Audrey Young

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Election 2011: Head to head with National

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

As the 2011 election campaign begins, our political reporters examine the state of the two main parties, National and Labour

It seems a little unusual that John Key's highlight of his first term as Prime Minister has been shepherding New Zealand through a series of disasters like the global financial crisis and Christchurch earthquake.

Then again, what else was he going to say four weeks out from an election: Going to the Royal wedding? Getting to the Oval Office, finally? Standing next to the guy who presented Richie McCaw with the Rugby World Cup?

Imagine what his opponents would make of that.

Management is at the core of National's identity, be it economic management or crisis management.

Its strategists will not be crass enough to make campaign ads about the way it has handled disasters.

But given that handling disasters has been such a defining feature of the past three years, its management of them won't be ignored by National during the campaign period.

It needs to be handled with sensitivity but it is not sacred ground. After all, Labour turned the Christchurch earthquake relief into an election issue some time ago with alternative policies.

Key ran a very safe campaign last election. He had been National leader for only two years and his inexperience in politics was seen as a potential risk.

It turned out to be an advantage against a government that had held power for nine years. Having been a highly popular Prime Minister now for three years, Key can afford to take a risk or two.

But that is not how National runs campaigns.

This time, as last time, it aims to be steady and safe with as few shocks as possible, not much tub-thumping, just pushing its particular messages each day and trying to keep its candidates on message.

The biggest risks were calculated some time ago and its most controversial policy, the partial sell-off of five state assets, was announced in January this year in a bid to let the steam of opposition run out before the campaign.

Likewise with the privatisation of ACC, National is playing a long game. It spread its promises over two election cycles: review the work account this term and introduce competition next term.

It has just repeated that process with other accounts: review the motor vehicle account and non-work related injury account next term and campaign on any recommendations at the 2014 election.

On the issue of reform of the benefit system, National calculated that the electorate is so receptive to change, it left its response to the welfare working group report to be a centre-piece of National's campaign.

Getting the books back into surplus by 2014-15 has become the simple mantra of National's fiscal plan, a message that sounds positive despite requiring a "very, very, very austere programme" as Key himself described it.

National will also campaign on its record, finishing the term pretty much having done what it said it would do.

Even Standard & Poor's Kyran Curry says that New Zealand governments tend to do what they say they are going to do.

Curry was the analyst who, when contacted by the Herald, contradicted Key's claim that S&P said a ratings downgrade was more likely under a Labour government.

The episode was an embarrassment for Key but a rare one.

Perhaps the biggest advantage National has over Labour this campaign, besides a popular Prime Minister, is the continuity in the campaign leadership team.

It's the third time minster Steven Joyce, campaign chairman and Jo de Joux, campaign manager, have teamed up to run National's campaign.

She has had experience in the party's research unit, has worked for David Carter, and at party headquarters and as each election has gone on, she has taken on more operational responsibility.

Their first campaign in 2005, National's party vote lifted from 20.93 per cent to 39.1 per cent and the second time, the party gained power.

National's party organisation has been prone to infighting especially around Auckland. It intensified in Opposition, but diminished once the party achieved Government.

Party president Peter Goodfellow had strong internal critics when he took over in August 2009 but is slowly winning respect with a business-like approach to the job.

After a poorly run byelection in Mt Albert, in 2009, it ran a better one in Mana a year ago.

And that is one of the seats it thinks it could take from Labour, others being Palmerston North and Rimutaka.

It is also putting a lot of energy into keeping some of the seats it won off Labour last time including New Plymouth, Auckland Central and Waitakere.

National enters the campaign in good shape with a popular leader, with a large lead in the polls and history on its side. There hasn't been a one-term government since the 1972-1975 Labour Government.

Key in his own words

On differences in a second term
New Zealanders know what they're getting with National. If we win a second term, we'll continue our plan to make the most of New Zealand's opportunities. We'll get back to surplus in three years and pay down debt. And we'll continue to focus on the economy, which is forecast to grow by more than 3 per cent next year, so it delivers better incomes for New Zealanders.

On highlights of his first term
We've given New Zealand clear and decisive leadership through the global financial crisis and recession, the Canterbury earthquakes and a number of other challenges the country's faced. In the end, it's been New Zealanders who've dealt with the impacts of these events, but we've been there to support them with the right decisions to steer the country through these difficulties.

On closing the gap with Australia
This is a big challenge that's been 40 years in the making, but we're going to continue to focus squarely on building a more competitive economy, which creates more jobs and pays higher wages. We're committed to building a country where New Zealanders can do well in their careers, and where they feel they live in a great place to bring up their families.

On voting National
New Zealanders can see we have a clear plan for the future and are capable of implementing it. Our economy's growing, and that leads to more jobs and higher wages. We'll also make sure your kids can get a world-class education, and we'll continue to boost frontline health services and stay tough on criminals.

The record
2008
- 44.93 per cent: John Key leads the party back to government and forms a minority government with Act, United Future and Maori Party.

2005 - 39.1 per cent: Don Brash revives the party but is short of 41.1 per cent for Labour, which wins third term.

2002 - 20.93 per cent: Dismal result under Bill English.

1999 - consigned to Opposition under Jenny Shipley after nine years in government.

1996 - Leader Jim Bolger forms a minority government with NZ First.

- NZ Herald

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