OPINION: If John Key thinks the going is tough now, what will his mood be when the heat is really on?
The prime minister appears to have the second-term blues, but while he has plenty of reasons to feel down in the dumps, the disastrous start to 2012 is likely to be just the beginning of a rough ride to the next election.
So far this year, Mr Key has faced sustained opposition to his SkyCity pokies-for-a-convention-centre deal, controversy over the sale of the Crafar farms and growing campaigns against asset sales, deep sea oil exploration and fracking. That is on top of the continuing economic malaise that threatens his promise to balance the books by 2014, the revolt by senior foreign affairs staff over planned cuts, the ACC privacy scandal and the forced resignation of capable minister Nick Smith. Add in the donations controversy dogging ACT leader John Banks and it is little wonder Mr Key views the rest of this term as "a long 212 years" and complains about his job to school kids.
The only bright spot is that National's support remains close to the 50 per cent needed to govern alone, and Mr Key is still overwhelmingly the preferred prime minister.
Those numbers will inevitably come down, however, as the term wears on and opinions galvanise on touchstone issues. Despite National's huge win last year, polls show most voters oppose the part-privatisation of state-owned energy companies and Air New Zealand. If attempts to force a non-binding referendum succeed, the level of opposition will become glaringly apparent, and the pressure Mr Key thinks he is under now will look like one of his relaxing morning jogs.
He also needs to deal soon with the thorny problem of future coalition partners. ACT may still be breathing, but it is on life support, and Mr Key has his finger on the switch. He must realise the party has become a major embarrassment, and that he cannot again offer it the protection of an uncontested win in Epsom.
The problem is, who fills the void to give National a partner after the next election? The Maori Party also looks increasingly unwell, leaving the unpalatable prospect of Mr Key having to deal with his sworn enemy, Winston Peters and NZ First. Either that, or hope Colin Craig's Conservatives can present themselves as a moderate Centre-Right prospect.
Even then, the choice is stark. The party is against asset sales and Mr Craig has voiced opposition to the Crafar farms deal and National's 2010 tax cuts.
Mr Key is right to dread the next 2 1/2 years, for it is not going to get easier. But a dose of the second-term blues is nothing new – just ask Helen Clark, who stormed back into office in 2002 only to spend most of the next three years mired in controversy over everything from the foreshore and seabed to errant ministers. Unfortunately for Mr Key, there is no cure. He simply needs to, as he often puts it, suck it in and get on with the job.
In praise of ... mothers
Yesterday morning thousands upon thousands of New Zealand kids headed out the door to school. They were wearing clean, warm clothes and rain jackets had been tucked into their backpacks. They had had breakfast. They had been reminded to brush their teeth and to take their lunches and the homework they had been helped with the night before.
At the end of the school day, they were ferried to one of the myriad after-school activities on offer, or they returned home to a snack and session in front of the television, computer or games console that had been provided for them.
Later, they ate – or at least played with – the dinner that was prepared for them, before falling asleep secure in the knowledge that they were being watched over.
This morning many of those same kids will be driven to damp sports grounds, where they will be encouraged in their endeavours by freezing spectators. Then they will spend the rest of the day kicking back, confident that things at home will be taken care of.
Tomorrow morning, they should reflect that none of those things happen by chance, and that for all but a tiny unfortunate minority there is someone who will always love them unconditionally, who will always have their back.
- The Dominion Post