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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Wheels falling off as National hits bumpy bits on road to election

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The Duchess of Cambridge's visit was part of John Key's pre-election plan to starve the Opposition of media attention. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The Duchess of Cambridge's visit was part of John Key's pre-election plan to starve the Opposition of media attention. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Tempting as it must have been to have done so, John Key apparently did not read the riot act to his fellow National MPs at their weekly closed-door caucus meeting last Tuesday.

That was probably wise of the leader. His colleagues did not need a lecture. What they wanted was reassurance.

Puzzled, befuddled and frazzled, they would have wanted answers to three questions - why are things suddenly turning to custard for National, what on earth is going to happen next and what are they going to do about it.

National is floundering. This may turn out to be a temporary aberration, and Key will call on every device in his political repertoire to ensure that it is.

But right now, it feels as if the political gods are bored with the widely-held assumption that National will cruise to victory in September's election and have decided to throw obstacles in its way.

Whatever, someone or something has torn up National's prepared script which was supposed to guarantee the party safe passage to polling day.

That plan was designed to take advantage of a series of events in the countdown to the earlier-than-usual poll.

These included the Prime Minister's trip to China in March, April's weeklong media feeding frenzy courtesy of the future King George VII and his mother, next week's probably unspectacular, but responsible Budget and an as-yet-to-be-confirmed prime ministerial visit to the White House.

These election-year distractions would keep the media focused anywhere but on Labour, starving that party of the oxygen of publicity.

National, meanwhile, would project a business-as-usual image of a safe-pair-of-hands governing party, such that there would be little for voters to get excited about and continuity would be the name of the game by the time election day arrived.

But things have suddenly gone awry for National.

Two ministers of long experience and who are not short of political acumen have fallen from grace, having exhibited all the symptoms of classic Beehive arrogance and behaved like stereotypical born-to-rule Tories.

This week may not have been quite as wretched for National as the previous one. But the party now finds itself being smacked around by an Opposition campaign highlighting some of National's highly questionable fundraising techniques, most notably "cash for access" to ministers and the party's shadowy "Cabinet club".

The Prime Minister may well argue that he is highly accessible across society, regardless of how many times his time is put up for sale at National's fundraising dinners.

He can warn that the cost of fighting elections means the only alternative is state funding of political parties.

None of that rationalising of "cash for access" makes people any more comfortable with a practice which enables those with money to buy influence in government circles.

The politicians can argue there is no quid pro quo for such donations. The public believes otherwise.

People feel equally uncomfortable about National taking money from Chinese nationals, whose culture is much more explicit than New Zealand's about reciprocal obligations on those who accept donations.

However, no political party - not even the holier-than-thou voice of the Greens - can claim the moral high-ground in any argument about political donations.

The Prime Minister hammered that point in Parliament on Wednesday afternoon, catching Labour off-guard by revealing that party had its own version of "cash for access" which enabled party members to meet an MP of their choice in return for a $1250 donation.

But this is small beer compared to the sums National has been charging for access to Cabinet ministers. Moreover, those ministers have the power to change things.

Of most significance, however, is that "cash for access" is an about-turn on the standard practice of ensuring politicians do not know the identity of the source of large donations.

If you are prime minister, you know the person sitting next to you at a fundraising dinner has paid handsomely for the privilege.

But National is getting its comeuppance. Key might have wiped the floor with his opponents on Wednesday, but he was away from Wellington on Thursday when the Opposition - helped by the Speaker taking a liberal view on the admissibility of some questions - comprehensively mauled National.

Key's headache is that all this is feeding into David Cunliffe's "cronyism" narrative which seeks to paint National as only helping its rich mates.

But it is an open question as to what degree the Labour leader's pushing of the "cronyism" line is appealing to voters.

One of the reasons Collins has survived the axe is because there is no groundswell of public opinion demanding she be cut adrift.

But she is very damaged goods. Labour and New Zealand First may not have secured her head on a platter, but that is a mere technicality.

The two opposition parties can feel well pleased with the results of their detective work as they sought to join the dots and entangle Collins, her husband, the milk exporting company Oravida and China's border control in a web of alleged corruption.

They have failed to prove Collins has benefited financially from an obvious conflict of interest to which she initially purported to be oblivious.

But that failure barely matters now. The hounding of Collins has produced another, possibly more useful dividend.

It has spiked one of National's best weapons. And rather than causing trouble for National's enemies, the Justice Minister has instead become a source of aggravation for her own political kith and kin. Key is punting on a few (Twitterless) days of stress leave bringing Collins to her senses, political or otherwise.

He and his senior colleagues must be dreading what might happen if she does not. So it makes sense to keep her in the tent. If she is thrown out, there is always the slight risk she might go really troppo.

That - and the need to avoid doing anything that might puncture caucus unity and morale little more than four months before election day - is one reason Key will not sack Collins from the Cabinet unless solid evidence emerges which leaves him with no choice but to do so.

On that score, Winston Peters says there is "more to come". As National's Gerry Brownlee told Parliament, however, Peters always says there is "more to come".

Brownlee's colleagues will willingly bow to his experience. That is because for the past two weeks, National has lost one of the things it values most - control of the political agenda.

On Thursday, the Budget will be delivered.

Usually, that document is an agenda-setting device. But if this year's specimen turns out to be as low-key as its advance billing, it will not be setting anyone's agenda. Such is National's current misfortune.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- 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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