John Armstrong: Key's mantra: Focus on essentials

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Prime Minister John Key arrives with his wife Bronagh at the National Party Conference held at the SkyCity Convention Centre. Photo / Dean Purcell.
Prime Minister John Key arrives with his wife Bronagh at the National Party Conference held at the SkyCity Convention Centre. Photo / Dean Purcell.

The National Party's annual conference was less a conference and more a weekend-long marketing of "Brand National" as the only way to guarantee economic salvation in the short-term and economic nirvana over the long-term.

The 600 or so delegates packed into Auckland's SkyCity convention centre were effectively there as wallpaper. Their role was reduced to providing plentiful applause as Cabinet minister after Cabinet minister listed his or her achievements in portfolios which had some connection to growing the economy. It was a case of being heard and not seen - and then only on cue.

The delegates could not have given a hoot about that. Few governing parties anywhere in the world have gone into a mid-term conference with such a massive lead in the polls.

The election may still be 16 months away, but, as the Prime Minister reminded the conference, the sudden drop in the popularity of Australia's Labor Government was a lesson in how quickly things could change.

But neither factor could prick the ebullient mood of the conference that a second term in power is now there for National's taking.

But not as of right. The warnings of the dangers of complacency from party president Peter Goodfellow - who easily fended off the challenge to oust him - were unnecessary.

From the Prime Minister downwards, the conference exuded a palpable determination to keep things going exactly the way they are. One word was mouthed repeatedly - "focused", as in staying relentlessly so.

In John Key's book, National's current success is the result of staying focused on the "things that matter" for people - the economy, law and order, education standards, hospital waiting lists and so on. National is honouring its commitments. National is delivering. While no voter would agree with everything National had done, Key argues it is National's total package which is swaying voters to stick with the party.

The word "pragmatic" was also on high-rotate in the Prime Minister's vocabulary. In Key's dictionary, "pragmatic" is not a dirty word.

Thus did he describe yesterday's announcements on the 90-day probation period being extended to all workplaces, changes to the Holidays Act, and more employer-friendly personal grievance procedures as pragmatic.

He really meant practical and moderate. The trade-union and other activists who tried to invade the conference would beg to differ. They will view yesterday's announcement as Key taking the slow road to reviving the Employment Contracts Act despite his assurances to the contrary.

They see National as reviving its radical right-wing agenda of the 1990s. The only difference is the speed.

As one speaker told the trade-union rally, because National is not engaging in a policy blitzkrieg does not mean that is not happening.

But it is not as simple as that.

Key would argue that the unions are looking at things too much through a rear-view mirror, and the public is moving in tandem with the Government's economic reform agenda.

But it is also Key's pragmatism that sees the Government moving at different speeds in different policy areas, advancing here and retreating there as he assesses the way public opinion is moving.

High polling may have acted like steroids on other National Party leaders when it came to driving policy. But Key is different. He has no compunction about retreating if things get too hot.

And just how far he is capable of retreating will be easily measured this week when the Cabinet revises its plans on the mining of high-value parts of the Conservation estate.

- NZ Herald

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