Are Labour's stagnant poll ratings partly the result of the party re-fighting old battles that have long been lost or are no longer relevant to most voters' daily existence? Reluctant as it is to offer free advice, National (quietly) thinks so.

As an example, the ruling party cites Labour's reaction to last week's release of the Treasury's innocuous-sounding "investment statement".

The 137-page document broadly lists what the Crown owns and what it owes. No-one would quibble with the detailing of the $240 billion in assets, plus the $70 billion in shares and other equity alongside the $170 billion in liabilities. It makes perfect sense in helping ensure the taxpayer gets value for dollar when it comes to capital spending - something which the investment statement acknowledges has been lacking in comparison with the scrutiny applied to money spent running public services from day-to-day.

The document's language has, however, aroused suspicion on the left that the statement is really the first step of a fresh campaign by the Treasury of further privatisation by stealth. This would see asset sales shift from the state's commercial entities - most of which that could be sold have been sold - to the state's much larger non-profit infrastructure which has always largely been in public ownership, such as state schools and major hospitals.

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Apart from tell-tale references to the need for "more rigorous" decision-making and "effective balance sheet management", the statement argues that when delivering services and getting value for money, public ownership "should not be seen as the default setting".

Borrowing one of Michael Cullen's quips, David Parker, Labour's finance spokesman, denounced that phraseology as one of the Treasury's "ideological burps" and demanded John Key and Bill English dismiss any likelihood of it happening.

No such assurance was forthcoming. The Beehive considers Parker and his Labour colleagues are stuck in an "ideological time-warp". The Beehive points out there is a large element of private provision and always has been, early childhood education being an example.

National insists it is not planning any wholesale sell-offs of non-commercial state assets. Labour would beg to differ, citing National's shrinking of Housing New Zealand's role as the provider of housing to beneficiaries and the low-paid and Government funding being transferred to non-Government voluntary agencies. This transfer is happening only slowly - deliberately, so Labour claims, so that it does not provoke voter angst.

National argues that if Labour could not prompt a voter backlash against the partial floats of the remaining state-owned electricity generators, it will struggle to stop the growing trend for private provision worldwide. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Labour has little hope of stuffing it back in.

Debate on this article is now closed.