Friday, February 29, 2008

Will National be a one-term wonder?

The polls are fairly unanimous. After nine years in power the Labour Party is shaping up for its biggest trouncing since 1990. Already a stream of MPs are deserting the sinking Party seeking jobs in academia or further afield. Meanwhile the rear-guard of newish Ministers seems to be adept only at opening their mouths to change feet. Environment Minister David Parker descended to a completely humilating squabble with Solid Energy's Don Elder at an energy conference recently while Health Minister David Cunliffe's determination to sack the Hawke's Bay DHB - despite it only having held one meeting since it was elected - has stirred up a hornets nest of antagonism in a region already furious over Transport Minister Annette King's refusal to sell the local airport to the Regional Council so that they can extend it for jet aircraft.

Despite a relatively buoyant economy the public have had enough. But what exactly have they had enough of? For National may think it has this 2008 election in the bag, but unless it recognises what Labour is doing wrong it could very rapidly feel the public boot on its collective butt come 2011 as well.

After a year on the road meeting as many interest groups as he can National Leader John Key has summed it up very well in recent months. The public are sick of Labour's perceived arrogance. The assumption, common among many ideologues, that the Government has the right to correct the public's naughty behaviour. This boils over in the so-called "Smacking law" which eliminates the defence of parental responsibility from common assault. Parents all over the country are up in arms about the bill and already there are enough signatures on a petition to force a citizens initiated referendum at the 2008 election.

Another less stated thread is the frustration with the apparent influence of the minority Green Party over their Labour partners. While the Greens appeal to at most 20% of New Zealand's population they deeply irritate the other 80%. In Australia or Ireland where the Green parties are hopelessly ineffective this wouldn't matter but the New Zealand Green Party boasts Jeanette Fitzsimons who is one of the most singularly effective politicians in New Zealand politics. Ms Fitzsimons influence on Helen Clark, Pete Hodgeson and David Parker is subtle but very effective and even as they distance themselves from the Green Party the Labour Party has ultimately embraced Green leadership lacking any other ideas.

Ultimately it all comes down to some basic ways of operating. New Zealanders want a government that is forward-looking, collaborative, accountable and bases its decisions on rational evaluation. Increasing the Labour Party is perceived as being autocratic, unaccountable and basing its decisions on political rather than rational reasons. Quite rightly people fear such outlooks and draw rude cartoons of such leaders dressed as Adolf Hitler etc.

But the key question is how different will National be?

For the moment National is lying low in the grass hoping the public will delude itself that a change in political leadership will bring about whatever policy change it is that Labour has annoyed them with. Key's strategy is to "smile and wave, boys, smile and wave" hoping this mass delusion will deliver National the Treasury benches. But his real problem is that his shadow cabinet team is every bit as potentially autocratic, unaccountable and politically irrational as Labour is. There are a lot of people in National who have waited a long time for a chance at power and have probably lied awake many a night relishing the prospects of their first weeks in power.

But where Jim Bolger and Bill Birch had a powerful grip over the National line-up it is unclear whether the same is true of John Key and Bill English. For the fact is Jim Bolger and Bill Birch had served their apprenticeships under Robert Muldoon and had a clear idea of the pitfalls of that approach. John Key and Bill English are by comparison extremely inexperienced while some of their cabinet colleagues are more experienced than they are. The first main test of the Key-English leadership will be the ability to keep these 'junior' Ministers under control when they get excited with the reins of power some time in March 2009.

If National want to be more than a one-term wonder they are going to have to continue to go slowly. They are going to have to adopt a 'chairmen of the board' outlook rather than the 'leadership' trap Labour's current Ministers seem to have fallen into. That means more democracy, accountability, collaboration and rationalism then perhaps some of the Ministers may have patience for.

The big question is, will they be able to do it? If so they can look forward to virtually eliminating the Labour Party as a political force in the way that maestro Keith Jacka Holyoake did during the 60s. If not election 2011 will administer a severe kicking.

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