John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Body blows have National reeling

70 comments
John Key. File photo / NZ Herald
John Key. File photo / NZ Herald

Is there any Auckland-based National MP who has not been lobbied, cajoled or inveigled into helping Bronwyn Pullar in her various insurance and ACC claims?

Having been briefly tainted - if only very mildly - by the stench from what has fast become a suppurating sore for National, John Key is probably not of a joking mood.

The Prime Minister would have been far from amused watching Thursday's Close Up, which revealed his name was included in a leaked list of National Party figures said to have backed Pullar's claim back in 2007 for a $14 million (yes, $14 million) payout from Sovereign Insurance following her head injury from a cycling accident five years earlier.

Whoever anonymously sent the list and associated material to Close Up - presumably to expose its detailing of the lengths former party president Michelle Boag was willing to go to help her close friend - would have known full well that the programme would focus on what, pun intended, it called the "Key connection".

That someone within National's ranks should risk dirtying the reputation of the party's biggest asset illustrates just how bitter and Machiavellian things have become in this case.

Close Up failed to prove any such connection between Pullar, a one-time National Party activist, and Key - something confirmed by Pullar herself yesterday when she said her contact with him had been only passing.

Even so, the programme was damaging enough in offering further insight into how the National Party wields influence to pulls strings behind the scenes.

Out of sight is exactly where National would have preferred Pullar's separate and longer-running battle with ACC had remained. Circumstances conspired to do otherwise. Regardless of who leaked what to whom, Boag and Judith Collins were on a collision course from the day that the latter was appointed ACC minister.

Collins was never going to allow herself to be compromised in the way Nick Smith, her predecessor, was.

It is for that reason that Collins quite properly referred Boag's email revealing Pullar's identity to ACC.

The upshot of the subsequent claims surrounding the email leak has been virtual civil war in the party.

Collins and Boag are equally provocative personalities who adopt a "take no prisoners" modus operandi, which keeps matters alive when National's best interest is to shut them down.

Labour argues, not implausibly, that the stoush cuts deeper and what we are witnessing is not so much a personal feud as a factional power struggle over who controls the party in the post-Key era.

Key does not need all this. He has enough on his plate. His Administration is starting to look punch-drunk.

To say things are untidy is an understatement. National is looking like a tired third-term Government - not one that has not long embarked on its second term.

The political year is all of two months old. It feels more like 10 months. Rather than setting the agenda, National is having the agenda set for it by others.

This began in late January with the Overseas Investment Office okaying the sale of the Crafar farms to Chinese interests.

Ministers rubber-stamped it; the High Court overruled them. That put National on the back foot. It has been stuck there ever since. The subsequent row over foreign ownership of New Zealand farmland coincided with the wrangle with the Maori Party over Treaty clauses in legislation enabling the partial privatisation of state-owned power and coal companies.

That was followed by wider argument over the merits of such sales, which was not helped by Bill English's admission that estimates of proceeds were a guess.

English also had to revise another figure downwards - the projected size of the return to surplus in the 2014-15 year. National has made progress in reaching this target, the litmus test of the success of its second term. It currently looks like nothing more than a similar guesstimate.

The mishandling of the restructuring of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has produced an unprecedented series of leaks which have severely embarrassed National - the latest being a $9.2 million bill for consultants.

In short, it has been yet another awful week for the party. On his return from South Korea, Key will have spoken to some colleagues in private. It will be surprising if the rest of the Cabinet do not find themselves on the receiving end of some pretty stern language at Monday's meeting.

Not that Key will be exempting himself from criticism. From the top down, National desperately needs to sharpen up on political management. It equally needs to lift its game when it comes to communicating its message through the media.

A weak Opposition and a media honeymoon meant it was easy going for National through its first term.

Last year's crushing trouncing of Labour has induced an over-confidence and complacency just as things have got a lot tougher.

That is down to National now trying to push through a less palatable policy agenda in the face of less respectful media and a much more focused Opposition.

The latter is personified by Labour's Grant Robertson, who daily grows more confident and compelling in the role of deputy leader. With David Shearer out of town all week pressing the flesh with party members in the provinces, Robertson ably spearheaded Labour's attack both inside and outside the House.

If Shearer fails to make the grade, Robertson has already done enough to be the person to beat in any subsequent leadership ballot.

The one advantage National still enjoys is that voters are not yet showing signs of picking up the phone and listening to Labour - in part because Labour does not yet have much to tell them.

Part of the job of Opposition, however, is to at least look like an alternative government in terms of competence and discipline. Labour is showing early signs of doing that.

National ministers, however, argue that many of the things causing problems for the Government and which Labour is exploiting are relatively trifling and peripheral.

On fundamental issues such as health, education and economic management, National is still seen as sound. Labour is not even on the radar. That may well be so. When it comes to respite from the day-to-day political cut and thrust, however, Easter cannot come quickly enough for National.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

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.

Read more by John Armstrong

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf03 at 25 Oct 2014 01:30:24 Processing Time: 412ms