Claire Trevett 's Opinion

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett: Key gets proactive in political danger zone

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

In the same way a teacher might elect a star pupil for the day, Prime Minister John Key has taken to anointing a Good News Minister of the week.

At his weekly post-Cabinet press conference Key has started up a special Good News segment, which entails bringing along one of his ministers to lambast the media with good news about the progress being made in a certain area.

This week it was Health Minister Tony Ryall, who regaled us about the take up of expanded youth mental health services in schools. Last week it was Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce talking about apprenticeship numbers.

It is not unknown for ministers to front with the Prime Minister at post-Cab, but it is usually when there is a major policy initiative being announced.

The Good News Minister of the week gets a couple of half enthusiastic questions if they are lucky or if it is vaguely related to another area of importance.

After the normal questioning of the Prime Minister sets in, focusing on rather more controversial aspects of the Government's record, the Good News Minister is dispatched back to their office to continue the work.

Making use of the captive audience at the press conference is a sign Prime Minister John Key is starting the campaign already and attempting to forestall any momentum Labour might build up.

It is, more critically, a bid to try to stop perception taking root that his Government is descending into lethargy as it nears the end of a second term.

The Opposition and the media tend to reserve their attention for the bad news, so Key has opted to intervene regardless of the interest levels.

He knows full well the media will have little interest in whatever the Good News Minister du jour is banging on about. It's about giving the perception that the Government's efforts are starting to bear fruit, and forcing the media to listen to it rather than simply hit delete on the email.

It's also about trying to convince the commentariat that just because the pace of change and reforms has slowed, National has not run out of ideas and is still imbued with a passion for the job of governing.

The danger of lethargy in a government's cycle usually sets in after all the bells and whistles policies have been put into place. There is always a plateauing on the political front at this time - a necessary, albeit politically frustrating, delay before a government can amass a pool of believable statistics on a policy to declare it a success or otherwise.

The ministers who oversaw the most attention-grabbing reforms, such as Social Development Minister Paula Bennett, are in enforced abstinence from juicy headlines and have entered the wait-and-see phase. That is when there is a danger.

It is the best time for Opposition to start to throw a few invasive weed seeds into the garden of perception, by pondering where all the ideas have gone, why the action has slowed, and where the ideas are for the future, especially now that the economy is picking up.

It should help that Labour itself is in the flush of the immediate aftermath of change - and change usually engenders energy and momentum.

Instead, some are declaring new leader David Cunliffe's "honeymoon" over already after two successive polls showed minimal movement for Labour. Cunliffe began with a war cry, declaring battle against John Key. However, possibly in an attempt to confuse the enemy, he has since adopted the odd strategy of approaching this by going MIA: Missing in Action.

The only feature Cunliffe's first seven weeks as leader has shared with a honeymoon is that he all but disappeared off the public radar. He has so far really popped into the public eye for only one major speech and a couple of visits to Shannon and the middle of nowhere to visit the site for Ruataniwha Dam where he announced not much at all beyond rather trite assurances that he cared about the regions.

By comparison, it was the Green co-leaders Metiria Turei and Russel Norman who were out fronting for media within minutes of major announcements such as John Banks' resignation as a minister, and the Meridian share price announcement.

Cunliffe will re-emerge for Labour's annual conference this weekend.

Herein lies the other problem with Cunliffe's start. He appears to have taken inspiration from his father, who was a preacher. Cunliffe, so far, has stuck to preaching to the converted. The major speech was to the trade union movement which helped elect him leader, his annual conference will be before more of his adoring disciples - the party membership, which was also instrumental in electing him as leader. Even they will want some indication that Cunliffe does at least have a future battle plan.

Then again, two of National's own coalition partners - John Banks and Peter Dunne - are doing enough to damage National's chances of winning the next election without Labour needing to lift a finger. Being forced into resigning your ministerial posts and then throwing a tanty because no road to redemption is set out is not a good start to audition to be Good News Minister.

- NZ Herald

Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor and joined the Press Gallery in 2007. She began with the Herald in 2003 as the Northland reporter before moving to Auckland where her rounds included education and media. A graduate of AUT's post-graduate diploma in journalism, Claire began her journalism career in 2002 at the Northern Advocate in Whangarei. Claire has conjoint Bachelor of Law/ Bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Canterbury.

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