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John Key's surprise tactic pays off

NZ NewswireNZ Newswire 24/06/2016

John Key doesn't usually spring surprises but his sudden announcement of an extended troop deployment to Iraq has paid off, says NZ Newswire's political writer Peter Wilson.

The only surprising thing about the decision was the way it was announced. There wasn't even a hint it was going to happen until Prime Minister John Key walked into his post-cabinet press conference on Monday flanked by Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee, Foreign Minister Murray McCully and the Vice Chief of Defence, Kevin Short.

That isn't usually Key's way. He's inclined to soften up public opinion ahead of a big announcement, let people get used to what's coming, test the water and listen to what his opponents have to say so he has time to sort out his defences.

Sending troops to Iraq in the first place was kicked around in public for months before Key made the announcement in February last year. The deployment began the next month, intended to last no more than two years. Key maintained his position on that until this week, when he announced it would be extended for a further 18 months.

Was it a rushed decision? Unlikely, given the way Key weighs up important issues like this. But not many people could have known about it, or it would have been leaked. And why do it now, when the two-year deployment still has a year to run?

Key indicated at his press conference Australia had wanted assurances. New Zealand and Australian troops are working together training Iraqi forces at Camp Taji, and reading between the lines the Aussies asked: "Are you guys in for the long haul or not? We need to know."

Unusual it may have been, but the sudden announcement paid off. There was no thrashing around ahead of it and by the end of the week it had dropped out of the media. Key copped some u-turn criticism, having said he knew he would. Opposition parties briefly berated him for "not being up front" in the first place, and doubted he had ever believed the mission would last for only two years.

Key got off lightly, because they have a problem with troops in Iraq. Opinion polls have shown most voters agree with them being there on an average of around 60 per cent to 30 per cent of those who have an opinion. Surprisingly, a Newshub poll showed 45 per cent of Green Party supporters back the deployment.

Labour's Andrew Little strongly opposed the mission from the outset, and doesn't have much choice about holding that line. He says if he becomes prime minister next year, he'll pull the troops out. If he does become prime minister, he could find that decision a bit more difficult than it might seem from an opposition perspective.

Key was on firm ground when he announced the extension, and he knew it. The alternative was clearly untenable. The troop training exercise is going well, by all accounts, and there's no way Iraq's war with Islamic State is going to be over next year.

Quitting an unfinished job that 65 countries are working on wouldn't look good at all. Even worse, New Zealand would be leaving Australia to do the heavy lifting at Camp Taji and they would probably let us know all about it.

How bad would that be?

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