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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Year ends on a high note for National

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Government's good news may be missed in the festive rush

You can count on three questions of national and international note dominating conversations when those of a political bent gather around the barbecue during the Christmas-New Year break.

The first is who should replace Geoff Robinson on Morning Report. The second is whether Radio New Zealand will use the change in presenters as an opportunity to simultaneously dump the funereal dirge which passes for the programme's theme tune. (And while they are at it, could they please pension off the bird as well.)

The final question is how long will it be before Harry Styles parts company with the other members of One Direction and embarks on an even more lucrative solo career?

The latter question may sound even more trivial and silly than the others.

But it would have more relevance to more people than does the matter of who will succeed John Banks as Act's leader, even if the bulk of those concerned for the future of the Brit band's resident heart-throb are far too young to vote.

Nevertheless, this example, as left field as it may seem, is evidence of something which the political junkies within the Wellington Beltway always underestimate. It is what political scientists refer to as "the remoteness of politics".

For the great bulk of the people, politics does not matter most of the time. They have other things occupying their lives.

The remoteness of politics is a critical factor in answering the question which will be really taxing the minds of politicos over the summer holidays: which party is going to win next year's general election?

National's opponents have long worked on the assumption that John Key's Government - like all Administrations - will inevitably be ground down and worn out by the failings which destroy all Governments ultimately - namely the accumulation of mistakes, embarrassments, duplicity, expedience, arrogance and (the real killer) the feeling that from the Prime Minister down the Administration is no longer listening.

Things reach a tipping point where a clear majority of voters deem a Government has reached its use-by date. At that point it is as good as being all over. There is no way back.

Labour and its allies have seen their task as one of hastening that decline and ultimate fall. Because Key is the embodiment of National's ongoing success, Labour has devoted considerable effort to pinning the blame on him when things go wrong or look dodgy.

In order to ping Key, Labour has become far too consumed by the minutiae of day-to-day political conflict which largely passes most people by.

Unfortunately for Labour, the Prime Minister - assisted by poll data - has an instinctive and almost always accurate ability to diagnose what is really unnerving voters amid which issues he must tackle and those he can safely afford to ignore.

And that means not being too prissy about how he goes about it.

It means ensuring that in their portfolio work, Cabinet ministers are almost always on the side of majority public opinion.

Be it the number of non-urgent operations carried out by hospitals, the crime rate, prodding welfare beneficiaries back to work or building new roads to unclog Auckland's traffic - things which really do matter to people - Key and National devote considerable attention, effort and resources to getting it right.

As long as National continues to focus on such fundamentals, all the huffing and puffing provoked by matters like Key's handling of legislation covering the security agencies pale into relative insignificance as far as many voters are concerned.

Such things are treated as the flotsam and jetsam of political life.

Key has been helped by David Cunliffe seeking to reassert Labour's dominance of the centre-left since taking over his party's leadership.

The latter's forays into National-occupied territory to Labour's right have so far been comparatively rare. But Cunliffe will have to do battle there and come up with necessarily attractive policies with which to do it.

The upshot of Labour's failure to engage in such fashion is reflected in yesterday's Herald-DigiPoll survey. The centre-left parties are in no better position than they were at the start of the year.

National seemingly continues to defy political gravity. While Cunliffe is going to be a much more difficult proposition for Key to handle than were the former's predecessors, there is no reason why National's poll ratings should not remain at such stellar heights.

Even so, prior to this week - effectively the final gasp of the political year - the lingering feeling was that despite National's astonishing record of sustaining near-miracle levels of support after five-plus years in the job, the centre-right will still fall short of securing sufficient seats to govern. At which point, Key's and National's fate will more than likely at best hang on the tender mercy of Winston Peters.

This week, however, provided fresh sustenance to the view that National can hold on to power after the 2014 election.

It was an astonishingly positive week for the Government, its only disappointment being that all the good news would have passed most people by in the Christmas rush.

In his speeches, Cunliffe likes to say a Labour Government he leads will not be afraid to use the powers of the state to intervene where a market fails. Well, someone else got there first.

His name is John Key. His sacrifice of his party's ideology to cut a deal with Twentieth-Century Fox to ensure the further Avatar movies are filmed in New Zealand illustrated Key's willingness to undercut Labour and leave that party punching at air.

The following day's fiscal update also offered Labour little to complain about given its rosy growth forecasts and confirmation National remained on track for Budget surplus by mid-2015 - something which will give National huge cachet with voters.

The clincher came on Thursday. The Treasury's growth forecasts have frequently turned out to be little more than mirages. Not so the latest official gross domestic product figures which had economic growth hitting a giddy 3.5 per cent in the September year.

You can quibble that much of it was the result of post-drought resumption of dairy production.

But nothing could wipe the mixture of utter jubilation and sheer relief on Bill English's face in a post-announcement video filmed by his office.

Here, at last, was the vindication in concrete for his modus operandi as Finance Minister; here, after five tough years, was the dividend he must have at times wondered would ever come.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

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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