Herald on Govt’s first year

This weekend it is the Herald’s turn to do a big feature on the Government’s first year in office. Multiple article to quote.

John Armstrong starts with what I think is the most important aspect:

The first Herald-DigiPoll survey since last year’s election shows close to 80 per cent of respondents rated the Government’s performance in dealing with the effect of the global on New Zealand as good, very good or excellent.

Barely 20 per cent rated the Government’s response to the recession as not good or poor.

And this is the major issue voters have focused on. Not use of urgency, not the Super City, not RWC broadcasting, not any of the numerous beltway issues. Not to say handling of those issues is not worthy of focus, but they are not critical to the average voter.

In another article, Armstrong reviews Key himself:

Key’s sheer ordinariness has fooled opponents into making first impression assumptions that there is little substance behind the confident, smiley face he presents to the world.

Key would not claim to be an intellectual. But he is very bright. Those who have worked closely with him speak of a capacity to absorb mountains of information and a laser-like capacity to focus on what needs to be done.

I would almost call Key a data sponge. He loves soaking up information from numerous sources, and reflecting on it. He is constantly thinking, and analysing.

He is anything but ordinary. The chief executive of New Zealand Incorporated is nothing short of a political phenomenon.

As one Beehive operative of long experience puts it, Key is rewriting the rules of New Zealand politics. That is a sweeping statement. But it goes some way to explaining why public support for – confirmed in today’s Herald-DigiPoll survey – has climbed to unprecedented highs for a ruling party in its first year of government and, just as crucially, continues to remain at that level.

The challenge for the Government is to build its own brand to complement Key’s strong brand.

Key cites his Government’s fulfillment of manifesto commitments and steering the country through and (he hopes) out of economic recession as crucial in consolidating support for his party. Cabinet ministers readily acknowledge, however, that National’s post-election dream run is overwhelmingly down to Key’s strong rapport with voters – especially females who shunned National in the past.

It is rare for a centre-right party to do well with female voters.

Labour Party insiders grudgingly agree, but with a subtle twist in the language: National’s popularity rests on Key’s popularity. When the latter starts to fade, the former will quickly evaporate.

As I said above, I agree with them that the popularity is largely Key. But that may change over time, as other Ministers become better known. Also the other Ministers have generally been doing quite well in their portfolios – what is lacking is more a coherent all of Government brand.

Or so Labour prays. Labour, however, has made a bad habit of underestimating Key.

And they still are.

One of the principal ways he is seen to be rewriting the rules is by applying a “will it work” test to policy proposals rather than first asking whether they sit comfortably with National Party ideology. Key’s willingness to search for ideas outside conventional boundaries is in tune with an electorate less hung-up about ideology than in the 1980s and 1990s.

Key has centre-right values and instincts, but he sees them as a guide not a straitjacket.

This may irk some colleagues who see the vast gap between National and Labour in the polls as a rare chance for National to adopt a more radical and right-leaning prescription. …

Key seems to have no difficulty with either proposition. However, he is extremely wary of breaching National’s 2008 manifesto. He believes it is vital that voters feel confident they can trust National in government.

I’m one of those who want to see the Government be more bold, and indeed use that vast poll gap while we have it. But it isn’t about being more “right”, it is about fighting battles that are important to our future such as tax reform, the union stranglehold in education, state sector reform etc. But I agree any reform has to be consistent with the election manifesto. But there are plenty of areas where initiatives were not ruled in or out.

Dunne also noted that “references to what happened in the 1990s, let alone what side one was on during the Springbok Tour or, heaven forbid, the Vietnam War are utterly irrelevant to the values of this new generation, as Helen Clark found out dramatically last year, and Phil Goff is continuing to find out”.

The battles of yesterday.

Though Goff is an effective communicator, Key operates on another level. Unlike some politicians, he never talks down to people. He instead likes to disarm his audiences – no matter how big or small – by kicking off proceedings with a witty anecdote. More often than not, the joke is at his own expense. And deliberately so. The self-deprecation helps to break the ice.

A typical example was a recent meeting with youngsters at a riding school. Praising their ambition to represent New Zealand in show-jumping at the 2016 Olympics. Key turned to their proud parents, telling them “and you’ll be able to watch it all on Maori television”.

Heh. More seriously I recommend anyone who has not seen Key do a Q&A, should attend one of his meetings. He really engages with the audience, and as John A says, never talking down.

Yet, a year on from the election, it is still difficult to discern the direction in which the Government is going. Presumably it knows, because it is a very busy Government. It would be useful if it told the rest of us.

If Key has a major flaw, it is in not drawing the big picture often enough.

I agree. I don’t think it has mattered much this year, for it has been a crisis year – fighting the recession. But as that fades as an issue, people are going to want to hear more about closing (or at least slowing) the gao with Australia.

Key’s power is at its zenith. But how does he intend to use it? What legacy does he want to leave? The next 12 months will be true measure of his prime ministership, judged on what is done to get his promised “step change”in New Zealand’s economic growth.

I think the 2010 budget is very important, even more so that the 2011 budget.

Claire Trevett reports 78% of NZers back the series of cycleways.

Patrick Gower talks to Rodney Hide about working with .

also reviews Bill English.

Claire Trevett talks to :

Do you still have that level of trust in National?

Yes. What I’ve enjoyed the most is our ability to be upfront with one another and be straightforward on issues. I have never found that they’ve said one thing to me in a meeting and done another.

I recall what John Tamihere said about how Cullen used to treat coalition partners!

Have there been difficult choices?

When you can see value in what is being proposed but there’s always downsides to it. We’ve had to think really carefully about ACC, the Emissions Trading Scheme, and adult education courses.

For example with the ETS, it’s been difficult to try to balance the interests of iwi – whose major focus is forestry, fishing and farming – when on the other hand we’ve got really poor communities who are going to have to pay and they’re not the ones causing the problems.

There are very few policies that don’t involve balancing the trade-offs.

Jon Johannsson talks leadership:

I believe we are watching an unusual prime ministership take shape. Key’s skillset is vastly different from what we’ve seen before. We’d possibly have to go all the way back to the entrepreneurial Julius Vogel in the 1870s to find an apt comparison. Vogel put in vital and much-needed infrastructure to connect New Zealanders with each other and then with the rest of the world. Vogel’s legacy is a hugely significant one in our politics. If Key could affect a 21st century equivalent – meaning nothing short of major structural transformation to better position New Zealand during its transition to an information-age economy – his future legacy would be assured.

And Key has pushed hard on infrastructure. But the structural transformation is not there – however stuff like the fibre to the home initiative may be part of that.

Key has also grasped that our politics is going through a non-ideological phase, which explains why much of the criticism of his Government’s performance has come from ideologues on either side of the spectrum. His acceptance of much of Labour’s policy inheritance reinforces this judgment. Keeping its promises, which National has largely done, thereby establishing long-term trust with the electorate, has given Key the prerequisite platform needed for greater freedom of action in the future.

Absolutely. You have to earn trust, to then have greater freedom of action.

But to return to where I began, Key’s larger context; his political vision has been quite parsimonious in my view. There is no overarching narrative that tells us where Key intends taking us or what policy mix will best maximise our future progress and choices.

Transforming education (surely the best incubator for our future economic prosperity), leading our democracy (think: the electoral referendum, the Treaty, republicanism), and how to best protect water, our most valuable strategic resource, are being managed, not led, in an entirely ad-hoc fashion.

I think this is fair criticism.

Finally John Roughan:

The most impressive member of the Cabinet is a complete newcomer, Steven Joyce.

He is doing the infrastructure projects, notably the duplicate broadband network, as well as those in his primary portfolio, transport.

He’s done the little things, like the car cellphone ban on which the previous government dithered for years, and the big things like the Waterview connection, which I thought was wrong but he put me right.

I remarked to the Dominion Post for their review that I thought John Key’s best decision was probably appointing Steven Joyce to such critical portfolios. The fibre rollout was Key’s signature initiative, and speeding up infrastructure investment also a iconic issue for Key. And Steven indeed is no ditherer.

Of course I still think he is wrong on the cellphone ban!

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