Fran O'Sullivan writes that till now, Key has operated a rather laissez-faire approach to Cabinet management.
John Key's Government set out to execute more major moves in its economic "step change" programme this week but ended up making a couple of unfortunate "step stumbles".
By today, Key should have been able to say he had clearly stamped a centre-right face to his Government; something which is long overdue if the Prime Minister is to avert charges he was simply basking in his own popularity while he continued to run a Labour-lite government.
Instead of mere repetition of political clichés, the Government is getting on the front foot:
* Welfare beneficiaries got the long overdue message they should ultimately try to get back to work.
* The state sector was told it was up for much-needed restructuring.
* Mining parts of the conservation estate was put on the table.
* Wealthy families who had been rorting the Working for Families scheme were told their particular scam was up.
These are significant moves. But sloppy backroom work has left National facing a situation where its political opponents have ended up circling the Government's bandwagon.
At issue is why Cabinet ministers like Gerry Brownlee and Paula Bennett over-stated the extra dollars that will be available to the Government's coffers from the controversial plans to mine on the conservation estate , and get welfare beneficiaries back to work.
Neither Brownlee nor Bennett appear to have done sufficient homework before going public. Brownlee faced a credibility problem when experts said he had over-stated the expected $4.3 billion economic bonanza from mining Great Barrier Island.
Susan St John - writing in the Herald - pointed out the $200 million Bennett expected to save over the next 10 years from getting even 5 per cent of DPB beneficiaries back into work faster would be diminished by the Working for Families payments many would receive on top of their pay cheques. Till now, Key has operated a rather laissez-faire approach to Cabinet management. He allowed ministers to operate within their own silos and simply reined them in when stuff ups occurred.
This corporate management approach probably helped fuel Key's own stellar career in the private sector. But Key should be concerned his ministers have been tempted to over-promise economic dividends the Government may simply not be able to deliver.
This sloppiness highlights why Key should reconsider his loose approach to Cabinet management and get a strong lieutenant in place who can make sure the "i"s are dotted and "t"s crossed before ministers go public with their policies.
Key is genuine in his own desire to ensure New Zealand moves up the value curve, has a tax system that encourages savings and investment, focuses its international business ambitions in the Asia Pacific region, produces more high-quality products and maximises the New Zealand brand.
But if he fails to get the political management right, his Government will risk the kind of "winter of discontent" that brought Helen Clark's popularity crashing in its first term in office.
Measures in the May 20 budget will upset many. Property investors will be whinging at the loss of their tax writeoffs.
Tightening the health, education and welfare budgets will create new winners and losers. And despite the personal income tax cuts, many will rail against the hike in the rate of GST.
Finance Minister Bill English will need Key's help to sell the Budget. But Key has yet to link his Government's policies in a compelling over-arching narrative that speaks to New Zealanders.
At this stage of the parliamentary cycle, the Key Government should be sharpening its antennae. For instance, it has appeared quite cavalier in its response to the proposed $1.5 billion buy-up of NZ dairy farms by a Chinese company fronted by a business woman with a rather dodgy commercial reputation. This is a sleeper issue that will not go away.
The Government is also at risk of being damaged through claims it is too scared of a political backlash to bring to an end the big-spending policies that are putting pressure on the Government's accounts, such as the election bribe Labour doled out at the 2005 election to make student loans interest-free. Or the elephant in the room both major parties have failed to tackle: raising the qualifying age for national superannuation in line with other OCED countries.
Key's standard response to these issues is to say: don't expect my Government to implement policies that will simply result in a Labour government at the next election.
Labour leader Phil Goff has become so emboldened by the Government's stumbles that he has stolen a line from the blogosphere and now refers to Key as "Smile and Wave". If Key took a more courageous approach, he would quickly dispel that epithet.