Prime Minister Rt Hon John Key answers questions from media
after talking at the National Party Conference at the
Forsyth Barr Stadium. Photo by Otago Daily Times.
If rather too much is being made of the Government's
supposed current woes, that is probably because, in general, it
had such an easy ride for its first three years.
For most of that time, members of the National-led
administration could do no wrong, neither Prime Minister John
Key nor his ministers. A trawl back through the pages of its
first-term history, however, would reveal incidents which, in
a less forgiving climate, might have led to popularity
reversals and possibly even resignations.
Imagine, for instance, the fuss - and the political fallout -
were it revealed today that a high-ranking Cabinet minister
had seen to it that private and confidential departmental
information on individuals was accessed and broadcast
nationally to score partisan political points.
Or that another high-flying Cabinet minister had allegedly
misled Parliament by "forgetting" about a pertinent
communication from a commercial entity involved in state
The facilitation of the publication of information under the
watch of Social Welfare Minister Paula Bennett - details
relating to two beneficiaries, who had criticised Government
policy - is now but a mere pause, a semicolon in the fluent
narrative of National's first term, as is Steven Joyce's
memory lapse over a politically significant letter from
Telecom regarding its structural separation.
It's all about context. When you are fresh and popular, you
can do no wrong. Political confidence is self-perpetuating.
But, typically, the first 18 months of a second-term
government is when it will do the political hard yards.
Thereafter it will be intent on smoothing over any wrinkles
in preparation for a third term.
So a degree of electoral discomfort is to be expected as the
Government gets down to its serious business. This can easily
be overstated. As Mr Key himself has pointed out, the support
for the National Party in recent polls is where it was when
it went into the last election.
Even so, it has made a pig's ear of some recent major
initiatives, finding itself uncharacteristically out of step
with the electorate. While personally unaffected by plans to
restructure the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, some
centrist voters will not have been impressed by this
Likewise, many among the same bloc may have been somewhat
perturbed by the tenor of Ms Bennett's chewing the fat with
an increasingly shrill talk-back controversialist - over what
to do about "breeding" and the underclass.
Subsequent commentary overhyped this into talk of eugenics -
which it was not - but nonetheless many might expect that the
"uncomfortable conversation" this country must have about
welfarism and child abuse be conducted in more considered
ways by a minister of the Crown.
The equilibrium of Ms Bennett's vast and money-hungry fiefdom
cannot have been improved by the abrupt departure of the head
of Work and Income last week after less than a year in the
Janet Grossman was recruited to the role from the UK. She
leaves ostensibly for "family reasons", but it is pertinent
to wonder whether, in this instance, the phrase has a
euphemistic undertow: did Ms Grossman understand when she
took the job she would be answerable not only to the chief
executive and the Social Welfare minister herself, but also
to an additional Government-appointed welfare reform board
led by Paula Rebstock?
Or did she commit a career-damaging faux pas in being so
forthright when five Winz workers were sacked in December
last year for accessing clients' private information: "These
people have let us down badly.
"Their actions cast a shadow over our honest and hard working
staff who understand that client privacy is sacrosanct," she
quite properly said at the time.
The Government's most awkward reversal has been the class
No question, education is critical. No question, good
teachers can make all the difference - we all know that
through our own experiences and that of our children. No
question, we need to invest in this vital sector and, yes, to
do things better and smarter, including weeding out the
But this initiative was so poorly handled in so many ways it
will probably be a case study for students of political
science for semesters to come. That includes its unravelling.
Education Minister Hekia Parata might have "sold" it better,
but let's not pretend that, relatively new to the job, it was
all her idea.
Again, that middle rump of switched-on voters can smell
political cowardice and expediency when they see it, and
chances are they can sense it in this case: Mrs Parata was
given a particularly wayward hospital pass by her senior
Cabinet colleagues, then hung out to dry when it failed to
- Simon Cunliffe is a Wellington writer.