Slow-bleeding National needs some big hits

JOHN HARTEVELT
Last updated 09:46 13/10/2012

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John Hartevelt

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OPINION: About now, the New Zealand stock exchange was due for a $1.8 billion boost.

The gates to the triumphantly-named Mighty River Power (MRP) were supposed to have burst open to fistfuls of cash gushing from the private sector.

MRP, fresh from reporting a solid $162 million after-tax profit, would have lumped more value on to the NZX, further boosting the exchange's already much-improved health.

Best of all for the Government, mum and dad investors would get a shiny new scrip, a warm buzz about buying into New Zealand's enviable renewable energy resources and the promise of some loyalty bonus shares in a few years.

The successful float of 49 per cent of MRP would have been offered as further evidence that the economy was finally on the mend; that consumer and business sentiment was surging and the deficit was shrinking dramatically.

It would have made for one very happy prime minister eyeing a restful summer break in Hawaii - no doubt spent celebrating son Max's high school graduation.

But alas for John Key, the jandals and the barbecue look a long way off from here.

Instead of MRP's $1.8b float, there's Moa Beer's $16m offer, which has nothing to do with the Government.

And instead of happy headlines about a halving of the deficit, there's a painful haircut at the state-owned rail company stealing away the good news.

Yet again, the Key-led Government finds itself in a rut. If it's not one thing, it seems, it's the other. The spying scandal; the Christchurch school closures; and a debate over water rights that has kicked the partial asset sales programme into next year.

A Roy Morgan poll out late this week was, according to National Party pollster David Farrar, "sober news" for the party.

Roy Morgan is traditionally eyed with a little suspicion by the beltway. It tends to bounce around a bit more unpredictably than others. Instinctively, a two-point sag for National to 41.5 per cent and a 1.5 point jump for NZ First up to 6.5 per cent seems a bit over-dramatic.

But there is no mistaking the trend. Every poll there is has National sliding off since the election, and Labour climbing slowly back.

Farrar was sufficiently moved by the Roy Morgan result to suggest the Government needed to do "a number of things to regain momentum".

He suggested what essentially amounted to U-turns on the GCSB (launch a formal inquiry); Christchurch schools (shrink the proposal); and Environment Canterbury (toss out the plan to keep unelected commissioners until 2016).

National does have recent form for biting the bullet on problem policies. The complete reversal on class sizes was a stunning backdown. But admitting defeat on plans you've previously been firmly behind seems an odd way of trying to regain momentum.

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Ask David Cameron. His Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration in Britain unfurled a steady stream of apologetic policy reversals after a disastrous May Budget. Mr Cameron is now so deep in the mire that he's widely considered a far lesser prospect to win re-election for the Tories than the rollicking London mayor Boris Johnson.

If you still doubt it, ask Australian PM Julia Gillard how she went with a complete flip-flop on a carbon tax. She's clinging to power by the thinnest of margins, and like Mr Cameron looks odds-on to be turfed out by voters at the next opportunity - if not by her own party.

Sometimes backdowns are necessary and the best way to contain carnage. But they're invariably humiliating and always damaging.

So if Mr Key was unwilling to absorb any further U-turns before Christmas, it would be understandable. But he'll need something else before year's end if he is to staunch the slow bleeding of National's vote.

Fixing problems of their own making just won't do it. National has to start outgunning the opposition on ideas. Of late, the only big ideas from politicians that have taken some kind of hold have emerged from Labour and, to a lesser extent, the Greens.

Food in the lowest decile schools was an inspired announcement by David Shearer. Labour has kind of lost control of the policy since, because the savvy KidsCan charity quickly capitalised on the public appetite for the idea for its own purposes. But the fact remains that Labour beat National to the inexpensive, simple but powerful idea - and National knows it.

As is now customary, their response has been to reach for a few more dashes of welfare reform. Drug-testing beneficiaries, requiring the children of beneficiaries to be enrolled in early childhood education, and blocking welfare to people with an outstanding arrest warrant have all been announced in the past two months. All would have set the talkback airwaves alight for a day or two, but none - even when combined - have had the same depth of impact as the school breakfasts plan.

Even the Government's "starting out wage" announced this week was framed more defensively than proudly - ministers highlighted the extra jobs they said would be created, but seemed keen to point out this was not really a huge deal after all because it was not an outright return to youth rates.

However, with a couple of years' toil behind it, Paula Bennett's white paper for vulnerable children has more promise. Mrs Bennett has clearly genuinely engaged herself in the question of what to do about child abuse. She has predictably worn flak for the lack of anything in the plan specifically to address poverty.

But if the white paper had shown pretensions for fixing absolutely everything, it may have been shrugged off by the electorate as another exercise in futility that was not to be taken seriously.

Instead, there were firm plans that aligned in places with what experts had asked for - Children's Commissioner Russell Wills had labelled information sharing through a national child health database as his No 1 priority for addressing child abuse.

Dr Wills favoured a database because vulnerable children tend to be highly transient, meaning doctors, teachers and others don't have the relevant information they quickly need to help protect the child. Getting the information to hand better equips the experts to get in the way of abuse, but it doesn't directly cause it to stop.

So there are great strides beyond the white paper if it is to make much of a practical difference to cutting child abuse and neglect. As a purely political and short-term tool for helping National out of its latest funk, however, it's much more than a nice-to-have.

- The Dominion Post

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