John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Mismanagement makes easy work for Opposition

Photo / Brett Phibbs
Photo / Brett Phibbs

A common thread runs through the misfortune and mishaps which have rained down on National like the plague this year.

The latest headache - fast mounting criticism of the SkyCity-Government national-convention-centre-for-more-pokies deal - has again highlighted the absence of any identifiable, coherent or proactive political management or communications strategy on National's part.

National's method of selling a policy seems to be limited to holding a press conference and issuing accompanying "fact sheets" and a couple of pages or two of explanation in question-and answer format. That should be a starting point - not the end point.

Selling a policy - especially an unpopular one - requires constant repetition of the arguments justifying the change. It requires briefing lobby groups and the media on a background basis. It requires ministers to hit the "rubber chicken" conference luncheon circuit big time to hammer the messages that the Government wants to sink in.

Some ministers - notably Bill English and increasingly Steven Joyce - are exempt from this criticism. The Prime Minister also makes the most of media platforms that come with the job to get the message out.

As the Beehive bill for ministerial media minders has ballooned, however, the Government's crisis management seems to have become more lax and tardy. More so when Key and Joyce are out of the country - the case this week. A more competitive Opposition is more than willing to fill the resulting vacuum.

None of this mattered terribly much in National's first term when Key's smile could sell almost anything. National is now facing a much stiffer political head-wind in its second term as it moves into far trickier policy territory.

Rather than respond to this with a more front-footed media strategy, ministers seem to have adopted a "we'll just tough it out" demeanour.

The result is that National has lost control of issues such as the Crafar farms, part-sale of state assets and extending paid parental leave, to name a few.

This week's quagmire - the protracted negotiations with SkyCity over the building of a national convention centre in exchange for more poker machines in the company's Auckland casino - is supposed to be a "good news" story about the creation of hundreds of new jobs and tens of millions in extra spending from thousands more international visitors. It has instead turned into a "bad news" story about gambling addiction. National should have foreseen that.

The story has changed in other ways.

The news this week that Key approached SkyCity about building a convention centre was not actually news. Key revealed he had done so soon after it was announced that the Government was going into negotiation with SkyCity.

It was not seen as a big deal then. It is now. Labour and the Greens are saying such prime ministerial intervention is unacceptable, while New Zealand First says it is evidence that National is in SkyCity's pocket as a result of past cash donations to the party from the company.

Such claims are easy to make. And mud sticks - more so when the negotiations are cloaked in secrecy.

Potentially more damaging for National, however, is the Opposition's joining of the dots between the bartering over a convention centre and pokies, state asset sales and the tick to overseas investment in prime farmland. It all paints a picture of National selling out to the highest (and, more often than not, foreign) bidder.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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