermadec proposal, however, and left the Ross Sea to Foreign Minister Murray McCully and his counterpart John Kerry work on for three years until their success in October.

Key's success in international affairs is a defining feature of his leadership.

The confidence New Zealanders feel at home and abroad about a strong place for New Zealand in the world may have something to do with the respect in which he was held.

At the end of every major trip of his that I covered, I would sit down with him for an entertaining Q and A about his personal observations which were often more candid that MFAT would like.

He was as relaxed in those forums as he would be at the Helensville kindergarten.

His ability to form connections extended beyond Obama, Xi Jinping of China, Angela Merkel of Germany, Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, and all the Australian Prime Ministers to Asian, Pacific and European leaders.

But again, that is about his unique form of leadership and high EQ. The connections may be helpful for the next Prime Minister, Bill English, but probably not the one after that.

The fact that Key doesn't really have a legacy is of no matter.

It is an issue that worries historians, politicos and journalists but not voters.

What he should be remembered for is daring to be different.