Bryce Edwards on National’s third term

Bryce Edwards looks at the first year of ’s third term, both the good and bad. Starting with the bad:

A long list of negative episodes have plagued John Key’s third term. Ranging from very damaging to trivial, these sagas have far outnumbered the few achievements of the Government since re-election.

National went into the election with little policy, but even what it did have has fallen by the wayside. Progress on other core right-wing policy issues has been woeful.

What’s more, the Government has struggled in key areas, such as formulating a popular climate-change response, convincing the public about sending troops to Iraq again, dealing with state surveillance and now the global economic problems.

The unfavourable ratio of damaging episodes to achievements strongly suggests National is now suffering from third-term blues, or “third-termitis”. This affliction is normally taken to mean that a government has become stale, arrogant and prone to errors.

The Government’s critics rightly ask where the fresh ideas are, or whether the Government has any vision left. …

Increasingly there is an acknowledgement of National’s “succession problem”. Key remains popular, but the lack of replacement options indicates another weakness.

Bill English is in the twilight of his career, Steven Joyce is technocratic and uncharismatic, Paula Bennett is seen as a lightweight and junior ministers are too inexperienced.

As is often the case with long-term governments dominated by a single figure, no new talent can prosper. It’s only once back in opposition that the party can truly see who is capable of rising to the top.

But he then looks at the other side:

A glance at any opinion poll indicates National’s extraordinary popularity. For example, the latest Herald-Digipoll puts National on 51 per cent support, and Key on 64 per cent.

Not only has the Government not dropped in support since its re-election, it is just as popular as when it first romped to power in 2008. In fact, the public’s so-called honeymoon with Key – which began in late 2006 – has lasted an astonishing nine years. Clearly, Key has the potential to go down in history as New Zealand’s most successful prime minister. …

Key has made his mantra “it’s the issues that matter” which determine how New Zealanders vote. Since the Global Financial Crisis, voters have been focused on economic-related issues and the traditional concerns of education and health.

Therefore, as at last year’s election, the central role of the economy is the main factor in National’s success. National continues to be perceived as a cautious and competent manager in difficult and uncertain times. This year’s Budget simply reinforced that image.

National’s pragmatic and clever manoeuvring is also a big factor in its success. The party has been careful not to stray too far from the views of middle New Zealand. Part of this is simply down to the dominance of pragmatists in Cabinet and caucus.

Key’s most influential supporters – English, Joyce, McCully and Bennett – are hardly neoliberal ideologues.

This doesn’t mean National hasn’t veered down the path of radicalism occasionally – most prominently in state-housing sell-offs and the social investment bond exercise. But such initiatives have been exceptions.

And Key’s instincts are to pull back from the extremes. When Labour has started to get traction on an issue, National has found ways to deftly shift positions. This normally involves adopting moderate policies, often adapted or stolen from opposition parties.

On key issues such as inequality and child poverty, National has sought to assuage worries with increases in benefit rates. Similar moves have been made to deal with growing concerns about capital gains taxes, foreign house buyers, and poor-quality rental properties. Much of this might be tinkering but it sends a strong message that the Government has listened.

The public don’t have to agree with every solution the Government comes up with, but they do want the Government to be listening and doing something.

A third reason National has been able to withstand scandal and embarrassment is it has already accumulated substantial political capital. Key has previously impressed the public with his Government’s management of serious problems – most notably the GFC, the Christchurch earthquake and the Pike River disaster. Competent political management in these areas has produced a reservoir of goodwill.

National therefore has the benefit of the doubt. The public has been ready to forgive or ignore any missteps. Even the ponytail embarrassment, which was viewed negatively by National supporters, could be forgiven. When a politician is largely trusted, as Key is, his failings will be discounted by voters.

In contrast with the Clark Government’s third-term, when Labour tended to dig its heels in rather than apologise or reverse from an unpopular direction, Key is more ready to U-turn or admit mistakes.

In general, Key appears to be aware of the need to combat third-termitis. His attempt to rejuvenate the party while in power has been unequalled.

Today’s Cabinet of 20 contains only 11 ministers who have been there since the start. Even more starkly, five of the six ministers outside Cabinet are new. And the wider caucus has been refreshed. More than a quarter of the caucus are new MPs elected last year.

The rejuvenation of Cabinet and caucus has been a real success story, but you can’t rest on your laurels. Rejuvenation needs to be constant.

Bryce then looks at the overall situation:

Ambition will be a powerful driver in keeping the Government on the popular path. Obtaining a fourth term is the Holy Grail for National and it’s within its grasp – the iPredict website of political betting, lists National’s chances as being 62 per cent.
Such an achievement would push Key ahead of Keith Holyoake’s record of 12 years as Prime Minister, making him the longest-serving PM since Richard Seddon, who served from 1893 to 1906.

And after that, a fifth term is distinctly possible. That would have Key even beating Seddon’s 13 years at the top, making him New Zealand’s longest-serving PM.

Generally the chances of a Government getting a 4th term should be around 20% at best. To be at 62% probability of a fourth term says something about both the Government and the Opposition.

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