John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Key in for cruisy ride over a bumpy road

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Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

Now we know what "BMW" really stands for - Beehive Money Wasters.

The prevailing mood of the public will be one of resignation after yet more excess at the public trough - this time the Government's decision to flog off its fleet of 34 chauffeur-driven ministerial BMW's and replace them with new models little more than three years after the purchase of the initial batch.

No matter how hard it tried to spin the supposed cost savings from the Internal Affairs Department's deal with BMW, the Government was fighting a hopeless cause.

And it knew it. Cabinet ministers shuffled uneasily in their seats in Parliament as Green MP Sue Kedgley catalogued the optional extras available with the latest model.

Would ministers be partaking of the massaging seats which relax the shoulders and spine? What about the four air-conditioning units? Or the 16 high-performance speakers. Or the DVD player in the back seat?

As has been the case so often this parliamentary term, when it comes to fiscal rectitude at home, National has been caught out to lunch courtesy of the taxpayer.

Making things worse was the bumbling fashion in which National tried to knock down the story.

One moment the public was told there was no choice but to take up the repurchase option in the deal. The next the Government was saying it was not obliged to do so.

Ministers swore black and blue that they knew nothing of the decision and that it had been made by the department. Then it was revealed one minister had written to another last December telling his colleague of the decision.

It took the Beehive two full days to supply some figures to back up its claim that it was a good deal, even though National had spent much of the week saying that if it was a mess it was the last Labour Government's fault.

Basking in the auburn aura of Julia Gillard, John Key - who has responsibility for the VIP fleet as the person in charge of ministerial services - for once seemed to take his eyes off the ball.

Even counting the positives flowing from the visit by his Australian counterpart, this was a rough week for National.

It is said that explaining is losing. If so, National ministers were losing big time as they were forced to explain away failings in job training programmes and less than spectacular results from their much-vaunted boot camps.

Key, meanwhile, had to intervene after two of his minor-party ministers, Rodney Hide and Pita Sharples, bickered again over Maori representation on the Auckland Council.

Such bushfires come and go. Perhaps more worrying for National was a TV3 poll registering two-to-one opposition to National's plan to partially privatise some state-owned enterprises, such as Solid Energy and Genesis.

Labour has been pushing the issue hard, so it will take considerable heart from that result.

The question is, how much of an issue is it really?

National claims its private polling is picking up a far more positive reaction. It believes Labour is misreading the depth of the opposition.

This is Labour's conundrum. The electorate is like a giant sponge which, without much fuss, soaks up whatever Key and National throws at it - good or bad.

Labour is struggling to find salient, vote-shifting issues. The reason can be found in ground-breaking analysis by a couple of British political scientists in the 1960s.

They found that for an issue to have a strong effect on voting behaviour, it must meet three conditions.

The two major parties must have clearly differing policies. Public opinion must be skewed heavily one way or the other. And people must feel strongly about the issue.

Winston Peters' campaign against Asian immigration in the 1990s is the classic example.

New Zealand First was a lone voice. Public opinion was skewed against more Asians entering the country. And people were passionate in their opposition to that.

When it comes to partial privatisation, Labour's opposition and the skewed findings of the TV3 poll meet the first two conditions of "saliency". But there is little sign of the public getting angry.

Take another vexed question with which National has been grappling - the foreshore and seabed.

Here opinion is highly skewed at the extremes - the Coastal Coalition claims National is giving large stretches of the coastline to Maori, while Maori say the tests for securing customary title are too tough. Although slightly uneasy, the bulk of Pakeha voters are also confused by the complexities and simply want the matter to go away. What is termed "attitude formation" is therefore relatively low.

There is another reason the issue has not flared to the extent it did in 2004. Though Labour now opposes National's legislation, the two parties aren't that far apart.

Even the parties trying to milk the issue - Act and NZ First - have struggled to get traction. They are handicapped by the vociferous response from large chunks of Maoridom.

The more Maori complain, the more confident the vast majority of Pakeha feel National has got it largely right.

However, there is one issue on which Labour might yet gain traction - the seemingly ever-escalating cost of living. Public opinion is heavily skewed against price rises, especially when wage growth is so sluggish.

Labour thinks National is vulnerable and is tailoring policies - such as removing GST on fresh fruit and vegetables - to exploit that. Tellingly, National has reacted with an investigation into the price of milk.

But National believes Labour is pitching its policies and its messages generally too far down the income scale. There is surprise Phil Goff is not moving Labour more to the right to capture the political centre.

That belief was reinforced by Gillard's presence. Goff tried to claim the leader of the Australian Labor Party as a kindred spirit. In fact, she is possibly further to the right than Key.

For now, however, Goff may be reinforcing Labour's core vote before targeting middle New Zealand, which is starting to hurt.

And when middle New Zealand starts to hurt, it does not take kindly to being lectured about fiscal stringency from the back seats of flash new $200,000 limousines.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

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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