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Rodney Hide: Key is a serious contender

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John Key. Photo / NZ Herald
John Key. Photo / NZ Herald

One of the more common and basic mistakes to make in politics is to underestimate your opponent. It's an easy thing to do. Your opponents are doing it all wrong and so must be either stupid or crooked and perhaps both.

Your team readily agrees and the trap is easy to fall into. And so it is with Labour and John Key.

Labour continues to dismiss Key as a political lightweight who would sell his own mother, in Labour leader David Cunliffe's words.

They overlook that Key toppled Labour's best and strongest leader, has seen off Phil Goff and David Shearer, and who Cunliffe has yet to dent. That's no political lightweight.

Labour has wrongly dismissed Key's politics as "smile and wave" when he has, in fact, led the country through the dark days of the Pike River tragedy and the Canterbury earthquakes.

He has simultaneously overseen our transition through the global financial crisis to "rock-star" economic status.

Labour pooh-poohed Key's credentials in foreign policy. He now has David Cameron's number on speed dial.

Previous New Zealand prime ministers were ecstatic for our future trade prospects with a two-minute "pull aside" at a formal meeting. Key plays golf with the President of the United States on his holidays.

Key, with no fuss, has turned over 13 of his own MPs in just two years to refresh the party. That's rare political power and skill.

Cunliffe, meanwhile, is stuck with the team that didn't want him and which includes ministers from the 1980s plus the party's two previous leaders.

Key has had none of the scandal that has mired previous administrations. He has quietly and expeditiously dealt with erring ministers before the Opposition and public were even aware there was a problem.

Key has honed his ability to communicate the Government's position in a way that we can appreciate and understand, even when we don't agree with it.

John Campbell bullied Key to front up to explain the controversial GCSB legislation. Key turned up to TV3 and took over his show. Key knew what he was talking about. Campbell didn't.

It was stunning television and an extraordinary display of political and media skill. Helen Clark was good but not that good. She was reduced to calling Campbell a "sanctimonious little creep".

Kiwis are overwhelmingly positive about the year ahead. In the last Colmar Brunton Poll, 57 per cent of New Zealanders thought they would be better off in 12 months.

Only 24 per cent thought they would be worse off. The positives outnumber the negatives two-to-one.

In the comparable poll in the same part of the election cycle for Helen Clark, only 32 per cent thought they would be better off and 40 per cent thought they would be worse off. There were more negatives than positives.

It is historically difficult to topple a government with voters overwhelmingly thinking they will be better off. Voters thinking positively don't want to rock the boat. That would be putting their own prosperity at risk.

Clark was a very popular prime minister. Her average in the preferred prime minister stakes was almost 2 times her predecessor Jim Bolger's. That's an extraordinary achievement. But Key's is even more extraordinary. His average is fully 10 percentage points above Clark's.

That's a 25 per cent advantage.

Labour has taken to calling Key lucky. They persist in underestimating him. It's like they just have to wait until his luck runs out.

I got to work with Key. It's not luck. This is a man who is smart, who works hard and who understands people.

Of course, Labour can beat him. On performance that shouldn't be possible. But it's MMP. It's looking a very close election.

But Labour won't beat him by underestimating him. One thing is sure: Key won't be underestimating Cunliffe or just how tough a job he has this election.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- Herald on Sunday

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