John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: And who emerges brightest star of all

John Key and David Shearer. File photo / NZ Herald
John Key and David Shearer. File photo / NZ Herald

So who eclipsed whom? The Super Thursday alignment of the heavens, which had the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition delivering major direction-setting speeches on the same day, produced the expected Super Ministry but not the anticipated Supernova.

It was less stellar explosions and more a case of each leader pretending to ignore the existence of the other.

What the day did reveal is that when it comes to a vision for the country, John Key and David Shearer are not that far apart. The argument is about how to get there.

National has its "Brighter Future" - a branding device which seemed to have a mesmeric effect on Shearer who kept tripping over it in his post-speech press conference when he should have been stressing his clumsier "new New Zealand". A visitor from Mars could have been excused thinking they had wandered on to the set of a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

It was a rather different Key yesterday compared to the one who talked up his speech a few weeks ago. The final version indicated his willingness to talk about job cuts in the public service has been exhausted.

The Prime Minister instead wanted to get the message across that further restructuring would, for now, be restricted to the merger of four ministries into one super Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

What will be revolutionary is the new emphasis on creating a "results-driven"' public service which will set targets such as increasing the number of 18-year-olds with NCEA level two from 65 per cent to 85 per cent within five years.

It is a positive move which is better late than never. A requirement that there be six-monthly or 12-monthly reports on progress on reaching targets - the Cabinet has yet to decide - will make it harder for the minister and departmental chief to escape accountability if they are failing.

That makes such measures of progress politically risky. Meeting targets, however, could equally bring political rewards for National.

What is hidden in this reform is the growing centralisation of bureaucratic power in the hands of the Prime Minister's Department, the Treasury and the State Services Commission - the three-headed hydra which the Government's advisers suggested should be the "corporate head office" of the state services which means more power residing in the hands of the PM and Minister of Finance.

This being Shearer's first outing on the rubber chicken circuit, it was difficult to know whether his audience was getting the genuine article or the Bodysnatchers double. At times - most notably with his promise to put badly run schools on notice and his mention of the responsibilities as well as the rights of beneficiaries - he sounded like he was auditioning for a seat around National's Cabinet table.

He certainly dropped enough hints that he wants to reposition Labour rightwards and towards the centre of the political spectrum. But he was not the winner yesterday.

Neither was Key. That prize goes to Steven Joyce, whose firm grip on the Economic Development portfolio will give him the crucial lead role in overviewing the work of the new super ministry. Watch out, Treasury.

- NZ Herald

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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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