PM's plan to ease Labour pains

By Jonathan Milne

Notorious spin doctor Alastair Campbell uncrosses his legs and mimes reaching into his pocket for a piece of paper: "Now what was the line that Mike Munro gave me?"

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's former press secretary, once dubbed the second-most powerful man in Britain, has been asked what advice he gave the New Zealand prime minister over a private dinner the previous night.

Campbell, a long-time acquaintance of Helen Clark, here to help manage the Lions tour, is not about to give away too many secrets.

But he is happy to volunteer that Clark has personal credibility as a leader, is in charge of a strong economy and is respected on the international stage. Labour, he thinks, should campaign on that.

Clark agrees unabashedly. "I think that's inevitable: that we will define it as being about leadership and who stands up for New Zealand," she says, pointing to issues such as the decision to not send fighting forces to Iraq.

"I think I can personally stride out there and say, 'I've shown leadership that's in New Zealand's interests'." She sees "huge parallels" with Blair, who has just won a third term in Britain despite lagging in the polls, after the Conservatives fought the election on tax cuts and immigration.

Surely she must be nervous to be trailing National at this stage? "No, I'm very calm and very focused," she says. "I think what happened is that other parties expected an early election, for no good reason, so they've gone out and spent a lot of money."

She denies Government blame for the expectations of tax cuts in the Budget, which has significantly contributed to Labour's downfall, and insists that in this month's "period of consolidation" Labour will be able to remind voters what it has achieved in health, education, jobs and support for the elderly.

"It's a question of 'hold your nerve and get out there and put your case'. It's about 'who do you trust to run the show?' The election is a test of credibility for the National Party."

At home in Napier, Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen says he does not detect the same public need for change as in 1990. He acknowledges he should have dampened down overhyped expectations around Budget tax cuts: "The one thing that really pisses me off is this notion that I talked up the Budget on tax. Where I fell down was not killing the hype."

But he believes the explanation for Labour's woes is the culmination of smaller problems, such as the scholarship exams, 111 responses, the bullying accusation against David Benson-Pope and John Tamihere's troubles. "There were a lot of things, none of them by themselves world-shattering, but they knocked chips off us bit by bit. Then I think the initial reaction to the Budget around the tax issue just kind of crystallised that." The silver lining, he says, is that marketable parts of the Budget, such as the workplace savings scheme and first-home-buyer assistance, that were swamped by the tax talk, can feature in the campaign.

At the same time, National is "hugely exposed" by the danger of raising expectations about its proposed tax cuts, he says.

"We do think Helen will outperform Brash in the campaign, because he gets quite confused when he's under pressure and starts shifting his ground."

Labour has alerted supporters to the danger it might lose the election and Cullen wants to warn pensioners not to assume Winston Peters will support a Labour-led government.

Unsurprisingly, Peters is scathing of Labour's criticisms, saying the "two old parties" are now struggling. "For God's sake, you can't be number 40 in the world for per capita income - you can't have this permanent slide under the old parties - without people stopping trusting them any more. "

National leader Don Brash is also in campaign mode, joining Clark in Queenstown yesterday for the Winter Festival. He accepts the old aphorism - "oppositions don't win elections, government's lose 'em" - but says the Opposition has to be ready and waiting with a credible alternative.

"I hesitate to criticise my predecessor, but I think we weren't able to get across in 2002 the important differences there were."

Despite his party's belief his credentials as former Reserve Bank Governor give him credibility, he says he does not want to engage in a presidential-style campaign. "People will be looking to see if Don Brash is a potential leader and I think the role I played at the Reserve Bank will help in that regard, but I'm not interested in making it a vindictive campaign against Helen Clark."

But Victoria University political scientist Jon Johansson says Brash's personality and credibility will be critical to the result. "I defy anybody to say, including the National Party, how Brash is going to perform during the campaign and how strong the new levels of support are."

Former Jim Bolger press secretary turned TVNZ lobbyist, Richard Griffin, says voters may be bored with Labour. He says he tried to persuade Bolger "not to play the PM" when campaigning - advice the current Government should heed, he says. "They have to forget they're prime minister and minister of finance and go back to the public as petitioners. You have to engage at a visceral level, respecting the voter and asking them for support." Labour should be stressing its record of stability in a time of minority Government: "You have to applaud them for the lack of divisiveness in the country. People are not so angry with the Government that they want them out."

- additional reporting Sarah Catherall

- HERALD ON SUNDAY

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