A campaign forced off script

01:13, Aug 23 2014

Is John Key's dream of a third term unravelling? His campaign trail has been littered with landmines. The cast of characters, meanwhile, is long and growing: Nicky Hager, Kim Dotcom, Cameron Slater, Aaron Bhatnagar, Simon Lusk, Warren Tucker.

Where is Labour leader David Cunliffe? Wherever it might be, it is a political backwater at the moment. Key is too busy fighting shadows to fight his opponent. The swirl surrounding him is all- consuming.

Former Labour Party president Mike Williams says he has never known anything like it.

"I've been involved in 40 campaigns, in Australia and New Zealand . . . and I have never been through anything even remotely like this. I just have no compass.

"National's completely lost control of the agenda and their campaign has been completely derailed. But then so has everyone else's."

Left-wing commentator Bryce Edwards says Hager's book Dirty Politics has thrown National's script for the campaign out the window.


For days, Key has been on the back foot answering allegations from the book, which drew from thousands of hacked emails to draw a link between Key's office and Right-wing blogger Cameron Slater.

"This has been a huge spanner in the works. Politicians like their campaigns scripted and it did seem that National had all their ducks in a row and had the right strategy," says Edwards.

But out on the campaign trail, senior Nats insist, people have real problems to worry about.

Outgoing MP Chris Tremain says he has knocked on plenty of doors since the Dirty Politics story broke.

"I asked people 'what do you think?' And, look, most people say to me 'my eyes glaze over'."

It's easy to know when people care about an issue, Tremain says, because they pick up the phone to their local MP. "If there's one person ringing your office there's probably 10 or 20 out there who are feeling the same."

Tremain is not expecting his phone to ring hot with calls about Hager's book; the foreshore and seabed legislation, gay marriage, smacking, asset sales - those are the sorts of issues that people care about, and motivate them to call. Or getting it wrong on teacher numbers, as National did in 2012.

MPs copped a backlash from local communities when Cabinet agreed to raise the teacher to student ratio - a decision that was quickly overturned.

"That's the sort of issue I'm talking about; it wasn't a beltway issue, it did affect people . . . and that feedback came back quickly through caucus," Tremain says.

Senior Nats insist their internal tracking polls show no impact from the Hager book. But Edwards says the central allegations - of dirty tricks and direct links between Key's office and a blogger like Slater, who thrives on innuendo and dirt - will have a corrosive effect on Key's image with voters.

The drip feed of leaked emails on an anonymous website, meanwhile, has turned National's well-oiled campaign machine into a lame duck, Edwards believes. "They're not getting their messages through."

Right-wing blogger David Farrar agrees that there is an "opportunity cost" in the campaign being derailed by events like Hager.

"It's not so much that people change their mind . . . it's more that National's not getting to talk about the issues they want to. But then, nor is Labour, nor are the Greens."

Farrar, who featured in Hager's book as National's pollster, says the most disastrous scenario for National would be some of its support jumping to Labour. "But is this going to fundamentally change the fact that 65 per cent of people think New Zealand is headed in the right direction?"

He draws parallels with the 2011 campaign, where Key was embroiled in a storm of controversy over the so-called "teapot tape" - a recording of a conversation between Key and former ACT MP John Banks which they believed private. The most likely fallout from that was NZ First getting a lift, rather than National taking a hit, Farrar says.

ON THE campaign trail in Masterton, Key was back in control after being blindsided by Hager's book late one evening last week.

In answer to journalists' questions Key is patient, calm, and repeats the same answers ad nauseam. There is none of the white-hot anger from the day after Hager's book dropped.

At a Carterton manufacturing business, Key pokes around vans, inspects tools and regales a fellow golfing enthusiast with a story about some famous golfer he had met who hit 35 - or was it 36? - holes in one.

This is the Key that voters feel they know; the one they would overwhelmingly prefer to have a beer with, watch a game of rugby with or have round to dinner over any other politician.

it is not just Key the man who has given National huge cross-over appeal on the political spectrum; National has moved a long way in the eight years he has been its leader.

Edwards says Key has "absolutely" transformed National from what it was when he inherited the party from Don Brash, who represented the far Right wing of the party.

"Liberal modernisation" is how Edwards describes that transformation.

"Key has carried on essentially the project that Bill English was undertaking when he was leader in the early 2000s, of trying to change the outward appearance of National from being simply an old boys' club, the party of establishment, and wealthy white males, and tried to make it a bit more reflective of modern New Zealand."

Even on economic issues National is far more centrist than the last National government in the 1990s. That was the Jim Bolger- Ruth Richardson government that responded to hard times with the Mother of all Budgets; benefit cuts, slashing spending, hocking off assets.

The Key Government's response to hard times after the global financial crisis of 2008 and later the Christchurch earthquakes was nothing like as hard-nosed; it used its Budgets to cushion the impact, helping cement its popularity.

Edwards says Key is not bound by ideology like his predecessors. He is driven much more by what middle New Zealand is thinking.

National's campaign launch in South Auckland this weekend, rather than at its more traditional stomping ground in the heart of Auckland central, sums up National's shift under Key, he says.

"That delivers quite a powerful message. On the face of it it might seem they're after South Auckland votes but of course that's not the target at all. It's the rest of New Zealand and it's showing National is quite comfortable outside its traditional setting."

National also looks more like New Zealand now. There used to be a time when one of National's few female MPs, Georgina te Heuheu, was also its sole Maori MP. The caucus now has Asian, Pacific Island, Indian and a lot more Maori faces than it ever had under Key's predecessors. It is still under- represented with women, but every policy has a ruler run over it for how it will be received by female voters.

Tremain says stamping a more representative face on National has been one of the defining changes under Key's leadership.

"We have also moved out into territory that has not been our traditional voting area but that's great politics. It shows that you're comfortable, your base is strong and a whole lot of people out there can see 'hey, these guys are not the monsters we thought they were and they run a pretty good ship'."

But it's not just about what National has done that defines Key's leadership: it's what National hasn't done. It hasn't scrapped Labour policies including Working for Families, interest-free student loans, Kiwibank, KiwiSaver, state housing or reversed the removal of competition from ACC - all Right- wing bogeys in their day.

Farrar says this is what he finds so extraordinary about the 2014 campaign, with its images of people burning effigies of Key, students being led in chants of "f... John Key" and people's private emails being hacked by National's political opponents.

"Over what? The last Budget announced free healthcare for under-13s, no more asset sales, no tax cuts. This is insane almost. I'm not saying it would all be justified if Ruth Richardson or Margaret Thatcher were in power, but I could understand the reason people would get a bit extreme because there's massive things at stake . . . but when you look at what the National Government has done and is promising to do this is almost as centrist and moderate as you can get."

But Williams is unconvinced much has changed. "They're pretty much the same; they've carried on with privatisation, they have continually fiddled with industrial law so they are still the bosses' party, they're trying to hobble the Resource Management Act. It's all basic Toryism. You get the odd throwaway line like the extension of free healthcare but I think they are still basically the same party. The difference is their frontman has this warm cuddly image."

The Dominion Post