Why has National remained so incredibly popular for so long
despite suffering continuing calamities, embarrassments and
unwanted distractions, many of them self-inflicted?
Labour MPs this week went on the front foot, castigating
National as a Government ''mired in scandals and more
interested in deals with its mates'' than governing in the
country's best interests. David Cunliffe, one of those MPs,
went as far as describing John Key's second-term
Administration as ''the rotting carcass on the body
Mr Cunliffe provided a long, but not exhaustive list of
National's follies, including in no particular order: Warner
Bros' muscle-flexing on The Hobbit; the Government's
generosity in helping out radio and TV company MediaWorks;
''Banksie'' and Kim Dotcom; the failings of the Government
Communications Security Bureau; the plunge into debt of state
coal company Solid Energy; the dreadfully slow implementation
of ultrafast broadband; backdowns on taxing employer-provided
car parks and cellphones; and unemployment running at close
to 7%. The public was counting the score, Mr Cunliffe added.
In short, National was on its way out.
Well not quite. This week's Herald-DigiPoll put matters into
perspective. Backing for Labour rose by more than four
percentage points on the previous poll last August, the party
registering more than 36% of the committed vote. It is
Labour's best showing since late 2010.
But National edged up by a percentage point to 48.5%, thus
maintaining a dominance in the poll dating back to John Key
taking hold of National's reins in late 2006.
Mr Cunliffe's catalogue of calamities plus the inevitable
wear and tear on a second-term government would have been
expected to have a detrimental impact on National's fortunes.
Instead, Key-led National continues to enjoy a golden run in
the poll which now stretches back 300-plus weeks.
The questions are obvious: how have Mr Key and National
managed to defy political gravity and, perhaps more
pertinently, for how much longer will they be able to do so?
It is possible to list at least 10 potential factors as being
responsible, some of which are pretty clear-cut while others
are simply untested, gut-feeling hypothesising.
The first factor is Mr Key's sky-high rating as most
preferred prime minister. This is crucial in drawing many
tens of thousands of uncommitted voters plus those with weak
attachments to other parties to tick National. The ''brain
fades'' and other lapses of 2012, a horror year for him and
National, seem to have had little, if any, impact on Mr Key's
Labour has long targeted ''Brand Key'' in the belief that
destroying him will destroy National. The strategy may have
backfired, revealing Labour as petty and small-minded. Mr
Key's failings may instead be viewed by the electorate as
human, thereby increasing his rapport with voters.
Second, his moderate conservatism is in tune with the
prevailing mood of the wider New Zealand electorate. Helen
Clark understood that reality. But she still eventually fell
victim to the conservative public's near hatred of Labour's
supposed political correctness.
Third, Mr Key is unashamedly pragmatic - a word that used to
be anathema to purists who stood four-square behind Sir Roger
Douglas and Ruth Richardson in the 1980s and early 1990s. No
longer. Ideology takes a back seat with Mr Key. There is no
lecturing of the public as to the kind of policy prescription
that ought to be swallowed. There is instead a ''no
surprises'' approach, by and large. The Government does what
it says it will do.
Even National's showcase policy of partial privatisation has
a pragmatic element in the retention of a majority government
The fourth factor is the neutralising of troublesome issues,
rather than allowing them to linger and fester. In terms of
resources, Steven Joyce has thrown the political equivalent
of the kitchen sink at the faults in the Novopay payroll
system for teachers. No doubt he would chuck the real thing
in Talent2's direction if it might help.
Fifth comes the economy. Labour's recent private polling has
confirmed a majority of voters view National as the better
manager of the economy. They are likely to continue to do so
in uncertain economic times. Why? Because Mr Key and Bill
English have a proven track record in handling crises, like
the Christchurch earthquakes, in a calm and unflustered
The Herald-DigiPoll had a majority of 49% to 43% agreeing the
Government is moving in the right direction. National's
Achilles heel can be summed up in three words: jobs, jobs and
jobs. However, there are signs the economy is slowly picking
up steam, as evidenced by this week's GDP figures for the
last quarter of last year.
Sixth, National may have issued various vision documents
which have ended up propping up shelves around the Beehive.
However, the party is not all that good at articulating those
visions. It is good, however, at maintaining momentum. It is
essential a government be seen to be busy, otherwise it looks
like it has stalled - and that is fatal.
Seventh, National is still largely defining what the
arguments are about across most policy areas. In doing so,
it's halfway to winning those arguments. Labour has yet to
thrust a new dynamic - for example, a more hands-on style of
economic management - on to the political agenda and lead
debate on its terms.
Eighth, opposition parties are instead still devoting
considerable time and effort to fighting battles they have
lost - such as partial privatisations - or trying to land
hits on National by raking over the coals of history, Solid
Energy being the prime example.
Ninth, the public may be getting acclimatised to the at-times
rather chaotic nature of minority government. Ms Clark's
third term was marred by constant sideshows and distractions.
Mr Key's second term has been similarly afflicted, but it has
not been damaged. Voters may now be more willing to accept
(or simply ignore) the ever-noisier political static if they
can be assured National is focused on the bigger picture and
getting things done.
Tenth and last, the political temperature is benign in terms
of governing. Apart from asset sales there are few, if any,
issues that are seriously divisive and on which National
finds itself stranded on the wrong side of the argument for
ideological reasons. Voters may be more tolerant, if not
forgiving, of politicians' occasional lapses. Hekia Parata
had to get an awful lot wrong before she lost the public's
Crucially, there's no mood for change, the real
government-killer, or even much hint of such a mood
developing. National may still lose next year's election, but
only because of an absence of coalition partners. Its real
enemy is MMP mathematics. It can't do much about that.
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand
Herald's political correspondent.