National's annual conference was not short of protests. But the protests were embarrassingly short of protesters.

Contrary to the impression given by some accounts, the 400 or so party faithful did not spend their weekend cowering inside Auckland's SkyCity Convention Centre behind a not-so-thin blue line of police.

The police showed up in significant number; the protesters did not. Yesterday morning's all-comers rally against everything National stands for drew a total of 79 people - it may well have been counter-productive.

John Key and his senior ministers will take the paucity of protesters as confirming National is on side with majority public opinion in pushing ahead with controversial policies such as more welfare reform and much more oil and mineral exploration.

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National believes - or rather its polling is telling it - that most voters are now desperately hungry for serious economic growth. The environment has become very much a secondary concern.

And so the message hammered by ministers went something like this: "We know we have not handled some things well in the past six months. But those things were sideshows and distractions.

"We know it is the fundamentals that matter to you - balancing the books, building a better economy, cutting crime, raising education standards, providing more elective surgery in hospitals, fixing Christchurch.

"You know you can trust us to deliver on those fundamentals. We're getting on with the job."

Judging from the number of times the phrase was repeated by the Prime Minister and Finance Minister Bill English, "getting on with the job" is National's new mantra.

Steven Joyce put things more bluntly. Delivering the best speech of the weekend, the Economic Development Minister offered a stark choice.

If New Zealanders wanted more jobs, they would have to stop being fearful of foreign investment, accept the "intensification of agriculture" and not forgo oil and mineral exploration.

In short, New Zealanders might have "to do a few things that make us uncomfortable".

The alternative was to heed the "snake-oil salesmen" from Labour and the Greens who pretended you could block all development and still create jobs.

National seems to have turned a corner after its buffeting of the first six months of the year, but one thing is different: backing for Labour and the Greens now makes such a two-party coalition government a distinct possibility.

Not so long ago, the Greens and National were playing political footsie. In Key's eyes, the Greens were "green Greens" back then. Now they are "red Greens" who would block every initiative to move the country forward in economic terms.

It is an old tactic. National is trying to scare middle-ground voters away from Labour by portraying the latter as hostage to the Greens. The Greens may no longer fit the loony-tunes stereotype National is trying to recreate for them.

But that won't stop National trying.

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