John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: National defies the pundits

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John Key may need to change his media strategy before the gloss really starts to rub off. Photo / NZ Herald
John Key may need to change his media strategy before the gloss really starts to rub off. Photo / NZ Herald

For months they have been saying the gloss has gone, that John Key wasn't smiling anymore, the second-term blues had set in.

They had their reasons. The election campaign had been derailed by the teapot tapes, it was closely followed by the approval of the Crafar farms sale, which was not only unpopular but became embarrassing when the High Court found the stated grounds unsound.

What else? The Maori Party forced a Treaty clause into legislation for the public asset sales, which are still contentious. There's been a debacle over cost-cutting in Foreign Affairs. Nick Smith's resignation. The Pullar-Boag business with ACC.

Add it all up and the Government was on the slide, wasn't it?

As it turns out, no. The first proper poll since the election was published by TVNZ last Sunday and, would you credit it, nothing has changed. National got 51 per cent of Colmar Brunton's sample, more than its 47.3 per cent at the election. Key's personal rating was down four points but still high.

The Government is fine.

Many cannot credit it. They have spent this week looking for any reason except the obvious one - that they are not in touch with the country. Rather than admit that they have misread the public mood, some of them are blaming Labour's new leader, David Shearer.

Presented with a series of government blunders, they say, Shearer has failed to capitalise.

Shearer is doing all right. He is not ranting at everything the Government does. He is biding his time, building his credibility, so that when he comes to a battle that matters he will be taken seriously.

Sometimes it's an advantage not to write from Wellington. The politicians down there get out more than some of the commentators do. Key, Shearer, Stephen Joyce and the other Aucklanders who occupy most of the front seats on both sides at Parliament were probably not astonished by the poll.

Joyce in particular, the former campaign organiser, has a well-honed sense of what matters to most people and what doesn't. He knows the difference between conversation and care.

Only two of the issues in conversation this year really disturb people in their gut. One is asset sales. Most people deeply dislike the idea of selling a profitable public service, even partially. But Key had the courage to put that one to the election and drew its sting.

The other one is the Crafar sale. It's farmland. It's China. The Overseas Investment Office approved the sale a long time before the election but the politics of it were too hot. Key waited until he was re-elected then had it signed off quickly.

Sadly for him, the office had botched its report on the bid, doubting the best grounds for approving it and offering reasons the High Court found spurious. So the report has to be redone and the decision will be confirmed. But Sunday's poll suggests the Government will not suffer for it.

Joyce is reputed to operate on the principle that voters will forgive a government for two unpopular decisions, not three. Trust is the crucial ingredient. While trust lasts, people can respect decisions they don't like.

It is anyone's guess how long this government's trust will last. Key's business credentials are respected but his personal qualities are just as important.

Key is the most popular prime minister I can remember. Helen Clark was respected, Jim Bolger was accepted, David Lange was a barrel of fun, Muldoon was feared even by his admirers, Kirk was charismatic but complex, Holyoake was just there.

Key is genuinely popular, I think, because he is not afraid to be himself. He defies the wisdom of politics that says to never put on a funny hat.

Despite his business credentials, he is completely without conceit. He is so well-grounded that not only could he model a World Cup uniform and camp it up, he accepted the criticism of commentators who took a typically dim view of it.

Key's equilibrium was strangely shaken by the teapot tape incident in the election campaign. He seems deeply, personally hurt and admits to no regrets at bringing in the police, though it overshadowed the rest of his campaign.

His reaction was reminiscent of Helen Clark in her first campaign as prime minister when she was ambushed by John Campbell on TV3 over what became known as Corngate.

Like Clark in her first term, Key possibly forgot that media are not your friends. They may like you and praise your success but they are loyal to their craft.

Like Clark, Key might benefit from the lesson. He might finally realise when speaking to the press that less is more, and that the public can see too much of the same face. He should consider this before the gloss really begins to wear off.

- NZ Herald

John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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