Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Key's sortie into enemy territory outflanks rival

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John Key was warm and respectful but at times appeared belligerent. Photo / Mark Mitchell
John Key was warm and respectful but at times appeared belligerent. Photo / Mark Mitchell

I attended the Council of Trade Unions biennial conference in Wellington this week. It was the first time in a decade that trade union barons turned up when Labour wasn't in power.

Previously Helen Clark arrived feted by an adoring constituency with the prerequisite standing ovations. There's a new sheriff in town and we had for the first time, I'm told, a leader of the National Party turning up in the enemy's territory as the main guest.

It must have stuck in Labour leader Phil Goff's craw that John Key got prime billing on the first day while he had to share the second day with the Greens' Russel Norman.

Some of the old Labour diehards muttered about threatening a walk-out and other mutinous acts.

However, when Key breezed in confidently to address the assembled masses, worker class discipline ensured and civility was maintained.

Key finished his speech, bravely took questions from the floor and good-humouredly responded to all attacks. When one union, aligned strongly with the Labour Party, blamed him for its current pay problems he reminded them he'd been the Prime Minister for a year during a recession whereas Labour had governed for the past nine years when there were surpluses.

Key cheerfully suggested that maybe the blame for their low wages was best directed to the Labour Party. That shut them up.

It was my first opportunity to assess both Key and Goff as presenters and leaders. Key was at the top of his game - warm, respectful, self-assured.

You would be, too, I suppose, if three out of every four New Zealanders rate you favourably while Goff barely has one in four on his side. National Party support on 60 per cent has never been higher. No wonder Key had no fear of turning up.

He exuded confidence and sometimes even bordered on belligerence. When union boss Andrew Little queried the Government's intention over ACC Key dodged the question.

Instead, he jabbed a cheap shot at Little, who is also the Labour Party president, referring to him as the next leader of that party.

Key's reason for fudging questions on ACC's future became clear later in the day when he announced publicly the first step down the privatisation road.

Another nasty little barb came when teachers raised concerns about low-paid school support staff. Key airily suggested that they might like to collectively take a pay cut and give it to their poorer workmates if they were so concerned.

But his flippant dismissiveness aside, his support for low-paid workers seems heartfelt and genuine. Key isn't a great political orator but came across as decent and likable. Only a fool would believe Key can be taken out by Goff any time soon.

Goff is a polished performer and his speech the following day pushed all the right buttons for his audience. He is a man under pressure but he's a pro from way back.

However, I couldn't help feeling Goff's delivery was a campaign stump speech written by one of his staff. Unlike Key, it felt that he was talking at the audience rather than to it.

Trevor Mallard was a distraction sitting behind Goff all through his speech, visibly chewing gum like some sort of goon from central casting.

Maybe Labour's image consultants could have a word with their in-house gangster next time he accompanies his new leader.

Half of the conference were probably members of Goff's party but at the end of his speech Goff had to settle for polite applause. Goff has a big job ahead of him. Even his fan base can't get excited.

And while we're on about big political challenges Aucklanders, are your Energy Consumer Trust ballots on your kitchen fridge?

Manukau Mayor Len Brown and ARC Chairman Mike Lee both support the centre-left PowerLynk, headed by Shale Chambers. So do I.

Their right-wing opponents won previously because they promised public ownership. After they were elected they sold a quarter of the shares.

This sort of treachery shouldn't be rewarded. Mail your ballot by Wednesday. Election closes Friday.

- HERALD ON SUNDAY

- Herald on Sunday

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