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A Discussion with John Key, Former Prime Minister of New Zealand

With: John Key

April 28, 2017

Background: John Key visited Cambodia in late April 2017 as patron of various philanthropic ventures of Dr. Haruhisa Handa. Dr. Handa, a Japanese Shinto/Buddhist leader who is also an entrepreneur and artist, supports a wide range of development projects that are well exemplified in Cambodia. Key, who resigned as New Zealand’s prime minister in December 2016, spoke to Katherine Marshall in Siem Reap, Cambodia on April 28, 2017 about his support for Dr. Handa’s work and about his goals in his post-political life. Key looks forward to supporting the various activities that Dr. Handa has initiated, including sports and various social and educational programs. Youth is a passion for Key and an area of special interest. In this discussion he comments on the changes he sees in Cambodia since an earlier visit in 2012 and his positive impression of the diverse health, education, and social programs that Dr. Handa supports. He reflects on some of the complex issues involved for NGOs working in a dynamic context like Cambodia, including the pitfalls of the proliferation of NGO activities with limited government support and oversight and the need to adapt continuously to changing circumstances.

How did you come to know and appreciate Dr. Handa’s work?

I first met Dr. Handa in New Zealand, in connection with a Handa-supported Ladies’ PGA [Professional Golfers’ Association] event. Following the Christchurch earthquakes, ISPS [International Sports Promotion Society] was the title sponsor for the ISPS Handa New Zealand Women’s Open that played a leading role in the recovery of Christchurch following the earthquake damage. I had seen him at other golfing events—golf tourism has been an important way to promote New Zealand. But I had little knowledge about Dr. Handa’s other activities until I met him again when I visited Japan as prime minister and learned more about his work, including his involvement in New Zealand sponsoring, for example, football.

When I stepped down as prime minister I discussed with him the possibility of serving as a patron of various endeavors, starting with golf, where we share an interest, but also beyond.

I was keen to come to Cambodia to see what he was doing on the ground and to have a better idea of the scale and impact of his philanthropy. In three days here I have had a remarkable introduction to these activities. I visited the University of Cambodia, an orphanage and hospital in Phnom Penh, and various programs of the Handa Foundation in Battambang (a medical center, a trauma hospital, a model farm, and a sports program for young people). In Phnom Penh I met with Prime Minister Hun Sen. So the visit has given me the chance to grasp the full scope of Dr. Handa’s long-standing support for diverse programs in Cambodia and their impact. The programs that I saw seem to be well designed and, perhaps more important, well adapted to the circumstances of Cambodia today and responding to changing needs over time.

You recently stepped down as prime minister, and there is some curiosity as to why you did so and what you are looking to as a next phase.

I am a firm believer that it is best not to overstay one’s welcome! And after 15 years in politics I was ready to step down and leave the path clear for my able successor. I had enjoyed my earlier career in investment and commercial banking and look forward to returning to such activities, at least at some point, though I am not sure at what intensity. For now work-life balance is a significant issue. I am anxious to carve out a niche where I am no longer a leader in politics and where I will not be a pain in the neck to my successor. I am keenly aware that what I say can run the risk of being misinterpreted, so I want to keep a low profile.

Outside my more commercial interests, I do have a passion for young people and am keenly interested in youth development. I look forward to working with Dr. Handa, in New Zealand and elsewhere, to ensure that his work and role, in sports and in philanthropy, are on the radar screen. That involves notably sports promotion through ISPS. I am interested in adding value to the work.

The visit to Cambodia has indeed struck a chord. I was impressed to see the different programs, including Dr. Handa’s work in the communities and in the orphanage. The latter was both tragic and reassuring—tragic in the sense of seeing youngsters in a position where they suffer the consequences of poverty, reassuring in seeing what can be accomplished with support and hope and a loving environment. The children we saw at the orphanage were happy and tidy.

As with many NGOs, the goal is to leave a positive footprint. In Iraq, for example, too much money was often spent on administration, and various NGOs failed to adapt to the specifics of the situation and to changing circumstances and needs. In Cambodia, Dr. Handa and his enterprises seem to have worked out effective strategies that reflect these issues. For example, those who now can pay are expected to pay, while those who cannot do not. Thus the effort overall is more sustainable and better adapted to a situation where incomes are rising and there are growing expectations for levels of service. I hope as the efforts move forward to see Dr. Handa’s programs work more with other related efforts so that they add up to a larger whole. That potential is clearly there.

How has New Zealand interacted with Cambodia? I understand that you visited in 2012?

New Zealand’s relationships have evolved in important ways since 1992. Among other links, Dame Silvia Cartwright, a highly respected New Zealand jurist, was based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, sitting as a judge at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (the Khmer Rouge Tribunal).

I was here briefly in 2012 but can see on this visit that the country is more vibrant now. The resources from China and Japan are having visible results. There is an energy and sense of forward movement.

Australia has a refugee program that has involved resettlement in Cambodia. Is there anything comparable for New Zealand?

No, New Zealand has had no program similar to the Australian program that supported refugee settlement in Cambodia. I understand that, in part because the program was voluntary, very few people have in fact resettled here.

New Zealand is one of 35 countries that have agreed to take an increased number of refugees under the UNHCR umbrella. But there have been some obstacles. In September 2015 the government announced that New Zealand would welcome 750 Syrian refugees, by way of a special emergency intake above New Zealand’s annual quota. This has been somewhat controversial in New Zealand. In agreements on offshore processing of refugees, there was concern that New Zealand’s program might offer a backdoor to Australia, as a citizen of New Zealand can become an Australian citizen. There have been some specific obstacles in the way of accepting Syrian orphans.

The issue of orphanages is sensitive in many societies, as current “best practice” suggests that orphanages are the optimal solution for vulnerable children only in a limited number of cases. This comes up against religious traditions in situations. Has this been an issue for New Zealand?

The most pertinent factor in New Zealand is policy on adoptions. The religious dimension rarely enters the picture as New Zealand today is a very secular society. The number of adoptions in New Zealand is very low. This is because the policy is that adoption is to be confined to the immediate family unit and not far beyond. This can mean that the only real option is an elderly grandparent. Loving families that would like to adopt a child find that they cannot. The issue is quite rigorously debated.

The religious beliefs of the child do not enter into the picture. The issue is the human rights of the child. The state in New Zealand provides for orphans. The Ministry for Vulnerable Children is currently involved in a broad overhaul of the care and protection and youth justice systems, designed to achieve better outcomes for vulnerable children. The aim is to provide the opportunity for all children to have at the earliest opportunity a stable and loving family, and to feel a sense of identity, belonging, and connection.

The issue of trafficking and abuse has not really been an issue or a factor in New Zealand. The laws on prostitution have been tightened up (prostitution is legal, with significant government oversight). But it seems that those involved are rarely trafficked. They are drawn to prostitution for other reasons.

We tried to get the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to allow 1,000 Syrian orphans to be adopted by New Zealand families, but the effort was unsuccessful. An important factor was fears that if it was later proved or claimed that the children had parents there could be large liabilities. The children were likely to be put into orphanages. So in the end we did not do it.

The issue of “shrinking civil society space” is an issue in various countries and arises in the context of Cambodia, with its large number of NGOs. Has this emerged as an issue during your visit?

In situations where there is a proliferation of NGOs, issues can arise. What begins as an excellent idea supported by a worthy partner can be perpetuated and involve a constant quest for funds. Different organizations can work at cross purposes. And governments are not very good at holding NGOs to account, with a private sector type approach to expectations of delivery. This can leave a bad taste. In a small town there might be seven different organizations competing for a budget. An approach that would encourage consolidation would be desirable.

In looking at the programs that Dr. Handa supports, I can see the impetus to cooperate with others. However generous he is, Dr. Handa has a finite amount of money. There will be constant requests for more. The best approach is to leverage the good models that are being developed here.

I can see, for example, possible areas for collaboration with New Zealand on the model farm that we visited earlier. These could include training of farmers, technology transfer, and animal husbandry.

And I was encouraged to see in Phnom Pehn that Dr. Handa has been able to reduce his funding as people’s capacity to pay has increased. The issue is to cut through the issue and see how to deliver better healthcare. Similar issues could apply for the University of Cambodia.

The issue of quality education is a focus of international development and a central focus for Handa support in Cambodia. What direction do you see this taking?

That does seem to be the challenge everywhere. The first priority is to get children into schools. Then the challenge is to keep them there. And after that the focus shifts to ensuring that indeed they learn. The path to achieving outcomes differs in different circumstances. In New Zealand we have worked to develop a set of national standards with rigorous monitoring and evaluation. Thus no matter how brilliant or otherwise a student is, a parent can know where their child is situated in the framework of defined standards. Cambodia will undoubtedly move in a similar direction as its education system evolves.

Religious freedom is a contentious and topical issue in many parts of the world. How have you approached it in New Zealand? Does this have implications for policies towards indigenous communities?

New Zealand is, as I have mentioned, a very secular society, and there are few if any tensions around religious beliefs or institutions. I have always approached such matters with the conviction that everyone should be free to worship as they wish, whether in New Zealand or elsewhere. As to indigenous communities, the fact that Maori communities represent some 15 percent of the population of New Zealand, and the small size of the overall national population [4.6 million] have both contributed to generally harmonious relationships. [The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and various Maori chiefs brought New Zealand into the British Empire, with equal rights for Maori British citizens, and protected religious freedom.] In short, religious freedom has not been a significant political issue.

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