In what is ominously but obviously fast becoming a
year-long de facto election campaign, you can guarantee
National will try and drum one particular message into voters'
brains in coming months.
National will make big efforts to permanently typecast David
Cunliffe as a politician who can't be trusted. Such a
strategy would have been a complete waste of time were the
mild-mannered David Shearer still Labour's leader.
It is equally unlikely to have gained much traction had it
been applied to Phil Goff, someone who commanded respect, if
not popularity. Voters, however, know little about Mr
Cunliffe. They might have watched his brazen undermining of
Mr Shearer's leadership at Labour's annual conference in
They might have heard his disingenuous-sounding denials that
he was fermenting trouble. While Mr Cunliffe has a keen sense
of humour, he is seen as someone people have difficulty
warming to. National believes when it comes to trust, Mr
Cunliffe still has much work to do. John Key set the ball
rolling this week by labelling his Labour counterpart, as
someone who was very ''tricky''. That was a softer word than
Deliberately so. Getting personal can easily backfire.
National's modus operandi is to prod voters to draw the right
conclusion themselves. In that respect, the past week has
been one step forward and two back for Mr Cunliffe.
It has been his most harrowing week since becoming leader
about five months ago. That verdict would deservedly be
thrown out of court if Labour's Best Start package, which was
unveiled last Monday, actually proves to be as popular as
Labour MPs are already saying it is.
Until the polls show that to be the case, however, Mr
Cunliffe is going to have to invest time in bridging what
might be called the ''trust deficit''. Best Start is most
notable for its promise of a $60 a week payment to families
with newborn babies. The policy is Labour's strongest pitch
yet that when it comes to tackling child poverty, it is far
more committed than other political parties.
The near universal nature of the payment - recommended by no
less a body than the Commissioner for Children's expert
advisory group on child poverty - has enabled Labour to
simultaneously offer financial relief to a broad swathe of
middle-income voters without the party looking self-serving
in doing so.
Something was missing, however, from the explanatory
paperwork handed out to journalists covering the policy's
launch in west Auckland. The material made no mention of the
policy's stipulation that those qualifying for the $60 a week
''baby bonus'' would not get any money until their
household's eligibility for paid parental leave had been
Given Labour intends to expand paid parental leave from the
current 14 weeks to 26 weeks, Mr Cunliffe's assertion in
speech notes that ''all families eligible for Best Start
would get the weekly $60 payment ''for the first year of
their child's life'' didn't tell the whole story.
Mr Cunliffe subsequently blamed a speech-writer for the
wording. And - to be fair - the policy and the conditions
governing the varying amounts of cash to be paid to families
during the the up to three years that their child might
qualify for assistance was mostly spelled out in pretty good
detail on Labour's website.
There was scant mention of Labour's intention to abolish the
parental tax credit to help fund the new policy. That tax
credit is worth up to $150 a week for some families and
covers the first eight weeks of a baby's life.
That is equivalent to 20 weeks on Labour's new scheme. There
is further evidence Labour's scheme is not as generous as it
might appear at first glance. The first income-tested payment
for 1-year-olds will not occur until April 2017.
Meanwhile, Labour has quietly canned its controversial 2011
policy to pay the $60-a-week in-work tax credit to
beneficiaries. Labour has done itself no favours in failing
to be totally upfront about its intentions. Reporters at the
policy launch should have been able to rely on the
information provided to them. They will be asking whether the
absence of key facts was a genuine mistake or an accidental
omission on Labour's part? Or were journalists deliberately
kept in the dark by Labour in an attempt to up the chances of
uncritical coverage of the baby bonus.
Buying a fight with the media is not the smartest way to
kick-off election year. Baby bonus coverage shifted markedly
as Mr Key ruthlessly and sarcastically picked up on and
picked over Labour's less than open stance on paid parental
leave and the abolition of the parental tax credit.
National's initial line was to accuse Labour of spending
money from the proceeds if the economic recovery before the
recovery has taken place. Mr Key then switched attention to
the $150,000 income threshold for payment of the first year
of the baby bonus, slamming it as ''Labour's definition of
Labour retaliated by using the weeklong debate in Parliament
on the prime minister's annual statement to paint a bleak
picture of a country where the Government was ''arrogant, out
of touch, and out for its mates''. Labour's rhetoric has
noticeably toughened under Mr Cunliffe - and for one reason.
There seems top be no mood in the electorate for a change of
Without such a mood, Labour - which anyway does not look
ready to govern - and the Greens - who do have their act
together - have to manufacture one. The trouble is the
rhetoric simply does not wash. Enter Mr Key. He intends
making things even harder for his opponents. Don't be fooled
into thinking advocacy for a change of flag is some innocent
He is doing it on the back of a rapidly strengthening economy
and healthier national confidence.
It is an opportunity to display leadership and make people
feel good about themselves and the country. It is all about
nationhood. It is all about patriotism. It is all about
gathering more votes for National.
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald