Editorial: Bill English has 8 months to answer Labour's challenge

The naming of election day always intensifies the focus on politics, which is probably one reason prime ministers, until recently, delayed the announcement as long as they decently could. Another reason was to deny opposing parties a clear schedule for their election preparations. Neither consideration loomed large for John Key who declared the date at the outset of election year and Bill English followed suit this week. The practice has much to commend it.

Key may be one of the first to benefit this year. Now that the election has been set down for September 23, he can leave Parliament anytime after March 23 without triggering a byelection in Helensville. The six-month rule could also provide an early departure for David Cunliffe in New Lynn. It is a commentary on how quickly things change that both major party leaders at the last election will be gone by this one.

English appears to be hoping nothing else has changed on his side. His election date is almost the same as the last one, and set for the same reason - to clear the calendar later in the year for a Prime Minister's usual attendance at international meetings.

But it also means National's campaign organisers can dust off the planning itinerary that has worked well for them twice before.

On the other side, Andrew Little will be hoping that everything has changed. He will not be repeating much that Cunliffe did to take Labour to its lowest ebb at elections for a long while. Little is clearly a different personality and his strategy already differs from Cunliffe's in one important way. Cunliffe kept Labour at a distance from the Greens, Little intends to present the country with a ready-made coalition. He and Green Party leaders have addressed each other's conferences and staged a joint "State of the Nation" event this week.

Little's speech contained a challenging line that the country had a new Prime Minister but not a leader. He cited English's absence from Waitangi, his ducking the Mt Albert byelection and failure to fire a "failed" housing minister, Nick Smith. But what Little really meant was, English is still following in the footsteps of Key. Little will be hoping English will take the bait and do something to distinguish himself from National's sure-footed previous leader.

Perhaps he should. It would carry some risk when the economy continues to be in good shape and the country, after the initial shock, has adjusted comfortably to Key's departure. But with the Budget surpluses that appeared late last year, the country can move into a different phase. Continuing strong immigration requires infrastructure and public services to keep pace. That was one of the reasons English gave for the boost in police numbers that he made the centrepiece of his "State of the Nation" speech this week.

But more police was not exactly an electrifying idea from a new Prime Minister. It would be good to see an initiative on housing affordability, which could be the big issue at the election, especially if interest rates are rising steadily. As finance minister, English re-aligned social spending to measurable reductions in state dependence and long term fiscal savings. As Prime Minister he can hang his hat on that effort but needs to make it more visible to voters. He has eight months to do something distinctive.

- NZ Herald

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