Labour must show some respect or Key will carry on

Within the deep recesses of the Labour Party and elsewhere on the left, there is a lingering arrogance saturated with an intellectual snobbery which both blinds and deludes its sufferers.

The second anniversary of John Key becoming prime minister has been and gone. But the self-satisfied superiority and smugness exhibited by his critics continues unabated.

They cannot bring themselves to accept Mr Key's occupation of Premier House is anything other than a terrible, though surely temporary, mistake on the part of voters who will come to their senses in time for next year's election.

Rather than celebrate Mr Key as the state house kid who made good - and the quintessential example of what Labour's social policies seek to achieve - the left dismisses the most popular prime minister in New Zealand's recent political history as Smile and Wave John Key, Do Nothing John Key and Lucky John Key.

The left's fatal error has been to constantly under-rate Mr Key both in terms of ability and the fact that though he is of centre-right disposition, he is firmly at the moderate end of that broad spectrum.

Mr Key does not fit the left's mould which assumes or even dictates that someone as wealthy as him must be some kind of acolyte of the old New Right.

In short, Mr Key's critics on the left still don't get it.

Maybe the Mana by-election will finally remove a few scales from a few eyes. It should. The result was a gruesome preview of the slaughter that may well be inflicted on Labour at the end of 2011.

National's stunning performance in the by-election and stellar showings in the polls are reasons enough why Mr Key should be accorded the title of Politician of the Year. That award will stick in the throats of his critics like a piece of barbed wire.

They will claim a bogus measure is being applied to justify that accolade. But the bottom-line for any leader is the gaining and retention of political power. Everything else is secondary.

A year ago, everyone was wondering when Mr Key's "honeymoon" with voters would be over. No-one bothers to talk about honeymoons any more.

National's staggering bull run in the polls just kept on throughout 2010. Take the Roy Morgan poll. Backing for National has fluctuated between a low of 48.5% and a high of 53.5%. That adds up to between 3 to 8 percentage points above the level recorded by National in winning the 2008 election.

National and its allies began 2010 on 55.5%, as against the Opposition parties' total of 44.5%. The most recent Morgan poll conducted last month produced exactly the same result. Barring an economic meltdown, there is little otherwise to suggest this run will not persist. Critics from the right bemoan Mr Key's refusal to exploit this surplus of support and implement more radical, right-wing policies.

Mr Key's priority, however, has been to build trust with voters so that in a second parliamentary term he can hopefully carry them with him as National tackles big-ticket items such as welfare reform, the recommendations of the savings working group and possible part-privatisation of some state-owned enterprises .

Mr Key is immovable on this. His pre-election pledge to resign if he alters the age of eligibility or the formula for paying state-funded super meant rejection of this week's initiative by the Retirement Commission.

That initiative was moderate in seeking to raise the age of qualification to 67 by two months a year from 2020 onwards. Even if he privately thought the idea had merit, no way was he going back on his word.

The combination of Mr Key's positioning of National as a moderate centre-right party and the trust-building combines with a unique ability to strike a rapport with almost anyone both at an individual and national level.

But nothing is taken for granted. Mr Key's front-footedness in his handling of two national crises, the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake and the Pike River mine explosion, flowed from ensuring sufficient back-up from Government departments.

The margin for error is small on such occasions. Helen Clark was once a day late turning up to inspect some North Island floods - too late to appease the gripes and cries of: "Where is the Government?".

That cry was not heard with regard to the Hobbit.

Quite simply, Mr Key delivered. Likewise in his response to the death of a New Zealand soldier in Afghanistan - grieving yet simultaneously defending the reason the soldier was there.

Mr Key has been criticised for lacking the "bold vision" or the "grand plan". Voters, however, no longer pine for such things. They see them as the harbingers of nasty surprises.

Mr Key has obliged by turning National back into a true conservative party that manages change, rather than necessarily initiating it. Where he has initiated it - driving the review of MPs' perks for example - he has ensured he is on the right side of public opinion.

Mr Key's focus rarely strays from domestic politics. He is an avid consumer of his party's private polling against which he measures the accuracy of his finely-honed political instincts.

They have not always been sound. The mining in national parks fiasco is the pre-eminent example. There have been vexed issues where you cannot satisfy everyone, such as the foreshore and seabed, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Tuhoe's claims to the Urewera National Park and South Canterbury Finance.

There have been messy internal ructions which required the carpeting of colleagues such as Pansy Wong and Phil Heatley.

Above all, the economy remains on the slow-burner. Labour's frustration is that Mr Key rides above all this. But then Miss Clark did too - for a time. Mr Key's leadership style, while firm, is less acidic than hers. The electorate may take longer to tire of it .

As was the case with National's caucus at Miss Clark's zenith, no-one came close in Labour's to matching Key this year.

Phil Goff had a curate's egg of a year - good in patches, horrid in others.

This week summed it up. The Opposition leader's big end-of-year speech was eclipsed by him referring to David Cunliffe as "David Caygill", a colleague of Goff's in the 1980s.

Then Labour's electorate organisation in Chris Crater's Te Atatu seat went troppo.

Meanwhile, the selection battle in George Hawkins' Manurewa seat risks turning into open warfare over the power of the party's trade union wing.

Then Mr Goff was caught ripping off the theme of "the squeezed middle" from his British counterpart, Ed Miliband.

In seeming desperation, Mr Goff capped all this off by withdrawing Labour's support for Government legislation on the foreshore and seabed. It might look good politics by out-flanking National on the right. It was also another example of rank opportunism . For the second summer in a row, Mr Goff has toyed with the race genie in this guise.

Some Labour MPs are deserving of mention in dispatches - in particular, front-bencher David Parker and backbencher Brendon Burns.

The Greens hover like yogi, still in transition.

Russel Norman had a solid year, but still comes across as something of a cold fish. Metiria Turei, who does show real passion, is still searching for the right policy niche to display it.

Act New Zealand? Forget it. Its MPs would be delighted if you did after the year that party has had.

The Maori Party's Tariana Turia secured whanau ora. But then she was always going to do so.

Te Ururoa Flavell continues to impress. But it is Rahui Katene who has advanced by leaps and bounds this year.

Hone Harawira remains a cracked record, though a noisy and influential one.

Within National, Steven Joyce's star continues to rise, though he has yet to be really tested by the demands and pressures of a really high-profile portfolio. Tony Ryall continues to do what a good health minister should do - make his portfolio and its many problems invisible.

Simon Power continued his record as a serial legislator, but is marked down for failing to grab the Law Commission's excellent report on the liquor laws with both hands.

Bill English made raising GST look politically easier than it actually is - even with compensating income tax cuts. He did so by carefully doing the groundwork with lobby groups and readying people in advance.

That was in marked contrast to the absence of any notion of public relations on Gerry Brownlee's behalf when it came to mining in national parks. Yet, if anyone comes anywhere close to Mr Key's showing, it is Mr Brownlee. He achieved one of the most rapid recoveries of a politician's image, first, by his adept on-the-spot handling of the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake and then to a smaller extent by being the Government's presence on the West Coast post-Pike River.

But Mr Key takes the crown. The message from that to the left is simple: only when you start to respect your enemy will you have any chance of defeating him.

  • John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.

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