Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: Catching up with the National Party

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US President Barack Obama and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key walk from their golf carts to the second hole green at the Kaneohe Klipper Golf Course at Marine Corps Base Hawaii on January 2, 2014.

Analysis by Dr Bryce Edwards.

Where is the National Government going in 2016? Recent speeches and articles suggest they’re heading in the same successful direction, albeit without necessarily achieving anything of great substance. 

National is now in the middle of its third term – a time that many have observed is traditionally characterised by arrogance, stale thinking and error. While there have been glimpses of this in recent times, particularly in the scandals that have dogged this Government, we are still looking at a party enjoying strong popularity, with seemingly no end in sight. This is largely due to a popular and populist leader, and Key’s pragmatism and ideological flexibility is a theme that comes up often in the following 21 items about National from the summer period.

1) Last week John Key gave his eighth state of the Nation speech as Prime Minister. Its major announcements were aimed at the third of New Zealand’s voters who live in Auckland and, true to form, involved policy co-option and a blatant U-turn over Auckland’s public transport. In a paywalled column for the NBR, Matthew Hooton argues that the Auckland rail decision reveals generational change in National

Hooton declared it a “win for the cosmopolitan wing of the National Party” – epitomised by Simon Bridges and Nikki Kaye – who “understand that mass rapid transit is at the heart of how global centres of capitalism thrive.” This is in contrast to long-time Ministers such as Gerry Brownlee and Steven Joyce who Hooton characterises as the provincial old guard who “see something a bit socialist about people sharing a train.” 

Hooton promotes the policy announcement as a “massive political achievement” for Simon Bridges in convincing Key to side with him against the “passionate and personable” Brownlee and “cold and calculating” Joyce, who merely “saw Auckland’s City Rail Link (CRL) as costing $1 billion per station.” Of course he notes that the U-turn is also about strategic electoral calculations and that is where the pragmatism of Key and Joyce comes into play: “There is an Auckland council election this year and Mr Key wants light-blue centrists to win a majority.  He has no intention of allowing Labour’s Phil Goff to campaign on rapid transit.”

2) Tim Watkin also makes this point in The lame duck wins the day for Auckland, saying there are “numerous” reasons for this major U-turn but, “Most obviously, Key and Joyce are not ones to stay on the wrong side of public opinion for too long, and their unpopular position put a fourth term at risk. Elections are largely won and lost in Auckland, and they had come to be seen as the men standing in the way of progress on Auckland’s second biggest gripe – congestion.” 

3) Fran O’Sullivan is unimpressed with National’s conduct over the rail link, and she suggests that Auckland business leaders are hardly ecstatic with Key’s reluctant fillip two years too late. O’Sullivan also says local body election considerations drove the decision, which “had the potential to spill over into the 2017 national elections”. She accuses National of allowing “its concerns over Len Brown’s leadership to spill over to poison decision-making.” 

4) National’s U-turn over the Auckland rail link is vintage Key, according to Duncan Garner, who says Flexible principles help Key, while Labour continues to flounder: “On many occasions he’s late to the party, often he’s dragged kicking and screaming, but he gets there and the polls confirm the public are OK with that. And it’s this appearance of flexibility that is safely keeping him ensconced in office. Take the massive $2.5 billion rail tunnel under Auckland’s CBD. It was Len Brown’s baby and Labour and the Greens wanted it. Key and a swathe of senior ministers scoffed at it, rubbished it, questioned it, said it wasn’t necessary.  But its time has come and Key’s not worried about re-writing history. He doesn’t care.  This week it was his idea and he wrote out a $1.25b cheque to help the project on its way. Remarkable really.”

Garner says that Key has stolen so many policies from other parties he “should really be arrested for theft as a servant”, but because Key “largely tacks Left”, it works.

5) But will it keep working? Despite any number of potential challenges around the economy and issues such as the TPP, the Dominion Post editorial is forced to conclude that The politics of Groundhog Day look set to continue into 2016. This means “there is really only one live question in New Zealand politics: when does Groundhog Day end?”

6) Vernon Small writes that “Are we there yet” is “the back-seat sound track of the summer break” but it’s also the refrain from the Opposition as they wonder “when bad news begins to stick to Teflon John Key, when the public falls out of love with his style and the voters get tired of the status quo and start casting around for alternatives. After seven years of Key and National, will familiarity start to breed contempt?” – see: The economy trumps TPP, flag referendum as political year gets into gear

Small says that water rights are a potential issue of public disquiet but even so will not be an exploitable one for the Opposition. He concludes that with no sign of waning popularity and National seemingly unaffected by the TPP and flag referendum “The biggest pressure point for the Government is, perhaps as always, the economy and specifically unemployment.”

7) Audrey Young’s verdict on the State of the Nation speech was that Key uses tried and true formula in attempting to set the political agenda: “if in doubt, announce a rail or road project, or preferably both. And just to be sure, re-announce a project or two.”

8) National will continue to face a major problem with the Auckland housing market this year. Sam Sachdeva provides a summary of National and Labour’s views on the issue in Rising housing prices in 2015 put pressure on politicians.

9) Based on an interesting interview with the Minister of Finance, Richard Harman has published an important article on How Bill English undermines Labour. It concentrates on National’s social policy reform, with English declaring it a huge success in terms of making meaningful reform as well as strategically improving his party’s electoral positioning. His social investment approach, together with welfare reform, has “probably saved between $700 million and a billion over what the Government thought welfare would cost four years ago” says English. And English believes he’s achieved a major change in the way the bureaucracy works. Electorally, he says “At the margins It’s worth 2 -3% to us, I reckon, in 2017.” This is because the social investment reforms have pulled the rug out from beneath the political left, as he argues the significant achievements made by National means the left can no longer attack it.

10) Auckland University sociologist Louise Humpage has a new book out, “Policy change, public attitude and social citizenship: Does neoliberalism matter?” which examines public attitudes to some of the policy areas National is pushing reform in – see her summary of this in Public Views on Privatising Social Policy. She warns the Government “that New Zealand attitudes towards the role of government have not changed as much as we might expect.”

11) John Key has now confirmed that he will be seeking re-election next year – see his interview with Audrey Young: Key sets eyes on a fourth term. In this, Key also responds for the first time to the controversy about his “prison rape joke” radio appearance before Christmas – Young reports Key’s observation of the soap-drop situation: “He said he had not known what the context was around the reference. And in fact when the host dropped the soap, he had said it had been in the toilet.” The PM confirmed that he will continue to appear on such shows: “I’m not going to stop going on commercial radio stations because, in the end, that has been an important way for me to communicate with a broad audience, some of whom are only very tangentially interested in politics.”

12) Has John Key achieved any meaningful change as prime minister? Colin James suggests not in his column, What’s in a legacy? Substance. Does Key cut it? James says that the real reforms have been driven by English, and beyond “symbolic gestures”, Key hasn’t done much for history to remember him by. This is essentially because Key is still driven by his “currency trader” style in which the “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone” mantra about the future still prevails. Therefore “Key is a man of the moment, not burdened with a sense of history or strategy for the future”. Nonetheless, James suggests that Key still has the opportunity to turn his supposed concern for disadvantaged children into substantive change.

13) Who will eventually replace John Key as leader? Duncan Garner puts forward his educated guesses in his column, Forget Crusher, Paula Bennett is National’s next leader. His five picks are: Paula Bennett, Jonathan Coleman, Amy Adams, Simon Bridges, and Todd Muller. He dismisses the notion of Judith Collins having any chance, and says that Steven Joyce and Bill English could only serve as caretaker leaders. Clearly Bennett is the frontrunner, and Garner says “From a single mum on welfare to National’s next leader – Labour eat your heart out.”

14) Jonathan Coleman’s chances of leadership are also explored by Richard Harman in The rise and rise of Jonathan Coleman. Coleman suggests he has high ambitions, also pointing to the portfolios of finance and foreign affairs as ones he’d like to pick up in the future. But mostly the interview concentrates on his performance in the health portfolio, in which he is resolutely pragmatic, promising no significant reform or increased private sector involvement. 

15) National backbencher Todd Muller gets more attention in Richard Harman’s profile on him titled Jim Bolger inspires National’s new conservatives. Obviously in the mould of Bill English, this supposedly up-and-coming star professes to having been burnt by National’s previously ideological struggles in the 1990s and this informs his highly pragmatic approach. 

16) Key could eventually be replaced, at least in his electorate, by Auckland city councillor Cameron Brewer according to Harman – see: Lining up to replace Key. According to Harman, Brewer “is expected to announce shortly that he will not seek re-election next year.

He is believed to be planning to shift to Helensville as part of a bid to replace John Key when he retires – as many believe he will – during the next Parliamentary term”. This shift will apparently “open the way for Desley Simpson, wife of National Party President, Peter Goodfellow, to become the Orakei Ward councillor.”

17) The matter of Key’s succession is also surveyed by The Press in its editorial, Is John Key as a fourth-term prime minister a good idea for National? Paula Bennett is singled out as being groomed for the role by Key. The editorial also raises the interesting question of when Key might resign if he wins next year: “If Key does lead National to its fourth successive victory, it will then become a question of when he might stand aside. Would it be within a few months of the election or as late as possible? That last strategy runs the risk of locking a leader into the next election campaign and yet another possible term as prime minister. Voters will need to know how far into that fourth term he might stay as leader.”

18) For the most thoughtful and researched article about the state of National, albeit in the country’s biggest city, see Simon Wilson’s latest Metro article on line, Can the National Party win back Auckland?

19) While John Key spent Christmas in Maui, Sam Sachdeva caught up with several of his colleagues. He reports on Steven Joyce’s summer of horse rides and vege gardens and says that Nikki Kaye divided her time between Ponsonby and a Costa Rican “road trip” with a mate – see: ACC Minister Nikki Kaye talks about her Costa Rican summer holiday. For David Farrar’s blog posts about the South American trip see Costa Rica

20) One of the Government’s top spin-doctors has resigned. Phil Kitchin, formerly a leading investigative reporter, took up a job in Paula Bennett’s office a year ago, but has “unexpectedly resigned” according to Stacey Kirk – see: Top government spin doctor to Paula Bennett resigns. She comments that “It leaves Bennett down a senior media advisor in a year where social housing issues are expected to heat up, as the Government looks to enact controversial policy built around transferring state houses to social providers and provide subsidised rents.”

21) Finally, for humour about the National Government’s enduring popularity, see Guy Williams’ John Key is a genius… and I hate it, and for a lampooning of National’s U-turn on Auckland’s City Rail Link, see Hayden Donnell’s A brief history of National MPs trashing the rail link they just funded.

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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