New Zealand Faces Contest for Prime Minister After Key Quits

  • At least three senior ministers to seek party leadership
  • Ruling National Party caucus will vote on role Dec. 12

Bill English.

Photographer: Mark Coote/Bloomberg

New Zealand faces a leadership battle after three senior ministers said they would seek to become the nation’s next premier.

The trio -- Bill English, Jonathan Coleman and Judith Collins -- confirmed their intentions Tuesday following a meeting of the ruling National Party caucus in Wellington. The caucus will vote Dec. 12 on a replacement leader for outgoing Prime Minister John Key, who resigned without warning Monday.

The contest pits Health Minister Coleman and Police Minister Collins against Finance Minister English, a close ally of Key’s with 26 years of political experience. The new leader will inherit a party with 50 percent support less than a year out from a general election and an economy that’s among the fastest growing in the developed world.

“I can see fantastic opportunities for a stronger economic performance, spreading the benefits of growth to all New Zealanders, and for getting stuck into the most intractable social problems,” English told reporters after declaring his intention to run. Coleman said he sensed “an appetite for change” in the National Party, while Collins said the party needed a leader “who can make hard calls.”

Shock Resignation

Key shocked the nation yesterday by announcing he wouldn’t seek a fourth term as prime minister, citing family reasons and the need to refresh the party leadership. He endorsed English as his successor.

“I have witnessed first-hand his leadership style, his capacity for work, his grasp of the economy, his commitment to change and most of all his decency as a husband, as a father, a colleague and as a politician,” Key said.

English, 54, is seen as a safe pair of hands and the architect of much of the economic reform that Key’s government has overseen since being elected in 2008. A father of six and a former farmer, he entered parliament in 1990 and has been Key’s deputy since 2006.

Still, he has been leader before, taking National to its worst election defeat in 2002 while in opposition.

“You learn as much from losing as you do from winning,” he said when asked about that failure. “I’m certainly older and certainly wiser.”  

Coleman, 50, is a trained doctor and was elected as member for the Auckland electorate of Northcote in 2005. He entered cabinet as 2008 and became health minister in 2014.

‘Women or Men’

“I have had a discussion with caucus today and on the basis of soundings I took last night it’s very clear there is an appetite for a contest between candidates,” Coleman told media Tuesday.

Collins, 57, is a lawyer who first entered parliament in 2002, and was appointed to the first Key cabinet six years later. In 2014 she resigned her portfolios after allegations that leaked e-mails showed she had tried to undermine a public servant. An inquiry cleared her, and she returned as a minister in late 2015.

Collins said the 2017 election campaign will be extremely hard fought. The party will need someone “who can make decisions, who can think on their feet, who can make hard calls and who can connect to New Zealanders whether they’re women, or men, or any ethnicity,” she said. “I believe I can do that.”

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