Bill Ralston: Public opinion on Key turns rabid

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John Key may have accidentally declared the war in Iraq to be over but he now faces his own war of insurgency as Labour mobilises its foot-soldiers to ambush his National Party every time it pops up its head.

A little like the early success of George W. Bush's Coalition of the Willing, John Key's National forces initially overran all opposition but now, as it tries to dig in and consolidate its position by pumping out policy, National is being taken out by surprise attacks on all sides.

It is fighting for control of public opinion and these days that can be a messy and complex battle. Editorial opinion swung heavily against National over the past week as a series of policy announcements on education, health, privatisation and foreign policy exploded in Key's face.

It's not that the policies were flawed, but National left enough holes in the announcements for Labour strategists to exploit and give it a sound thrashing.

Key dropped himself in it with the "war is over" comment because Winston Peters and Phil Goff attacked National for not mentioning Iraq in its foreign affairs policy, and he was forced to respond. (Goff and Peters neatly overlooked the fact that neither of their parties had a manifesto policy on Iraq at the last election.)

To win public support in the old days, all a party like National had to do was brief a couple of leading political journalists in the press gallery, chat up some of the newspaper leader writers, and schmooze a couple of talkback hosts. Pretty soon, public opinion would be behind you.

Now, a host of "opinion makers" write columns in papers and push their views on radio and television. Plus, there's also the newest and potentially the most powerful of them all, the bloggers.

Established political bloggers like Russell Brown and Dave Farrar have been joined by several press gallery journalists running their own sites in which opinion is generated like the National Grid.

For the party spin doctors, the political commentary is becoming unmanageable. "Mate, you've got journalists now with two personalities!" one senior Labour strategist cried this week, referring to the most sober, serious, conservative newspaper political reporters turning into wolverines once let loose online.

If the blog authors are tough in their analysis, the hundreds of comments they get can be even more rabid. In the columns, on the blogs, on talkback and in the letters to the editor pages of the major papers, the tide of opinion has turned rabidly against National.

Some of this has been helped by Labour activists who always outgun National supporters when rallying for a fight online and in feedback to the traditional media.

"They're much better at this than us," admits one of John Key's advisers, who points to a guerrilla campaign waged by Labour supporters, who have been plastering anti-National stickers around the capital.

But, frankly, National has only itself to blame. I wonder if Bill English is not out to deliberately lose the next election in the forlorn hope of one day getting his old job back as leader. What possessed him to start publicly musing about privatisation?

National's own focus group research would tell them "privatisation" is a dirty word for voters, right up there with "plutonium".

Expect Labour to come up with a direct mail campaign next year targeting various voting blocs and highlighting the negative statements made by the National leadership.

Superannuitants will be warned their pensions will be slashed, mothers reminded that National wants to put up doctors' fees, students told National would increase their tuition costs, all handily illustrated by selective comments from Key and English's latest blatherings.

None of those warnings, of course, is entirely true but National has delivered Labour a gift come campaign time.

It is John Key's reputation that is suffering the most. He's had a long, cosy honeymoon with opinion-makers but this last week they seemed to turn ugly in unison. His Iraq babble could be one of those pivotal moments historians will look back on as the instant he lost the plot and the next election.

In 1976, US President Gerald Ford was doing well in the polls against opponent Jimmy Carter when he declared that Eastern Europe was not under communist influence. From that moment he was dead meat.

David Lange once characterised the financial markets as "reef fish", rapidly turning en masse this way and that. The media is a bit like that too, and National's biggest problem will be getting the school to turn back its way.

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