You can count on three questions of national and
international note dominating conversations when those of a
political bent gather around the barbecue during the
Christmas-New Year break.
The first is who should replace Geoff Robinson on Morning
Report. The second is whether Radio New Zealand will use the
change in presenters as an opportunity to simultaneously dump
the funereal dirge which passes for the programme's theme
The final question is how long before Harry Styles parts
company with the other members of One Direction and embarks
on an even more lucrative solo career?
The latter question may sound even more trivial and silly
than the others. But it would have more relevance to more
people than does the matter of who will succeed John Banks as
Act New Zealand's leader, even if the bulk of those concerned
for the future of the Brit band's resident heartthrob are far
too young to vote.
Nevertheless, this example, as left field as it may seem, is
evidence of something which the political junkies within the
Wellington Beltway always underestimate. It is what political
scientists refer to as ''the remoteness of politics''.
For the great bulk of the people, politics does not matter
most of the time. They have other things occupying their
The remoteness of politics is a critical factor in answering
the question which will be really taxing the minds of
politicos over the summer holidays: which party is going to
win next year's general election?
National's opponents have long worked on the assumption that
John Key's Government - like all administrations - will
inevitably be ground down and worn out by the failings which
destroy all governments ultimately, namely the accumulation
of mistakes, embarrassments, duplicity, expedience, arrogance
and (the real killer) the feeling that from the prime
minister downwards the administration is no longer listening.
Labour and its allies have seen their task as one of
hastening that decline and ultimate fall. Because Mr Key is
the embodiment of National's ongoing success, Labour has
devoted considerable effort to pinning the blame on him when
things go wrong or look dodgy.
In order to ping Mr Key, Labour has become far too consumed
by the minutiae of day-to-day political conflict which
largely passes most people by.
Unfortunately for Labour, the Prime Minister - assisted by
poll data - has an instinctive and almost always accurate
ability to diagnose what is really unnerving voters amid
which issues he must tackle and those he can safely afford to
And that means not being too prissy about how he goes about
It means ensuring that in their portfolio work, Cabinet
ministers are almost always on the side of majority public
opinion. Be it the number of non-urgent operations carried
out by hospitals, the crime rate or prodding welfare
beneficiaries back to work - things that really do matter to
people - Mr Key and National devote considerable attention,
effort and resources to getting it right.
As long as National continues to focus on such fundamentals,
all the huffing and puffing provoked by matters like Mr Key's
handling of legislation covering the security agencies pale
into relative insignificance as far as many voters are
concerned. Mr Key has been helped by David Cunliffe seeking
to reassert Labour's dominance of the centre-left since
taking over his party's leadership.
The latter's forays into National-occupied territory to
Labour's right have so far been comparatively rare. But Mr
Cunliffe will have to do battle there and come up with
necessarily attractive policies with which to do it.
The upshot of Labour's failure to engage in such fashion is
reflected in yesterday's Herald-DigiPoll. The centre-left
parties are in no better position than they were at the start
of the year.
National seemingly continues to defy political gravity. While
Mr Cunliffe is going to be a much difficult proposition for
Mr Key to handle than were the former's predecessors, there
is no reason why National's poll ratings should not remain at
such stellar heights.
Even so, before this week - effectively the final gasp of the
political year - the lingering feeling was that despite
National's astonishing record of sustaining near-miracle
levels of support for a government
five-plus years in the job, the centre-right will still fall
short of securing sufficient seats to govern. This week
provided fresh sustenance to the view that National can hold
on to power after the 2014 election. It was an astonishingly
positive week for the Government, its only disappointment
being that all the good news would have passed most people by
in the Christmas rush.
In his speeches, Mr Cunliffe likes to say a Labour government
he leads will not be afraid to use the powers of the State to
intervene where a market fails. Well, someone else got there
His name is John Key. His sacrifice of his party's ideology
to cut a deal with Twentieth-Century Fox to ensure the
further Avatar movies are filmed in New Zealand illustrated
Mr Key's willingness to undercut Labour and leave that party
punching at air.
The following day's fiscal update also offered Labour little
to complain about given its rosy growth forecasts and
confirmation National remained on track for Budget surplus by
mid-2015 - something that will give National huge cachet with
The clincher came on Thursday. The Treasury's growth
forecasts have frequently turned out to be little more than
mirages. Not so the latest official gross domestic product
figures that had economic growth hitting a giddy 3.5% in the
You can quibble much of it was the result of post-drought
resumption of dairy production, but nothing could wipe the
mixture of utter jubilation and sheer relief on Bill
English's face. Here, at last, was the vindication in
concrete for his modus operandi as finance minister; here,
after five tough years, was the dividend he must have at
times wondered would ever come.
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald