How National can keep the flame burning

Prime Minister John Key.
Prime Minister John Key.

This will be John Key’s fifth year as Prime Minister. 

Election night in November 2008 suddenly seems a long time ago. Back then Kim Dotcom wasn’t even a blip on the radar (if that’s possible to conceive). The iPad didn’t exist, Sarah Palin had just unleashed her foreign policy credentials on the world and Lady Gaga's song Poker Face was number one on the New Zealand charts. So a lifetime ago, basically. 

And that is one of the biggest risks Key and his advisors need to tackle with an election coming in 2014: an electorate that wants change for change’s sake.

This is a risk for all governments. Think of the voters and the incumbent government like a new couple that can’t keep their hands off each other at the beginning. After a few years together, the new becomes old and the excitement dissipates. He forgets the anniversary. She forgets his birthday. He doesn’t shut the toilet door. She no longer complains about it. 

In the same way, the relationship between voters and governments can lose its mojo as the years tick on. So has National reached the point when those critical middle ground voters have begun to stray from the porch?

I don’t think so. Not yet, anyway. But the mood can change quickly. National will know all too well that Helen Clark’s government was extremely popular in its first four to five years, but only managed to scrape in for a third term largely on the back of interest-free student loans. And the long-term trend is worrying for National. The party now tends to poll around the 46%-47% mark, compared to its first term when it always polled well in excess of 50%. On top of this, the party’s biggest star, John Key, had his lowest preferred PM rating since 2006 in the December 3 News–Reid Research poll.

So what can National do to keep the flame burning with middle New Zealand? Here are my five ‘must-do’s’ for National in 2013:

1. “It’s the economy, stupid”

This is the famous line from Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign that pretty much says it all. The most important factor that determines how people vote is the state of the economy. In particular, whether they have a job, what their take-home pay is, and how profitable their businesses are. If Key, English, and Joyce can have the economy hit at least 3% GDP growth (which would be in excess of the revised-down Treasury forecasts), and reduce unemployment to around 6%, they may win enough hearts and minds to get back in.

2. Get the Christchurch rebuild pumping

The people of Christchurch need the build to really take flight in 2013. Frankly, so does the rest of New Zealand. A great deal rests on a successful rebuild giving the economy a massive shot in the arm. Public tolerance for big delays, council infighting, and insurance blockages will be zero. Gerry Brownlee will ultimately bear responsibility for making things run as smoothly as possible. 

3.Get some traction on its public sector targets

National is unlikely to pull a last minute ‘rabbit out of the hat’-type policy to win the 2014 election (like Labour did in 2005 with student loans). Firstly, there isn’t the money to do that, and secondly, it’s just not in Bill English’s nature. He relies on the slow and steady wins the race approach. To that end, National must show some results around the five areas it specifically targeted as its key priorities: reducing long-term welfare dependence, supporting vulnerable children, boosting skills and employment, reducing crime, and improving interaction with government. All laudable objectives, but the government must achieve real progress in these areas and then ‘sell’ that progress to the public in a way that resonates.

4. Housing

Housing is likely to be the biggest battleground election issue. Labour has stolen a march on the government with its plan for 100,000 low-cost homes over 10 years. It’s a policy that resonates with many people because it’s simple, it’s hands-on, and it harks back to the old Michael Joseph Savage version of the Labour party (at a time when the current Labour party seems to be searching for an identity). National’s response so far has been much more circumspect, arguing that a lifting of the regulatory and cost burden at local government level will alleviate the problem. I suspect this response will not cut it with many voters (especially in Auckland) as house prices soar around them and home ownership becomes even more elusive. John Key has entrusted the wily old campaigner Nick Smith to deliver him policy that can compete with Labour’s offerings. Watch this space.

5. Find a sizeable coalition partner or support party

Partnerships are critical in business. Likewise in politics, especially under MMP. No one party can go it alone. National used to have the ACT party. But the ACT party is gone. It imploded and exploded at the same time (again, if this is possible to conceive). The combination of United Future (one seat, but this is not certain) and the Maori Party (three seats, but currently in very poor shape) are not likely to be enough to get it over the line. Which leaves it back in the position of trying to outbid Labour for the support of New Zealand First after the 2014 election (sound familiar?). Somehow National needs to find a way out of this predicament and demonstrate to the voters that it has a viable, stable ally in Parliament to partner with. If it doesn’t, National can probably wave goodbye to being in government next time around.

Oh, and one last tip. Flowers. Never forget the flowers.

Dr Ryan Malone is a director of Dart Government Relations, a government policy and law consultancy in Wellington. He does not have political affiliations with any political party.