Blandness seems to be the secret to the National Party's success, and so can we expect a fairly boring third term National Government?
Certainly yesterday's Speech from the Throne gave every indication that John Key intends to run a cautious and relatively uncontroversial government over the next three years, with its eye on winning a fourth term in power.
As John Armstrong observed, it was 'So non-contentious that it seems rather bland. And that is just the way the Prime Minister would like the speech to be viewed - solid, if unspectacular' - see: John Key drops clue on real agenda. According to Armstrong, this blandness is all about staying sufficiently uncontroversial in order to win again in 2017: 'Key's mind is already intently focussed on how his Government avoids the third-term blues and matches Sir Keith Holyoake's 1960s achievement of winning four straight elections'.
For a similar picture see the Herald's editorial, Govt opts for caution and stability and Tim Watkin's Key starts to flesh out poverty & housing plans.
National's relatively conservative and centrist third term approach will disappoint those on the more radical/principled right. For example, Rodney Hide has already expressed his own frustration that National is being so incredibly cautious and 'vacuous' - see his very good NBR column, Flag debate is next poll distraction. Hide argues that John Key and National have the ability to make substantial and necessary changes that will improve peoples' lives, but instead it's going to concentrate on issues such as a debate about the national flag. It's all about electoral strategy rather than vision, says Hide, which we shouldn't be surprised about because 'National's driving concern is not ideology or policy. It's driving concern is winning. And Mr Key is a winner. For National, everything is as it should be'.
Hide makes the point that the vacuous flag debate will be a winner for National at the next election: 'The flag debate will dominate the 2017 election... It will be a nothing debate to disguise the nothingness of the years of government. And that's what we like. We like to grumble about the way things are. But we don't like change. Mr Key captures the public mood perfectly. He's giving us exactly what we want: nothing but the status quo. Politicians with ideas scare us. There's no chance Mr Key will scare us. He has his power precisely because he does nothing with it'.
Will this approach risk making the Government too stale and lacklustre? One rightwing commentator, writing a guest post on Kiwiblog, says that 'Whilst excessive reforming zeal can erode popularity, so can excessive caution', and that 'Key should not be content to do a Holyoake and just carefully manage the economy - National need to have fresh new policies but ones that are not too radical and bold' - see: What will it take for John Key to lead National to a 4th term?. Similarly, David Farrar has advised his own party that 'Fresh ideas are needed. The public will not give you a fourth term just for being good managers. A Government can not look like it has run out of ideas and steam. Every Minister should be asked to identify at least three significant policy reforms in their area which can be implemented over the next three years' - see: Can National win a 4th or even a 5th term?.
Radicalism in social policy?
Despite overall restraint, there will still be some areas of radicalism. Such reforms are less likely to occur in the economic sphere, but to be carried out the social policy portfolios, such as housing and welfare. This is best explained in Tracy Watkins' feature, What's ahead for National?. Here's the key point: 'Budget 2015 is likely to see a big shift in resources away from Housing New Zealand to third-party providers like The Salvation Army and Presbyterian Support Services for the provision of social housing. The aim is to boost the availability of social housing, minus any ideological hang-ups about who provides it, and divest the State over time of a housing portfolio that is growing more decrepit by the year and fails to meet demand in areas of highest need. Expect this approach to be mirrored across other sectors, particularly in welfare, where Finance Minister Bill English is impatient to shift the centre of gravity away from Wellington and into the community and grassroots service providers'.
This emphasis on social policy is obviously a direct response to National's vulnerabilities in these areas. Questions about child poverty, inequality, and housing were strong election issues, and National will need to show some significant progress to satisfy these continued concerns. So far, the Government appears to have made very slow advances in its aims - see, for example, No Right Turn's National's failure on housing.
National's approach in these areas appears to be underpinned by the ideological framework of 'social investment' - see Colin James' column, Investing, not spending. A tougher way of thinking. See also Peter Lyons' Ignoring super is political hypocrisy.
Controversy ahead in resource management
Despite John Key's stated ambitions to govern with consensus and harmony, Brian Easton believes that that there's still a chance that it will turn out quite differently and 'we'll see civil disturbances' on a historical scale - see: A divided country?. Easton outlines some of the potential 'pressure points': 'My trifecta for barricades is unnecessary involvement in Iraq, high-risk anti-environmental developments and a poor quality FTA'.
In terms of the reforms to the Resource Management Act, there are some signs that National will make milder changes than might have been expected. As the Herald says today, 'the Government yesterday softened its intention' in this area - see: Govt opts for caution and stability.
It's also likely that the RMA reforms will be aimed at local government bureaucracy and rules, especially relating to house building. Jane Clifton has made this point well in her column, Snakes in a Parliament (paywalled): 'the game afoot here is to deflect attention from environmental issues and onto councils' rapacious cost-loading practices. The Government is betting that in the hundreds of thousands of dealings individuals have with councils over building consents, the councils are already seen as hands-down the villains of the piece. It's not just the rigmarole but also the chronic lack of efficiency that land avoidable costs on home owners'.
For more on environmental and resource management issues see Fran O'Sullivan's Key catches drift on waterways.
Integrity in governance
Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics book might not have hurt National in the recent election, but will surely continue to dog the Government in many ways. This is best examined in John Armstrong's very good column, Shadow lingers on National, in which he challenges the party to address the issues raised by Hager: 'The rotten smell lingers, however. And National should think seriously about acknowledging it is badly tainted and do something which shows it is genuinely cleaning up its act. No doubt many in the party are instead quietly revelling in what comes close to state persecution of Hager for the trumped-up crime of exposing the ugly truth about the true level of National's adherence to New Zealand's fundamental democratic and constitutional principles. No doubt many think the party has got off relatively scot-free despite indulging in some pretty abominable behaviour'.
National might be inclined to believe that the removal of 'black ops' spin-doctor Jason Ede will have removed the problem. However as Vernon Small points out, he's still in the party's orbit, now working for a company with very close links to National - see: Political influence denied in Ede's work.
Other areas relating to integrity in governance are likely to receive more attention over the next three years, at least from the media. For example, the Government's use and abuse of the Official Information Act is now being highlighted - see the Dominion Post's strongly worded editorial, Abuse of OIA disgraceful. See also Russell Brown's The creeping politicisation of the OIA.
According to rightwing commentator Matthew Hooton, it is another integrity issue of John Key's administration that will ultimately 'bring his government down' - the growing use of 'corporate-welfare' which has a 'corrupting' influence - see his NBR column: Corporate welfare reveals deep conceit (paywalled).
The Judith Collins problem
Part of National's integrity issues was solved with the sacking of Judith Collins in the run up to the election. It seems likely, therefore, that she won't be coming back as a Cabinet Minister, even if she is cleared by the various investigations going on. She is now far too tarnished, and regarded as toxic within National.
As a Herald editorial recently stated, the removal of her 'Honourable' title by John Key was a message that 'She is not coming back' - see: The Hon is all that's on for Collins. The editorial argues that she is powerless in this situation and that the 'public and other MPs know why he sacked her. Slater's email about Adam Feeley was just the last - and least - of the difficulties she has caused for him, and not only this year. She has been an accident-prone minister from the beginning, made worse by her habitually haughty response'.
Jane Clifton has also elaborated on why Collins can't be rehabilitated, and why the removal of her title was significant: 'It's therefore hard to see any other way of interpreting Key's actions here than as a - long-overdue - signal to Collins that he simply doesn't trust her. The inquiry may clear her, but how can he credibly have her back in the executive now it is clear she is in the habit of gossiping about party and Government business with a destructively mischievous blogger?' - see: Deadly infestations (paywalled).
Clifton says that Key 'would certainly have a massive Cabinet stoush on his hands if he tried to put Collins back in the Beehive'. She quotes an unnamed senior minister as saying her sacking was 'only about six years too late'. Yet, Clifton also points out that Collins 'will still be in a position to annoy him and it would be against her nature not to cause at least a recreational degree of trouble. Not even Key can be truly "relaxed" with a high-profile, disaffected MP rattling round the place, least of all one who can command a news cycle by simply raising an eyebrow'.
The guest blogger on Kiwiblog, says that Key's handling of Collins 'will be one of John Key's crucial tasks in his 3rd term. Mishandling her could result in backbench disquiet that might coalesce around a Collins challenge if National began to consistently poll poorly. Even if the failure to advise her of the delay in giving her the Honourable honourific was unintentional, it created ill will that could fester and was an early unforced error by Key. If she is cleared of any wrongdoing from the Feely SFO interference inquiry, Key should tell Collins privately that she will come back into Cabinet in the next reshuffle if she continues to exercise restraint with her behaviour and public pronouncements' - see: What will it take for John Key to lead National to a 4th term?.
Finally, for a visual representation of how the new Government is looking, and especially how cartoonists are portraying National and the issues it's facing, see my blog post, Images of the Third Term Key National Government.