Beaching it: The PMs' summer tradition

23:19, Jan 14 2013
John Key enjoys his summer break in Hawaii - although here he's pictured at work in Fiji at the South Pacific Forum.

As neighbouring leaders slog through a summer of disasters, Prime Minister John Key is continuing a long premiership tradition of hanging out at the beach.

No ordinary bach for Key - he passes time far from the voters at a condo on the island of Maui in Hawaii.

In the time he has been there a rather famous Hawaiian, United States President Barack Obama, has zipped in for a quick break, gone back to Washington to prevent the country falling off the fiscal cliff, and then returned for a swim and a round of golf.

Former Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon holidayed at his beach in Hatfield beach - and even cut his own lawns.

He is back at work, but Key, like many New Zealanders, has another week or so to go.

Key is not the first leader to disappear over summer; Helen Clark also used to head off, and the country's single most significant foreign policy change occurred while David Lange was deliberately being inaccessible.

And then there was Rob Muldoon at his Hatfields Beach bach.


Clark sleigh
Former Prime Minister Helen Clark didn't like the beach so much - she preferred to spend her summer break cross country skiing in Norway.

Only on the Labour Party blog, The Standard, is there much criticism of Key's holiday - and this overlooks Clark's holiday antics.

"Are you jealous' that Key's off to Maui for three weeks, again?" asks The Standard.

"Or are you just a bit pissed off to learn that our minister of tourism has so far spent over 100 days overseas on holiday since becoming PM, while the average Kiwi's had just 27 days abroad and tourism here is in crisis?"

David Lange and Margaret Pope on holiday at the Taj Mahal in 1990.

Key has been shy about his Maui condo, which, according to a local real estate index, is worth around US$3.3 million (NZ$4m). When he purchased it in 2008 all he would say of it was: "You can see the beach."

Clark was asked once what she was doing over summer.

"I cannot tell you," she replied, "you will tell my political enemies."

She had an aversion to bright summers and one year took her husband, Peter Davis, into the Andes in a failed bid to conquer Mt Aconcagua.

One year they packed the skis and headed north of the Arctic Circle in Norway. Few people ever knew; her holidays were off-limits. Her legendary chief of staff, Heather Simpson, kept in daily contact.

Not so for Lange who came to office in late 1984 on a vague promise of a nuclear-free New Zealand. The Americans were not best-pleased, as they would have to provide an undertaking that any visiting warship was nuclear free.

Lange thought nothing would happen, that the Americans would not test him.

"It was January, when political life comes to a stop for the summer holidays."

So Lange, in his own coloured account, went to Tokelau, three atolls north of Samoa without harbours or airports - and in those days without phone and only dodgy radio.

He claimed to be the first prime minister to visit Tokelau, although Peter Fraser had touched down there in a flying boat in 1945 on his way to San Francisco to sign the United Nations Charter.

Lange said he was glad to go. If the Americans asked for a ship visit "it could wait till I got back".

He reached Tokelau aboard the ancient ship MV Avondale and shot through the reef to land.

"Here was perfect tranquillity. We had no radio or telephone contact with the outside world."

Heading back on the Avondale to Pago Pago, he received a radio message saying that his press secretary would meet him as there had been urgent developments.

But he didn't know what they were.

Days later, after being greeted with doughnuts in American Samoa, he learned the Americans wanted to send frigate USS Buchanan to Wellington. Fellow cabinet minister Michael Bassett, in a bitter account, claimed Lange had gone to the most remote spot in the Pacific in a bid to evade the Buchanan issue which he knew about before he left.

The rest is history - in Lange's absence the Buchanan was refused entry, New Zealand was ejected from Anzus and nuclear-free was enshrined in law.

For Muldoon, prime minister from 1975 to 1984, the idea of going on holiday and letting others do the work was anathema.

Hatfields Beach in those days was on State Highway 1, north of Auckland, and it was on the phone. Although the press gallery might have gone on summer break, there were cadets in newspaper offices around the country who would, every couple of days, be obliged to ring him for comment.

He might have been in jandals, shorts and a floppy hat, but it was always like tangling with a doberman.

Another tradition started there.

When holidays were over, Muldoon would call up the Ford LTD and head off to the Orewa Community Centre where Rotary held its first meeting of the year - two scoops of mashed potatoes, one of Wattie's peas and a couple of slices of ham. Then, in his state of the nation address, Muldoon would inform the country on whether he'd had a good break.

These days, we await an inbound Air New Zealand flight from Honolulu before we can hear from our leader.

Sunday Star Times