The National Party's annual conference in the weekend will not go down in political history, being a fairly dull affair. So while today there is plenty of commentary and analysis about the conference, and the party itself, the focus will quickly move on, and the weekend's various pronouncements will soon be forgotten. Its reflective of this that one of the most interesting things to come out of the conference is an amusing set of images up on the Herald website - see: The new faces of the National Government - especially this unfortunate image of John Key. Jane Clifton also manages to capture the mood of the conference in her analysis, National Party conference a shot of anti-depressant. Clifton says the party has plenty to be angry, anxious or depressed about, but instead it's in a state of 'genial serenity'. Newstalk ZB's Felix Marwick also summed it up nicely, saying the 'weekend effort was safe, steady, but not exactly inspiring' (National Party's weekend conference).
Annual conferences are a time for parties to take stock, reconfigure, and project their vision for the future. Not a lot of that seemed to happen in the weekend. There was certainly no positive vision for the future of New Zealand. In fact the most interesting and significant statement to come out of the conference was Finance Minister Bill English's dour announcement that the hangover from the global financial crisis will continue for a generation: 'The global economy is the dark cloud on the horizon and it's not going away for a generation, certainly 15 or 20 years anyway' - see: Duncan Garner's National outlines welfare reforms). This is sobering stuff and points to the real reason that this is a Government without much positive or dynamic to say or project as a vision. We really are under the yoke of austerity conditions, and this prevents governments and political parties from having many policy options or the ability to do adventurous and radical things.
The weekend's single best item focusing on the state of the National Party was Tracy Watkins' Punch-drunk but not on the ropes. Watkins catalogs National's failings, but also looks at how things might or might not improve. She discusses the prospects of National doing a U-turn on asset sales, with comments from Matthew Hooton and David Farrar that a backdown is virtually impossible, especially because of the fiscal consequences of losing the proceeds from the sales. Watkins says that for National, re-election in 2014 is all about the economy, and by 2014 all of the more unpopular policies will be bedded down and forgotten, with some sign of economic progress achieved.
A second piece by Watkins (National's respite from the storm), also pushes the line that economics are central to National's electoral vision: 'In an election that will boil down to one issue: economic credibility. The view is voters will stomach unpopular policies, so long as they can see there are runs on the board and agree the Government is on the right track. If that explains the contradiction between polls showing National's support mostly holding up despite overwhelming opposition to its partial asset sales plan'. This item also puts forward Hooton's argument that National will be saved in 2014 by Winston Peters and Colin Craig. But these analyses should be read alongside the blogpost on The Standard, What the polls actually show, which challenges the idea that National isn't being hurt in the polls.
Fran O'Sullivan also surveys the state of the National Party, and says that adding to all of National's woes are two 'intergenerational timebombs': housing affordability and superannuation affordability. There are options for dealing with both problems, says O'Sullivan - see: Winners are grinners and Key's smiling.
The biggest announcement over the weekend was John Key providing further details of the partial privatisation of Mighty River Power - see Audrey Young's All asset sales to have loyalty bonus. However nothing in this that was particularly surprising or new. It was interesting to see National continuing to push the 'mum and dad' investor element so strongly. This is smart stuff. It relates to the most likable component of the agenda, and one that allays many peoples' fears about the asset sales - especially the idea that they will be sold off to big overseas corporates. John Key's continued reiteration of small New Zealand investors being at the front of the queue - together with the policy detail to back it up - will resonate with many in middle New Zealand (even those that have no interest or ability in buying shares).
Other notable announcements concerned further welfare reform and a push to speed up the search for oil and gas - see Audrey Young's Bennett increases pursuit of welfare 'rorts'. There is a boldness in both of these, but mostly they are 'more of the same'. What is valuable about them for National, is that they show National on the front foot. In these areas they are not reacting to events and other political actors, but pushing their own programme. John Armstrong says that this is about National's new mantra of 'getting on with the job' - see: Thin protests confirm Nats' faith. This is an observation also made in Tracy Watkins' Damp protest shows heat gone from asset sales fire. She says that the Government is insisting that there will be 'No more tip-toeing around. That is the clear message from National's annual conference, where the Government's economic programme has been invested with a new sense of urgency'. See also, Watkins' Hardline Key to rivals: Bring it on.
Many commentators drew attention to the small scale of the protests outside of the conference venue. Armstrong says 'National's annual conference was not short of protests. But the protests were embarrassingly short of protesters' and 'it may well have been counter-productive'. Watkins says that 'If ever the Government needed reassurance the heat had gone out of the asset sales debate, it came with the tired protest by the handful of familiar old faces outside SkyCity'. She concludes that National 'may not have won the argument over asset sales - but it has won resigned acceptance'. And longtime socialist activist Don Franks argues that the political left need to accept that the numbers and 'political weight' of the protests were 'pitiful' and that the cause of the left is not advanced through exaggerating or ignoring such realities - see: National Party Conference protests - when will we stop kidding ourselves?.
Other important or interesting political items today include:
* On the issue of water rights and asset sales, John Armstrong has put forward an insightful commentary - see: For dignity's sake Key won't budge on sales. Armstrong emphasises that in finding a solution to the dispute, 'Negotiation, not legislation, will be National Party's preference'. He also raises doubts about the likelihood of a High Court injunction to the asset sales on the back of the Waitangi Tribunal's decision. The whole dispute now raises important issues, Armstrong says, about the ability of the Maori Council and Waitangi Tribunal denying 'the Government's right to exercise power'. In the end, Armstrong says it's Maoridom that is potentially being damaged by the tactics of the Maori Council.
* Matthew Hooton sees the National Government as benefiting from the water rights stoush, because it has 'reframed the issue so that opposition to the MOM is confused with support for the Waitangi Tribunal claim for ownership of water' - see: Maori Council and Labour make Key 'Lucky John'. Arguably, this is the reason why street protests against partial privatisation have diminished. Hooton also points out that 'that Mr Key and Mr Shearer now have identical positions on every aspect of the water rights issue'.
* Mick Strack, a lecturer in land tenure at the University of Otago, says that 'The fact Maori are putting their oar in the water here and saying taihoa is essentially protecting that common interest in the water for us all' - see: History repeating itself in water debate.
* Commentator Dion Tuuta says that the debate should really be about whether Maori have decision-making powers over water resources rather than 'ownership'. And he laments that the 'Maori Council has turned a serious issue regarding the control of decision-making over water into a tactic to halt the sale of a few old under-performing state-owned assets' - see: Water focus should be on who makes decisions.
* Tariana Turia explains that although there are tensions in the Government coalition around water rights and ownership ('You say water, we say wai') she believes that its more important to stay in partnership with National - see: Relationship with water pivotal.
* Labour's new constitutional changes have received a very strong endorsement from Matt McCarten, who says they will make the party 'a formidable machine' - see: Fine plan emerges amid aura of poised confidence. Similarly, Chris Trotter thinks the 'new rules have the potential to revolutionise left-wing politics in New Zealand' but he argues strongly against the new leadership selection rule in which 'the deposition of a clearly unpopular and/or ineffective leader may be vetoed by just 34 percent of the membership of the Labour Caucus' - see: New Rules - Old Transgressions: Some Thoughts On Labour's Proposed Constitutional Changes. Today's ODT editorial also approves of the proposed changes - see: 'Relaunching' the Labour Party.
* But according to Paul Little, the Labour Party's Long, slow death is inevitable. He puts this down to the fact that although there might still be a need for a workers party, Labour policies still amount to a 'watered-down free-market philosophy that is no different from the guiding principles' of National. He reckons Labour has rested on its laurels while the 'Green Party has emerged as a credible alternative, with credible leadership, competent MPs and policies worth considering'.
* The Herald on Sunday's editorial is scathing about the alcohol and tobacco industries' attempts to defend their interests - see: Liquor and tobacco fight back. But in the same publication, Paul Thomas worries about the disproportionate cost forced on the poor - see: Peters gets it right on tobacco price hike. Thomas also highlights the 'crassness' of Maori Party vice-president Ken Mair's statement that 'From our point of view the real terrorists in this country are the tobacco companies'. Meanwhile, Danya Levy reports, Total smoking ban too difficult - Key.
* 'Money for mates' is the label being given to the latest minor scandal about alleged cronyism in the National Government, involving Environment Ministry funding going to National Party allies - see Andrea Vance's 'Money for mates' claim. Vance follows up today with news that 'Money for mates' claims to be probed, says PM. In addition, see Matthew Littlewood's 'Silly' Mackenzie work sets policy.
* There's a focus at the moment on laws and rules that help impede or allow corruption in New Zealand, see: Matt Nippert's Bill will make scams harder, Tony Wall's 'Corrupt office' in on scam, and Michael Field's South Pacific a money laundering paradise.
* The political debate about secularism and religion in state schools is getting some traction at the moment. Dave Armstrong weighs in today, arguing in favour of 'religious studies' but not Christian education - see: Should we teach religion in schools?. He also asks, provocatively, 'Do Anglicans still actually believe in God?'