Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Five Ways Keys Can Lose

The new National Party Leader, John Keys, has adopted a novel approach to tackling the incumbant Labour Government: Raise the issue of poverty.

On the face of it, with record low unemployment and an outrageous fiscal surplus, one might imagine such an approach is suicidal. The Labour Party rests its considerable electoral weight on its record of caring for the underdog. But what Keys has cunningly realised is that under that weight there is a great deal of chafing going on.

Nobody has highlighted this better than Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples. With strong street credentials Mr Sharples is a high profile opponent of welfarism which he says has led to a loss of motivation and mana among Maori people. While white liberals may be only be too happy to hypocritically pay Maori their miserable benefits to keep off the posh streets where they live, those who actually work with Maori beneficiaries say welfarism is killing the once fiercely entrepreneurial spirit of Maori.

Unfortunately, while Keys has clearly signalled a step back from his predecessor's apparently anti-Maori stance, some of the basic planks of that anti-Maori policy remain. The crux of this is the future of the Maori electoral roll and the Maori seats in Parliament. National says they are a racist anachronism while the Maori Party argues they are a crucial legacy of the Treaty of Waitangi on which New Zealand was founded.

In a sense both are right. I personally am 1/16th Maori, as are a good many other New Zealanders. Both I, and my sons, are, and will be entitled to opt for the Maori roll. If history records that Maori fought fiercely for their rights against the colonial oppressor geneology shows that Maori and European have intermarried for generations.

On the other hand looking to the future Maori quite rightly anticipate a growing wave of Asian immigration. The prospect of being the third race rather than the second must be, given that Maori are unique to New Zealand, somewhat sobering.

Before the arrival of Don's brash Maori policies the National Party had an extremely good relationship with Maori. The ethnically Irish NZ Prime Minister Jim Bolger and his Treaty Negotiations Minister Doug Graham were determined to ensure past injustices were fully and fairly dealt with. By contrast the Labour Party's Seabed and Foreshore legislation has in no way enamoured rural Maori to the Labour Party: hence the meteoric rise of the Maori Party.

John Keys has however foolishly reiterated National's policy to disestablish the Maori seats. This effectively rules out any chance of a coalition with the Maori Party and could rule out National's chances of forming a government.

Another mistake Keys has made has been to downplay Brash's strong play for the middle class by highlighting tax cuts. Irritation over this policy is growing to simmering anger as the Government last month announced that its surplus was 21% over its own original outrageous forecast. As of January the Government could pay for the $800 million shortfall on the Western Ring Route or the entire Kyoto Protocol shortfall out of petty cash and not notice the difference. The Middle Class, who gain no benefit from Labour's quasi-Marxist "Working For Families" package (whereby the upper middle class get to subsidise the poorer middle class to make up for inadequate wages)are apopleptic over the size of the surplus and, quite seriously want to see something done about it. While reducing tax rates marginally might not make much difference changing thresholds, which do not adjust with inflation, and pegging them to a proportion of incomes, would.

And National has still to find a convincing voice on international policy. Its knee-jerk reaction which is to accuse the Government of upsetting the United States at every available opportunity simply finds no favour with the New Zealand public. New Zealanders still recall David Lange proudly as the Prime Minister who told the US where to go, which when one considers the fatuous irresponsibility of his premiership in all other respects, tells one more about New Zealanders than it does about Mr Lange. National seriously needs to stop sucking up to Uncle Sam. It is an electoral liability.

Keys has also not yet done enough to win the hearts and minds of women. Brash largely lost the election by failing to appeal to women. Brash's treatment of his female caucus members was shabby and demeaning and it was simply a turn-off. Women do not vote for other women just because they are women but they sure don't vote for men who act like jerks to other women either. Appealing to women largely means showing in a tangible way that a leader respects and admires women. Bill English was successful at this largely because he made the most of his large family, highlighting his wife's dual role as a doctor and partner of a potential Prime Minister. Keys has yet to fully overcome the sneaking suspicion in the back of many people's minds that the National Party is a club full of fat old brat boys.

Finally the National Party would be foolish to abandon Brash's very effective 'corrupt' attack on the Government. Vicious and nasty as it was it was definitely hurting. The Labour Party has many soft points of attack on this accusation and while Nicky Hager's book the Hollow Men, was a king hit (taking out Brash entirely) there are limits to the number of those the Government can rely on. Moreover Hager is more an agent of the Greens than the Labour Party and will not come to the rescue of Taito Philip Field, the suspended immigration minister, nor of the Labour President Mike Smith.

In taking over the reins of the National Party Keys has the scope to mount a very serious run at the next election. New Zealand First will almost certainly collapse and ACT's leaders are effectively on holiday. Labour support is substantial but it is reliant on a number of minor parties to hold on to power. If National eroded more Labour support and got over its brash Maori policy the incumbants would have a great deal to worry about.

There are, however many many potential slips yet, between that cup and the lip.

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