Rodney Hide: Keep smiling and carry on

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John Key is doing a great job of maintaining the status quo. Photo / Michael Craig
John Key is doing a great job of maintaining the status quo. Photo / Michael Craig

The job of a National Party leader is straightforward: to keep Labour out of office.

On this measure John Key is doing a bang-up job. Even his staunchest critics agree on that.

The job of a Labour leader is much, much tougher: to reform the country - in one or another direction. The difficulty is that voters by and large don't like change. They like things just as they are.

And there is Key's great advantage: his team is happy just being in power. He doesn't have to do anything. I can't think of any big policy that Key has trumpeted and battled for.

The only Key-driven policies that come to mind are the cycleway and the flag debate. And the cycleway was last term and the flag debate is set for the next.

To win the Labour leadership, David Cunliffe had to prove himself red-hot for reform. And he did. Frighteningly so. Since then he has been bursting forth with ideas to make New Zealand a better place.

There will be baby bonuses, new rules for saving and investment, changes to Super and tax breaks for selected industries. On and on it goes. Change this, tweak that.

But Kiwis overwhelmingly don't want change. That's what Key delivers. Perfectly.

Key has stuck fast to every Clark-Cullen policy despite National's vehement opposition at their introduction. Interest-free student loans, Working for Families, the Emissions Trading Scheme.

More than that, Key has positioned National as centre-left in its policy mix. He has thereby squeezed down on Labour's vote. Cunliffe, having promised to be the red-hot reformer, can't now tack right and nor can he promise to do even less than Key. That would not be possible.

He is now flailing about promising new policy after new policy hoping that one or other of them will resonate and gain Labour traction. But here's his problem: if, perchance, he did hit upon a promised policy that gained voter support, Key would grab it and implement it. The kudos would go to Key. Key, to keep Labour out of office, will adopt any popular policy that Cunliffe hits upon.

That's exactly what Helen Clark did in reverse. She dropped her signature Closing the Gaps policy as soon as National in opposition gained traction attacking it. She knew she had to hug the centre and be mindful of voters' desire for stability and certainty. She kept away from the Greens.

I like and admire Key. A lot. But I am frustrated by his total lack of desire to fix things. That has always struck me as the point of politics. But then I was never much chop at winning votes.

And that is the real point of politics.

- Herald on Sunday

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