Week in Politics: Another awful week for stuck-on-the-back-foot National

Is there any Auckland-based National MP who has not been lobbied, cajoled or inveigled into helping Bronwyn Pullar in her various insurance and ACC claims?

Having been briefly tainted - if only very mildly - by the stench emanating from what has fast become a suppurating sore for National, John Key is probably not of a joking mood.

The Prime Minister would have been far from amused watching Thursday night's Close Up, which revealed his name was included in a leaked list of prominent National Party figures said to have backed Ms Pullar's claim back in 2007 for a $14 million (yes, $14 million) payout from Sovereign Insurance after her head injury five years earlier.

Whoever anonymously sent the list and associated material to Close Up would have known full well the programme would focus on what, pun intended, it called the "Key connection".

That someone within National's ranks should risk dirtying the reputation of the party's biggest asset illustrates just how Machiavellian things have become in this case.

Close Up failed to prove any such connection between Ms Pullar, a one-time National Party activist, and Mr Key - something confirmed by Ms Pullar herself when she said her contact with him had only been passing.

Even so, the programme was damaging enough in offering further insight into how the National Party pulls strings behind the scenes.

Out of sight is exactly where National would have preferred Ms Pullar's separate and longer-running battle with ACC had remained.

Circumstances conspired to do otherwise. Regardless of who leaked what to whom, Ms Boag and Judith Collins were on a collision course from the day the latter was appointed ACC minister.

Ms Collins was never going to allow herself to be compromised in the way Nick Smith, her predecessor, was. It is for that reason that she quite properly referred Ms Boag's email revealing Ms Pullar's identity to ACC.

The upshot of the subsequent claims surrounding the leak of the email has been virtual civil war in the party.

Ms Collins and Ms Boag are provocative personalities who adopt a "take no prisoners" modus operandi that keeps matters alive when National's best interest is to shut them down.

Labour argues, not implausibly, that the stoush cuts deeper and what we are witnessing is not so much a personal feud as a factional power struggle over who controls the party in the post-Key era.

Mr Key does not need all this. He has enough on his plate. National is looking like a tired third-term Government, not one that has not long embarked on its second term.

The political year is all of two months old. It feels more like 10 months. Rather than setting the agenda, National is having the agenda set for it by others.

This began in late January with the Overseas Investment Office approving the sale of the Crafar farms to Chinese interests.

Ministers rubber-stamped it; the High Court overruled them. That put National on the back foot. It has been stuck there ever since. The subsequent row over foreign ownership of New Zealand farmland coincided with the wrangle with the Maori Party over Treaty clauses in legislation enabling the partial privatisation of state-owned power and coal companies.

That was followed by wider argument over the merits of such sales, which was not helped by Bill English's admission that the estimates of proceeds were a guess.

Mr English also had to revise another figure downwards - the projected size of the return to surplus in the 2014-15 year.

The mishandling of the restructuring of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has produced an unprecedented series of leaks that have severely embarrassed National - the latest being a $9.2 million bill for consultants.

In short, it has been yet another awful week for National. On his return from South Korea, Mr Key will have spoken to some colleagues in private.

It will be surprising if the rest of the Cabinet do not find themselves on the receiving end of some pretty stern language at Monday's meeting.

Not that Mr Key will be exempting himself from criticism. From the top down, National desperately needs to sharpen up on political management.

It equally needs to lift its game when it comes to communicating its message through the media.

A weak Opposition and a media honeymoon meant it was easy going for National through its first term.

Last year's crushing election victory has induced an over-confidence just as things have got a lot tougher.

That is down to National now trying to push through a less palatable policy agenda in the face of a less respectful media and a much more focused Opposition.

The latter is personified by Labour's Grant Robertson, who daily grows more compelling in the role of deputy leader. With David Shearer out of town all week meeting party members in the provinces, Mr Robertson ably spearheaded Labour's attack both inside and outside the House.

If Mr Shearer fails to make the grade, Mr Robertson is already the person to beat in any subsequent leadership ballot.

The one advantage National still enjoys is that voters are not yet showing signs of listening to Labour - in part because Labour does not yet have much to tell them.

Part of the job of Opposition, however, is to at least look like an alternative government in terms of competence and discipline. Labour is showing early signs of doing that.

National ministers, however, argue that many of the things causing problems for the Government are relatively trifling. On fundamental issues such as health, education and economic management, National is still seen as sound. Labour is not even on the radar.

That may well be so. When it comes to respite from the day-to-day political cut and thrust, however, Easter cannot come fast enough for National.

 - John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.




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