John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Key gets edgy as the blunder-bus rolls on

Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Still reeling from their public caning over the now-axed rejigging of class sizes and teacher numbers, National Party ministers got a blunt talking-to from the Prime Minister at last Monday's Cabinet meeting.

John Key's message was that National - and that included him - had to tighten up. It had to drastically sharpen up its game. The wider National caucus also got the same message.

It is not before time. National's seemingly endless trials and tribulations might suggest otherwise, but the party does have a second-term strategy.

It is conscious that at the next election it will be judged on what it has achieved after six years in power. That is a much higher hurdle to clear than it faced last year.

National's strategy has accordingly been to push ahead with less than popular reforms for the first year or so of its second term and then ease back quite some time before the 2014 election.

As polling day rolls closer, the results of the earlier graft will become evident across a range of portfolios, which will underline the Government's substance and competence. Or at least that is the theory.

The most obvious example is the target of Budget surplus by the end of the 2014-15 year. With all bets off regarding the global economy - and consequently huge uncertainty about New Zealand's growth prospects - Finance Minister Bill English has little choice but to take forecast gains in tax revenue with a grain of salt.

Reaching surplus by the target date is going to require ever tighter control of Government spending - but without being so contractionary it throws the economy into deep recession. Whatever, it is going to mean more pain in the interim. That means National sacrificing some of its political capital now in return for much bigger reward later.

What National has not bargained on is the current level of turmoil possibly draining off more political capital than it can really afford.

In the space of barely five months, the Key-led National minority Government has gone from bullet-proof to bullet-riddled.

Since late January, when the political year started, National has stumbled from blunder to mini-crisis to embarrassment.

Almost without fail - two exceptions being welfare and (so far) local government reform - National has tended to end up on the losing side of the argument.

Even when the Government managed to set the political agenda - the case with its round of pre-Budget spending announcements - it all ended disastrously in the row over class sizes.

The problems have ranged from the banal - Gerry Brownlee's one-man war against Finland which required an apology from Key to Helsinki - to calamities like the resignation of Nick Smith.

There have been the near-scandals and consequent demands for inquiries, which National has refused to satisfy - another bad look.

Some of the distractions and sideshows will have already been forgotten. But some will stick long in the public's consciousness. These include the arguments over asset sales and raising the age of entitlement for national superannuation. On both, National is very much in the minority.

The miracle is that National's poll rating has proved to be so robust in the face of the torrent of misfortune, much of it self-inflicted. But the lag in shifts in support away from National may have deluded ministers into thinking they were immune from political realities and they could get away with things that other governments would not have touched.

When it comes to second term-itis, National has gone through the four stages of denial. First, it is not happening. Then, it might be happening but there is nothing that is going to affect the polls. Then, it is happening and it might be affecting the polls but we'll tough it out. Finally, it is happening and it is having a big effect on the polls and what on earth are we going to do about it?

National is now oscillating between the third and fourth stages.

That was evident this week in Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce initially seeing no reason why the Government could not sign a deal with SkyCity even though the "extra pokies in exchange for a national convention centre" proposal is now subject to an investigation by the Office of the Auditor-General .

Joyce spent the remainder of Wednesday afternoon slowly retreating from that stance, which became completely untenable the next morning after Key indicated the Government would be careful not to render the inquiry null and void.

That was a minor kerfuffle compared with the body count at ACC.

National needed another week of negative publicity like a hole in the head. But progress has been made.

When voters head for the polling booths in late 2014, however, they will not be dwelling on the ins-and-outs of the Bronwyn Pullar case.

They will be judging National on its overall competence as the governing party. Whether people have regained confidence in ACC will be one of numerous factors that will go into the mix. That confidence was slowly ebbing away as the perception grew that ACC was becoming just another tight-fisted insurer consumed with the bottom line rather than claimants' concerns.

The rapid turnaround in the corporation's finances accentuated that perception - as did leaked ACC documents which talked of a post-Labour Government "culture change" that would put more focus on financial management of the scheme and less on the customer.

Now there is to be another "culture change". It is not clear whether that will mean ACC will no longer be what Labour's Andrew Little calls an "ideological plaything" for National.

ACC Minister Judith Collins, has given mixed signals on that.

But National would be wise to remember that about 35 per cent of New Zealanders make an ACC claim in any one year.

National could - but won't - thank party stalwart Michelle Boag for underlining ACC's obligations.

Pullar's case embodies all that is wrong with the corporation. But her plight would never have got into the spotlight without what might be described as Boag's unorthodox deployment of her formidable combination of public relations and political skills.

The killer blow came in last Sunday night's 60 Minutes programme.

The impact of Pullar's description of her treatment at the hands of ACC and the corporation's refusal to respond to her allegations meant it was only a question of when, not if, ACC chairman John Judge would be summoned to see Collins, the Beehive's version of Madame Guillotine. Heads simply had to roll. And they did.

- 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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