Joyce’s Odyssey

Former Finance Minister Steven Joyce has bowed out of Parliament, a week after his failed bid for the National Party leadership following Bill English’s departure. Thomas Coughlan reports.

It’s fitting Steven Joyce and Bill English should resign almost simultaneously. Joyce’s first involvement with the National Party came after English’s crushing loss in 2002, when he was asked to conduct a review of the party. Joyce helped to resurrect National, becoming a key figure in John Key’s National Government. It posted the highest poll results of the MMP era.

Joyce’s Odyssey

It was business rather than politics that was in Joyce’s blood. His parents were grocers. Joyce took his first great leap into the commercial world early, founding Energy FM with friends (one of whom was comedian Jeremy Corbett) after leaving university. The company grew into RadioWorks, the first nationwide commercial radio network.

In 2001, RadioWorks was bought by CanWest and became MediaWorks, leaving Joyce with $6 million, but out of a job. He decided to turn his hand to politics, becoming a member of the National Party. He had never been a member of a political party before. Up to that point his associations with politics were limited to a drive-time interview with Robert Muldoon conducted soon after the latter had lost the party leadership and the fact that his wife Suzanne had been a nanny to Tony and Cherie Blair’s children while on her OE.

Then came National’s worst ever election result in 2002. There weren’t many winners for the party on that night. One was Joyce’s fellow leadership contender Judith Collins, who managed to win the seat of Clevedon. The other was Joyce himself, who was asked by English to review the party.

"They looked for somebody with a bit of experience outside the party in marketing and business, somebody fresh,” Joyce was later quoted as telling The New Zealand Herald .

"It had to be done with some care because it was an organisation that was hurting. You had to get the answers, but do it in such a way that you didn't end up breaking anything,” he said. 

Joyce found a disorganised and disunited party that had yet to adapt to the rigours of MMP politics and national campaigns. The party’s different local branches would be running disunited, localised, 'first past the post-style' campaigns. Joyce told them to stress consistent messages and themes across a national campaign in an MMP election.

He was given the opportunity to test his ideas on the campaign trail when he was appointed campaign manager for the 2005 election. The election saw the erection of National’s now-infamous Iwi/Kiwi billboards, which stirred controversy and stoked racial tension following Don Brash’s Orewa speech in 2004. Joyce acknowledged some might find the ads controversial, but the party ran them anyway.

The election brought another controversy in the form of a smear campaign against the Green Party covertly conducted by the Exclusive Brethren. National's leader initially denied knowledge, but emails published by Nicky Hager in his book The Hollow Men showed that Brash, Joyce and future leader John Key were all aware of the Brethren’s involvement in the campaign.

National nearly doubled its vote (from 20.93 percent to 39.10 percent), but lost the election. Joyce’s success was recognised as he was given the opportunity to manage National’s 2008 campaign as well as a high position on the party list.

National wasn’t the only party giving Joyce attention; Labour had noticed National’s talented campaign manager and didn’t relish the prospect of going up against him in Parliament. Then-Prime Minister Helen Clark tried to tar Joyce with the Brethren brush. She said his placing was a “reward for being part of the 'hollow men', raising money, organising the Brethren," but it didn’t stick.

Kitchen cabinet

But Clark was on her way out and National’s 2008 campaign was a roaring success. On election night, John Key gushed:

“I want to thank the man who ran the campaign, who rang me every morning at six o’clock, who was up at 4.30 in the morning, who read every newspaper from cover to cover, Steven Joyce. You ran a great campaign, mate”.

In an unusual move, recognising Joyce’s senior contribution, he was elevated into cabinet, becoming a member of Key’s inner-circle, his “kitchen cabinet,” alongside English, Gerry Brownlee and Murray McCully. Joyce played a key role in a government that never seemed to run out of popularity.

Joyce held many portfolios in the fifth National government: Minister for Transport, Minister for Communications and Information Technology, Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment, Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment, Minister for Economic Development and Minister for Infrastructure. Throughout his tenure he maintained a focus on business and infrastructure. In a brief press conference following his departure, he highlighted the effort he made to foster the growth of small business and the rollout of ultra-fast broadband as key personal successes.

In 2012, he was the driving force in the creation of the “super ministry,” the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). The ministry pulled together the Department of Building and Housing, Department of Labour, Ministry of Economic Development, and the Ministry of Science and Innovation. It was one of the biggest shake-ups seen in the public service until that point.

Joyce largely escaped another Hager controversy during the 2014 election. Hager's Dirty Politics book embroiled Collins instead and in 2016 Joyce was elevated to Minister of Finance, following Key’s resignation and English’s subsequent appointment as Prime Minister. His budget will be remembered for the goodies handed out to voters in an election year after years of tight spending. Joyce announced tax cuts through a realignment of the income tax thresholds. But the government didn’t last long enough to see them implemented.

Into the hole

In 2017, as National looked set to win a record fourth term, the first of the MMP era, Joyce found himself scrambling to find a political response to what was dubbed "Jacindamania". National’s poll rating dipped only slightly, with Labour’s gains largely coming at the expense of the Greens, but Joyce was forced to contend with the possible elimination of the Maori Party and United Future.

Joyce’s strategy was to mount an assault on Labour’s possible coalition partner, Winston Peters, campaigning hard in his Northland seat and trying to force New Zealand First’s party vote below 5 per cent. Then Joyce claimed he had found a $11.7 billion hole in Labour’s budget proposals. The claim was universally rubbished and Joyce was castigated for playing fast and loose with facts in the age of ‘fake news’.

The scepticism Joyce met from the media was nothing compared to the enemy he made in Peters. Midway through the campaign, documents showing Peters had been overpaid superannuation were leaked to the media, including Newsroom. Peters believed National’s leadership to be behind the leak and launched a court action to force Joyce, English, Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley to provide documents.

Joyce might have been forgiven for celebrating victory on the election night of September 23. National appeared to have a strong position from which to negotiate the formation of a government with Peters and was by far the largest party in Parliament. That was unprecedented in the MMP era, but a fourth term was never a serious possibility. Peters began his legal action on 22 September, the day before the election, suggesting negotiating with National’s leadership was never really on the cards. It was a move described by senior National Party cabinet ministers and political commentators as utu. Joyce won the election, but his politics failed him.

Nicola Willis, Joyce's replacement in Parliament. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Like many politicians who become used to government, Joyce did not take easily to leaving the Beehive. He was said to have performed poorly in last week’s leadership election, a fairly strong indication that his caucus no longer saw him as the answer to its problems after the Peters debacle.

Joyce confirmed Simon Bridges had offered him a front bench position, but not the finance portfolio, as good an indication as any that the party leadership wants a break from the Key-English-Joyce past, even as it seeks to talk up their economic credentials.

Joyce’s resignation will take place after his valedictory speech when Parliament resumes in a fortnight. His place in Parliament will fall to the next person on National’s list, Nicola Willis. She is a former advisor to Key and a Fonterra executive who has herself been talked up as an eventual leadership contender.

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