The Queen through our eyes – four NZ Prime Ministers on the monarch

The Queen, who is to turn 96 in April, has begun her Platinum Jubilee year marking 70 years on the throne. With formal celebrations due to begin in June, Audrey Young spoke to four Prime Ministers on their experiences with Her Majesty over the years.

When people ask Sir John Key who was the most impressive leader he met in eight years as Prime Minister, he says most people expect him to say Barack Obama.

But it was not. It was the Queen, he tells the Weekend Herald.

“It’s a combination of her sheer dedication to service – it’s a remarkable commitment. The second thing is the sheer breadth of people she has met and engaged with.”

Key is among the 17 New Zealand Prime Ministers who have held office since Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne 70 years ago and became Queen of New Zealand, as well as the UK.

Unlike Jim Bolger and Helen Clark, Key did not get the chance to host her on a Royal visit to New Zealand – she has made 10.

But he probably had more time with her than the others because she famously hosted him and his family for a weekend at her special place, Balmoral, in 2013.

“The impression I always got is that Balmoral is her ‘happy place,’ the place where for a long time she could . . . have a bit of me-time,” Key said.

But more than anything, it was her devotion to service that impressed Key and all ex-Prime Ministers who talked to the Weekend Herald, and incumbent Jacinda Ardern, who was pregnant with Neve when she first met the Queen in 2018.

So how would she describe the Queen to Neve?

“I would describe her as someone who gave almost her entire life to others, because that’s how I perceive her,” says Ardern.

And it stood out for other members of the Royal Family, too.

“Politicians, we come and go. We have our time of living in the public eye, the responsibility that comes with that, the good, the bad. We have our time.

“Their time has no endpoint. It has no cycle. It lasts and lasts and that is why I respect for what they do and who they are because theirs is a life of service. It’s extraordinary.”

“And I can hold that view while also still believing, as I do, that New Zealand will one day will have a different structure.”

Ardern says the Queen is also very funny.

Being a stickler for the rules, however, she is not prepared to ignore the advice of the Cabinet Office and reveal what the Queen said that made her laugh.

Out of office, John Key is more relaxed about protocol and talks about one of his meetings with her at Buckingham Palace, in 2012.

He had had a private audience with her fairly early one morning in June.

“She said ‘Is Mrs Key in town?’ And I said ‘yes, she’s here with our daughter, who is over from Paris’ and she said, ‘that’s lovely, why don’t you bring them along this afternoon to say hello’.”

Key went back to his hotel and woke his daughter and said she needed to get dressed because he was taking her to see the Queen.

“What Queen?” she had asked.

“From memory, there’s only one,” he had said and he returned to the palace in the afternoon with his wife, Bronagh, and daughter, Stephie.

“It’s easy to think that all these things you see are all choreographed for the press but away from it all, she still does those things and they are not choreographed,” said Key.

“She is real.”

The following year the whole family went to Balmoral Castle, the Queen’s Scottish retreat.
Key recounted one memorable moment.

“We were having this picnic on the Saturday and we’d hiked up this bit and there were these mountain bikers and they came riding over and the Queen was there with Prince Philip. They stopped the bikes and I don’t think they initially realised who they were talking to,” said Key.

“They said ‘we’re looking to bike down this way, do you know where it is?’ The Queen said ‘yeah yeah, it’s down that path that way’ and gave them directions . . . and they wandered off into the sunset. It’s quite remarkable.”

Key said when he first met her as Prime Minister in 2008, he explained that he had brought the Māori Party into the government arrangements even though he did not need their vote.

Every time after that, she asked after the Māori Party. She had a strong interest in the Treaty of Waitangi, and the development of Māori, in agriculture and in the Christchurch earthquakes.

Key said he was genuinely surprised at times by the detail of her knowledge of New Zealand.

When he had asked her to come to New Zealand to open the Supreme Court, which happened in January 2010, she told him she would be sending Prince William to do it, representing her for the first time overseas.

“She said it will be great for New Zealand because there will be a huge amount of interest and media coverage.

“And then she said ‘where is the Supreme Court?’ I said ‘it’s in Wellington.’ And she said ‘whereabouts in Wellington?’ And I said ‘it’s down by Parliament’ and she said ‘Oh okay. There’s a bookshop down there, isn’t there?'” [Bennetts and Parsons near the court have both since closed]

Key says his first meeting with the Queen was actually on a trading floor in the City of London in the late 90s when he was at Merrill Lynch. He had been asked to show her around and spent about 20 minutes with her, but later never mentioned that first meeting.

Key says the Queen has a prodigious work ethic.

“When I look at [the Netflix series] The Crown, I think it’s not a terribly accurate reflection of the Queen I know. I think it depicts her as being less caring than she actually is and less attuned.”

“With every bone in her body [she] believes in the institution.

“She doesn’t abdicate not because she is trying to be difficult or because she doesn’t have confidence in Charles or any of those things.

“It’s because she took a fundamental oath of service and she intends to honour it unless she is in such a condition that she can’t.”

Key said he still received a Christmas card from her each year.

“Her and Xi Jinping. Every year. They always do.”

Helen Clark was Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister when she first met the Queen in 1990.

She recalls being the senior minister present when the Queen visited the site in Newtown, Wellington, where the Mary Potter Hospice was to be built.

“The thing I remember most clearly about the event is that you are doing the speeches and it comes to the point where the Queen rises to give a speech. I remember she put one of her hands over the shoulder, the lady-in-waiting put the speech notes in her hand, she walked forward and she read the speech.

“I remember thinking ‘gosh I would never rely on people to do that – they’d probably give you the wrong speech.’

“But she never missed a beat. The hand went back, the speech notes went in the hand, forward she went. It was a well-oiled machine, I can tell you.”

After Clark became Prime Minister in 1999, she met the Queen on many other occasions, most controversially in 2002 when the British press and New Zealand Opposition MPs disapproved of Clark wearing trousers to host the Queen to a state banquet.

“I did point out that we were living in the 21st century, not the 15th.”

The Queen was accompanied by Prince Philip, and it turned out to be her last visit to New Zealand.

Clark said the schedule had been “carefully calibrated” to take account of the fact the Queen was 75 at the time.

She met the Queen at three Commonwealth summits, in Coolum in Australia, also in 2002, Abuja in Nigeria in 2003 and Kampala in Uganda in 2007.

She found her “highly intelligent and well-read” – the result of decades of reading briefing papers and meeting people.

“I remember particularly Kampala and going to meet the Queen at the suite in her hotel and obviously I extended an invitation for her to come to New Zealand again.

“I remember her saying to me ‘you know, Prime Minister, Philip and I are not getting any younger’ and I came home and said to close colleagues “I don’t think the Queen will be making another visit.'”

The Queen attended two further Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings but in 2013 Prince Charles stood in for her in Sri Lanka. And in 2018 in London, Commonwealth leaders accepted her wish that Charles taken over her role as head of the Commonwealth when she dies.

“There had been chatter that maybe it should be elected but she signalled her wishes that it be Charles, which seems to have been pretty much accepted.”

Clark met the Queen on at least three occasions in Britain, twice at Buckingham Palace.

The last time in Britain was in 2008 at a “beautiful” service in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle to mark the return of the garter after Sir Edmund Hillary had died – the honour goes to a maximum of 24 people and is returned on their death.

“I felt over the years I kind of got on a level with her to be able to communicate.”
Clark met her one more time, after politics, when the Queen visited the United Nations in 2010, her first visit since 1957.

Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon had gone to great lengths to make it a meaningful visit and he asked Clark as one of the most senior people at the UN with a Commonwealth background to be one of the people who met her.

“As she moved around, I could feel her eyes fasten on me as someone she recognised in the room so that was last time I spoke to her.”

Clark says you could zero in on issues immediately.

“In her long life of public service, she had met so many heads of state and government and significant personalities. You only had to mention one name and she’d say ‘I met X there or whatever -an extraordinary life of meeting incredible people.

“When I met her in her suite in Kampala, I said to her ‘Your Majesty, is this the first time you have been to Uganda?’

“‘No, she said but quick as a flash she said ‘this is the first time I have been in Kampala.’

“She said ‘when I came in the 1950s I didn’t get past Entebbe because there was some kind of local conflict going on in Kampala between different kingdoms and it wasn’t considered safe to come to Kampala’ so she had sat out by the airport for the official visit.'”

Ardern said the thing that struck her most about the Queen was her genuine interest and care of New Zealand.

“You would expect a knowledge, of course, but her level of knowledge, her level of interest . . . it was clear to me how genuine it was.”

“Probably the thing that really brought that home was the call during those Covid times.

“She literally just wanted to know if we were all okay. She was very conscious of the lockdown, the impact it was having on the people in the UK. She reached out to check in.”

Besides the personal meeting in 2018, Ardern has had three phone calls with the Queen, in April 2020 during Covid lockdown, in December of that year, and in May last year to pass on condolences after the death of Prince Philip and to discuss Dame Cindy Kiro as the next Governor-General.

So does Ardern think the Queen actually enjoys her work?

“I don’t think you would show such care and knowledge if you didn’t,” she said.

“I don’t think it meant every day is easy, but the knowledge she has and the care with which she approaches it . . . you can’t sustain that if it is not real for that many years.”

Ardern said she felt there was nothing she could not talk to her about.
“While she is always keen to hear about matters of state, I’ve never felt there has been anything particularly off-limits.”

The PM all but confirmed they had discussed her pregnancy when they met in 2018.

“You always know going in, when you meet people that you’ve observed from a distance for a longtime , you always know intellectually that they’re human. I knew that but when I came face to face and had the chance to meet and talk to the Queen and really see that up close, it was a privilege.”

Jim Bolger, a committed republican and generally forthright, said the Queen had done a remarkable job in her role as monarch and head of the Commonwealth.

“Given all of the challenges that her family have tossed up over the years, she has been the calm, steady personality who has kept the monarchy in a strong position.

Bolger met her when he was a minister in the Muldoon Cabinet and on other visits but they met for the first time in his role as Prime Minister at the Commonwealth summit in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1991.

But the meeting that sticks in his mind was a discussion in 1994 on the Royal Yacht Britannia as they were crossing the English Channel for the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings in France.

Bolger said he had recently made a speech suggesting that in light of the major changes that had been made with the referendum on MMP, New Zealand should also have its own final appellate court (which has happened), its own honours system (which has happened) and eventually it own elected head of state.

“I wanted her to know directly from me why I was making this suggestion,” he said.
In a discussion over 45 minutes, he said she listened carefully without offering any comment one way or another.

The Queen also visited in 1995 when New Zealand hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Auckland, and leaders suspended Nigeria over the execution of nine human rights activists.

She also personally gave the royal assent to the Tainui Treaty of Waitangi settlement legislation, which included an apology, and in the presence of the Māori Queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu.

It was done at Government House in Wellington, the residence of her representative, the Governor-General, and was a compromise on the original wishes of Tainui for her to read an apology at Turangawaewae.

Bolger says the Treaty of Waitangi, which was signed on behalf of Queen Victoria in 1840, should be no impediment to New Zealand becoming a republic.

“I’ve always said that is a false narrative.

“The Treaty has been interpreted and enacted by the Government in Wellington, not in London.”

Bolger believes that the pace of change towards republicanism may have been slowed because of the high respect in which the Queen is held.

“The trigger will be her passing.”

The Queen's 10 visits to New Zealand, all with Prince Philip:

1953-54: Summer tour a year after becoming Queen.
1963: February, with Prince Philip.
1970: March, with Prince Charles and Princess Anne.
1974: January-February with Prince Charles, Princess Anne, and Mark Phillips, attended Commonwealth Games in Christchurch and Waitangi Day events.
1977: February-March, to mark 25 years on the throne, opened the Beehive.
1981: October, a brief visit following Commonwealth summit in Melbourne.
1986: February-March, after visiting Australia and Nepal.
1990: February, attended Commonwealth Games in Auckland and sesquicentennial events.
1995: November, to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Auckland.
2002: February, to mark 50 years on the throne.


Former Prime Minister Helen Clark would be surprised if New Zealand becomes a republic in her lifetime – and with a father who has just turned 100, she expects her life to be fairly long.

“Let’s face it, most people don’t give a toss about it,” she said.

“It’s irrelevant to them whether it is the Governor-General or a President with the powers of a Governor-General who sits there for the Queen 1000 miles away, most people aren’t exercised by it.”

Former Prime Minister Jim Bolger, however, believes change will happen reasonably quickly.

He thinks it would have been better to have had a law in place that automatically changed New Zealand’s head of state on the death of the Queen, to avoid “sacking Charles”.

But no one had been brave enough to pursue that, he said.

Prince Charles will automatically become King Charles for 15 countries where the Queen currently holds the monarchy.

And he will become head of the Commonwealth, as agreed by its member countries in 2018.

Bolger predicts Charles will be a “somewhat odd” king.

“Given his tendency to latch on to issues and promote them I think he is likely to be more intrusive than his mother into the policies of various Commonwealth countries.”

Ardern is kinder when asked what she thinks of Charles’ monarchy.

“I think; in keeping with the Queen, one very focused on service, focused on people.

“Every interaction I’ve had, he displays a genuine care for people. He has a particular focus about matters that he is passionate about and I imagine he would bring that to the role as well but the foundation, I think, would be very similar to that of his mother.”

Key believes Charles will be better than many will expect.

“The thing with Charles I think is that in many respects he has been right about some of the things he has advocated.

People have said he is awkward or quirky but actually many of the things he has been concerned about, the environment, climate change or maybe architecture . . . I think he has been ahead of his time.

“I’ve always found him to be a really thoughtful, quite caring person.”

He will have instant gravitas that goes with the title, said Key.

“Equally I think he will actually be a very good king.”

Clark said the Queen had kept very much to charities that were totally non-controversial.

“Charles has gone into the environmental areas including sustainable agriculture but the views he expressed are pretty mainstream now.”

In one way or another, he would keep on with those causes.

Clark said Charles had taken a hammering in the British press in general over the years.

“And what’s in the British press ricochets around the world. But I think he does care about those issues.

“There will be a bit of a change although he may be more muted as monarch.

She thought he and son Prince William may run something of “tag team”.

William had been willing to associate with more controversial issues, said Clark.

“He has been prepared to make the point about the unrepresentativeness of the Baftas. He has gone into social and health areas which go beyond what people have done before.

“He has had his Earthshot Prize that he sponsored. He is very much the picture of a modern constitutional monarch who is very much engaged.

“He is picking his issues carefully but he is quite engaged.”

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