John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Key warps to future as others left behind

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Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / Mark Mitchell

If Labour thinks National's new five-year targets for improvements in some of New Zealand's ugliest and most depressing statistics are little more than a political gimmick, the party should think again.

Last Monday's announcement by the Prime Minister laid out the percentage changes required to meet the targets which cover such things as violent crime and beneficiary numbers.

It was widely misinterpreted as a bid to shift the focus away from National's unpopular legislation paving the way for the partial sale of state assets.

In fact, National had promised the percentages would be released by the end of this month.

More crucially, National sees the targets as devices which will not only be agenda-setters, but something enabling National to claim ownership of vast areas of policy territory usually the preserve of Labour. That makes the targets vital components in National's 2014 election strategy.

There is no indication Labour has woken up to the fact that some of the targets - such as boosting child immunisation rates, lifting the numbers getting trade qualifications and tackling youth crime - amount to an invasion of its traditional domains. It is still high risk stuff on National's part, however.

The 14 targets which pertain to the portfolios of six of the Cabinet's 20 ministers traverse some of the country's most deep-seated social problems.

There is no guarantee either that National's according priority to things such as violent crime in general and assaults on children in particular will produce any rapid turnaround in the figures.

The public will be able to judge. Data measuring progress will be released at regular intervals once departments have finalised "action plans" outlining how the targets will be met.

Although they do not have to be reached until 2017, the unstated expectation on ministers is that the figures will be moving in the right direction well before the 2014 election.

It is make or break stuff in personal terms. Three of the six ministers - Steven Joyce, Judith Collins and, to a lesser extent Hekia Parata - are future contenders for the party leadership.

If they fail, they will have nowhere to hide - they are signed up to meeting the targets. Blaming their officials for failure will look self-serving and weak.

National could have taken the easy option and picked targets which would not have been hard to meet. But there would have been little point in doing that.

It goes without saying that the inevitable mix of a tiring Government, and an electorate tiring of the Government while the Opposition parties revitalise, mean the odds are stacked against National winning a third term.

The easy option would not have paid the kind of political dividends that a party seeking a third term would need to compensate.

It can be assumed that the targets - which include cutting violent crime by 20 per cent and reducing the numbers on working-age benefits by 30 per cent - are the result of focus group research.

It is all about getting the fundamentals of the economy, health, education, law and order and so forth right.

Voters may not like some of the things National is doing. They may not like National full stop. But they are willing to ignore those negatives if those fundamentals which determine their standard of living and overall wellbeing are looked after.

In particular, National believes women apply this logic in determining their votes. And National's capacity to retain the female vote it took from Labour in 2008 will determine if it hangs on in 2014.

It is classic conservatism. It is classic John Key.

It is also classic Bill English. He is the one driving what is a slow but unrelenting process of transforming the public service into the kind of results-driven beast capable of delivering on the targets.

To preserve the bureaucracy's independence, the State Services Act prevents politicians from rummaging around their ministries or departments. The point of contact is the chief executive. English has skilfully worked chief executives around to his way of thinking that things can and must be done differently.

He has forced them to find more efficient ways of doing things by freezing departmental budgets.

There has also been considerable efforts made to get chief executives to think about the Government's interests from a wider perspective than their department's more narrow focus.

The latest step in the process is to make their pay related to their performance in meeting the new targets.

That and the implicit pressure to preserve not only ministers' reputations but their very political futures will inevitably see already scarce departmental resources devoted to meeting those goals.

It all adds up to a shift, albeit a subtle one, towards the politicisation of the public service.

In a separate move to ensure public servants give full priority to Government objectives, National is drafting legislation which will effectively enable the Cabinet to set up ministries within ministries.

These entities - to be known as "departmental agencies" - will have their own chief executives who will be accountable to the same minister as the chief executive of the whole ministry. The intention is to give these units the autonomy to pursue a sole priority such as one of the five-year targets.

The example being cited is Work and Income, currently the operational arm of the Ministry of Social Development. It could theoretically be given the sole function of getting people off the benefit.

Labour is trying to paint the targets as yet another example of National making aspirational promises which it fails to keep.

Labour confidently expects the programme will end up suffering the same fate as John Key's promise to bridge the wage gap with Australia and - though still alive - National's commitment to return to Budget surplus within the next three years.

However, as stated earlier, the targets present serious problems for Labour - you cannot attack motherhood and apple pie.

As usual, the left has underestimated Key. As he says, his Government is going boldly where no government has gone before. Others are struggling to keep up.

- 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.

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