Fran O'Sullivan: Big Two part of Key plans for next year

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US and China presidents loom as wildcards in election dates

Barack Obama will be in the neighbourhood around election time next year. Picture / AP
Barack Obama will be in the neighbourhood around election time next year. Picture / AP

Prime Minister John Key is factoring in the possibility of a visit by Barack Obama to New Zealand as one of the wild cards he has to consider in setting the date for next year's election.

Key's calculations must inevitably centre on the obvious domestic political factors: What is the best time to take the battle to Labour's David Cunliffe? And how to game the MMP system so National has at least one credible political ally (preferably more) to get the party over the line if it does get within a few percentage points of a majority.

But Key would not be true to form if he did not also factor in two compelling dates on his international dance card next year as wildcards in his political calculations.

The possible Obama visit springs from the fact that the US president is expected to be "in the 'hood" in mid-November for the G20 meeting which Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott will host in Sydney on November 15 and 16.

Key has already publicly foreshadowed that the next general election will be held on a Saturday within the September-November period.

Convention dictates that political leaders do not make official visits during election campaigns. So, if Obama does look likely to fly across the Tasman on Air Force One, that might lead the Prime Minister and his advisers to schedule an election earlier rather than later within Key's three-month window.

There is another factor to consider. Next year, Chinese President Xi Jinping will host the Apec leaders meeting in Beijing in mid-October. It will be a significant international meeting of Asia-Pacific leaders with Key now one of the elder statesmen within the Apec family.

Again, Key being Key he will want to attend Apec, particularly if the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal - which is under some pressure because of the WikiLeaks' disclosure of differences on the intellectual property framework between the US and other countries including New Zealand - does get over the line.

But Key is not so star-struck that he would not depute Bill English to attend Apec (as his deputy did during the 2008 election) if he could not find a way to finesse the opportunities on the international front with his overriding desire to win the election in the first place.

There is also time to consider. The time it might take for National to negotiate a support deal with possible potential partners in a post-election environment to get a government up in the first place. Key managed to get this done in 2008 and get himself on a plane in time to make the Peru Apec days after that election.

But this time around the game will be tougher as David Cunliffe ups the political pressure and continues to build possible allies for Labour.

The Prime Minister is on permanent "spin patrol". Key watches the polls assiduously and watches the Labour leader even more so. He frequently gives political journalists insights into his thinking. Probably, too much of this is reported unchallenged.

But Key learnt from the master - his predecessor Helen Clark - by watching how the Labour prime minister personally drove her relationships with the parliamentary press gallery and how her insightful confidences were reported by journalists as indicating "her thinking".

This easy affability (plus the ability to put journalists on to a good lead by dropping them "the word" as Key does from time to time) is simply exploiting the opportunities that incumbency gives.

But Cunliffe must rely on leadership and sharp analysis, with the bonus of the kind of leaks that become commonplace when a government comes towards the end of its second term.

The Key spiel shapes up to a "Why put it all at risk?" scenario that goes like this: National has ensured a return to strong financial management (when many other economies are still at risk) after the global financial crisis, it has held its nerve and managed partial privatisations instead of taking on more debt, the country is in good heart despite the ravages of major earthquakes; and positive growth will kick up next year.

Cunliffe's spiel goes like this: there is too much inequality and National is complacent, embedded in "last-century thinking" and guilty of crony capitalism by cuddling up to SkyCity and Sir Peter Jackson.

Cunliffe says National is tactical and has no vision whereas Labour will drive a long-term strategy that will focus on driving a fairer deal for all and shifting the economy towards a high-tech focus.

The election fight will be a tough one - but the battleground is already being formed.

Key will be forced to come up with a few surprises of his own.

There are many factors at play and it is too early to place a bet on which politician will get to shake Obama's hand as New Zealand prime minister (that's if he does come) until well into next year.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

Read more by Fran O'Sullivan

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