As the countdown to September's general election becomes ever
more frenetic, one thing is becoming increasingly obvious:
those parties which stick to their knitting and produce
fresh, even visionary ideas and viable policies stand to be
the big winners.
Voters are not of such a negative mood as to tolerate endless
whining, complaining, cheap hits on opponents and petty
National worked this out long ago. The Greens have since
worked it out and are now refocusing on fundamentals.
Labour has had the most difficulty in shedding opposition for
the sake of opposition, but is coming to the same
realisation, with David Cunliffe now thrusting himself
forward as the Apostle of Economic Intervention.
The exception to this requirement to accentuate the positive
is New Zealand First whose function in domestic politics is
to stress the negative and thus offer refuge to the angry and
the alienated. But even a politician of Winston Peters'
calibre is finding the going tough.
This week's Herald-DigiPoll survey confirmed there is
precious little breadth or depth of anger with National for
Opposition parties to exploit.
They keep trying, in part because that is one of the
functions of Opposition and in part because they want to
believe that the next semi-crisis or mini-scandal to afflict
National will be the one which sets National's and John Key's
opinion poll ratings on an irrevocable slide.
If anything, the opposite is happening.
Mr Key is enjoying something of a second honeymoon with
voters. In part, that is down to his unashamed pragmatism.
He may have lost voters' trust on peripheral issues such as
the GCSB. On the matters that actually impinge on people's
daily lives, however, he has ensured he is swimming in the
Mr Key's and National's stunning poll ratings are also down
to something else - the clear signs that the economy is now
growing at a reasonable pace at last. When it comes to the
things which really matter to voters, National has made sure
it has got the basics in order.
That is why there is palpable frustration in the Beehive that
National's projection of an image of competence keeps being
blurred by unwanted static, the latest examples being the
maelstroms surrounding the actions of Judith Collins and
Hekia Parata, who this week made an absolute botch of her
handling of allegations of misspending by a subsidiary of Te
Kohanga Reo National Trust.
But voters do not seem to care about these blots on
National's landscape. And come September, nobody will be
talking about whom Ms Collins had dinner with in Beijing. Or
how Ms Parata could go to bed saying one thing and get up the
following morning mouthing the exact opposite.
In Ms Collins' case, Labour's Grant Robertson has done a
splendid job in not only vanquishing one of National's most
formidable performers but also citing her an an example of
what Labour refers to as National's ''crony capitalism'', by
which National allegedly uses the instruments of the state -
be it the tax system, bureaucracy or whatever - for the
benefit of its ''rich mates''.
The ''crony capitalist'' labelling, designed to drive a wedge
between National and middle income and upper middle income
voters who possess a conscience, has so far been a flop.
The same has been the case with Mr Cunliffe's similar
exercise in wedge politics. He has also sought to siphon off
the same segments from National by likewise appealing to
their social conscience by talking about little else than
income inequality and child poverty in his speeches, while
carefully stressing those voters, comfortably off as they
are, will not be socked with the tax rises needed to provide
relief for the poor.
It is on income disparity, the cost of living and wages
growth (or rather the lack of it) that National is vulnerable
and where Labour, until now, has sought to fight the crucial
debate on who is best to run the economy.
But it has been a holding operation for Labour. National is
delivering growth which - it will argue - will begin to
remedy the very things Labour has been highlighting.
Mr Cunliffe has known all along he would have to confront
National's strengths when it comes to economic management. He
relishes the opportunity.
This week he began the battle with promises of accelerated
depreciation and suspensory loans for the forestry industry.
That may not have grabbed the headlines, but, if you are
promising a revolution in how the economy is run, then the
revolution has to start somewhere.
Mr Cunliffe not only articulated his vision of a
''value-added ''economy - something he has done many times
before - he also detailed for the first time exactly how that
vision would be applied in a particular sector of the
To watch Mr Cunliffe extol the virtues of what he calls
''intelligent hands-on'' economic management is to witness
the Labour leader at his most confident and self-assured
One of the reasons why he has won the hard-earned respect of
those on Labour's left is that Mr Cunliffe has been utterly
consistent throughout his nearly 15 years in Parliament in
his favouring a far more interventionist approach. It is also
an approach which would go much further than Labour's
''soft'' intervention of the Clark-Cullen years.
A politician arguing the need to add value to raw product
rather than simply increasing the volume of that product is
hardly new. Just recall Mike Moore's promotion of his lamb
National is thus dismissing Mr Cunliffe's approach as a
return to the failed policies of the 1970s. What is different
in Mr Cunliffe's case is that he has had the time and the
intellect to produce an integrated, cohesive and
comprehensive blueprint for a more planned economy.
In what seemed to be a clever piece of political
choreography, the day after Mr Cunliffe's forestry
announcement, Rotorua's Red Stag Timber company announced it
would invest $120 million in upgrading its plant on the basis
of Labour's policy.
The irony was that like Mr Key's trip to China, Mr Cunliffe's
forest policy package was pushed into shadows partially as a
result of Labour rounding on Ms Collins and Ms Parata.
Annoying as that might be to Mr Key, he can afford it to
Mr Cunliffe cannot. Labour has to get its priorities right.
- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political