National digs through nuclear fallout

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 31/03/2012

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OPINION: They say that when you are in a hole, stop digging. National take note.

How it made the first three years look so easy is a bit of a mystery right now. Because the well oiled machine we saw back then has made awfully heavy weather of the last few months.

Prime Minister John Key spent the last week in nuclear hotspot Korea. With his cabinet still reeling from the abrupt departure of former ACC Minister Nick Smith, he might have assumed that the rest of his ministry would spend the time in reflective contemplation - along the lines of ''there but for the grace of God'', and ''OMG, have I done any favours I shouldn't have?''. Instead, he arrived back to find things had gone nuclear back here as well.

Within the space of a couple of weeks the scorecard goes something like this - Dr Smith dumped from Cabinet after intervening over the case of close friend and ACC claimant Bronwyn Pullar while he was ACC minister; a growing revolt in the public service, characterised by a slew of extraordinary leaks; Judith Collins lashing out at perfectly predictable Opposition harrying by threatening to sue all and sundry and Gerry Brownlee becoming an international laughing stock. Percolating just beneath the surface, meanwhile, is an ugly and unprecedented retaliatory smear campaign over MPs' personal lives and the unedifying sight of an internal row within National that is now so vicious it is hard not to at least wonder whether Nick Smith was in fact taken out by friendly fire.

Mr Key might have steadied the ship on his return. But it seems he did the opposite by tacitly endorsing Ms Collins' threats to sue Labour MPs Andrew Little and Trevor Mallard along with State broadcaster Radio New Zealand. It's a mystery why either Mr Key or Ms Collins would want to give any oxygen to the ACC debacle by stringing it out with lawyers' letters and OK Corral-style 5pm deadlines to apologise or else. It also beggars belief that either of them seriously believes a court room and a round-the-houses over how often she contacts Right-wing bloggers is a good place for Ms Collins to make her stand. But Mr Key may have felt he had no choice. His admission that he asked her not once, but twice, to give him her word she did not leak the email that may have helped bring about Nick Smith's downfall was extraordinary. Refusing to back her over the legal threat would have undermined her further.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Little and Mr Mallard are treating the defamation threat with disdain, and haven't even bothered to respond to Ms Collins' letters. The message they are sending is clear - that the lawyers' letters are no more than a desperate attempt to shut down further questions over who leaked what in the increasingly murky Nick Smith/ACC affair.

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So why do it? Did someone forget to take a deep breath? The questions would have run out of steam within a couple of days. Getting the lawyers involved ratcheted it up again. Or is it a leaf out of campaign 2011? Think back, for instance, to Mr Key's walkout on a media standup over the teapot tapes. The focus groups probably told National most voters were cheering on his actions, even while wondering if he had something to hide by refusing to allow the release of the tape of his conversation with then ACT candidate John Banks. And there is probably an element of calculation involved in the defamation threats. The fact that Mr Mallard was one of the MPs involved was no doubt a factor in Ms Collins playing hard ball. He has form for playing dirty politics, and is not well loved because of that.

But it also smacks of National still feeling bullet proof. It has a track record of defying the pundits. It probably thinks it will again by raising the stakes in the ACC row. The polls have blessed them for three long years and a bad day is one where the voters get mildly grumpy before settling back into mildly content. But the armour plating relies on the public continuing to dislike Labour far more than they yet dislike National. And the theory of diminishing returns will always apply. The longer National stays in power, the more baggage it will accumulate and, conversely, the less baggage Labour has to carry from the Clark administration. It goes without saying that National has accumulated a reasonable amount of baggage in the last few months. Once the crossover point is reached, what looked strong and decisive in year one, looks bullying and arrogant instead.

That point may not have been reached yet - but it has a way of sneaking up on governments as they become increasingly pre-occupied by side shows. And at the moment, National is the side show. It is entering dangerous waters in other areas as well. The Auckland business community is said to be increasingly grumpy with its lack of action on the economic front. While that is hardly fatal to National governments - the Auckland business community will always be grumpier about Labour ones - its frustration seems increasingly to be shared by the wider public. National has done a poor job of selling its economic plan as anything more than laying into the public service for another three years, and hocking off some shares in a few assets, which most people oppose anyway. Mr Key's big Thursday speech and his ''top 10'' goals for the public service were unconvincing  they had the air of an ad-man's back of the envelope gimmick - and it was only saved by the fact that Labour leader David Shearer's competing big Thursday speech might have been written by the same ad-man. Meanwhile, deals like the one being struck with Sky City - more pokie machines in exchange for an international conventional centre - look ad hoc and a bit fast and loose. Presumably National was emboldened by the deal over The Hobbit with movie bosses Warner Bros. But being on the same side as Sir Peter Jackson is to be on the side of the angels. It is impossible not to look good by association. A casino is a different beast.

National apparently came into power with a six year plan. It knew it was going to be tough winning beyond that. The last election showed it how tough. It was the most resounding victory ever to bring a party so close to defeat. It has underscored to its MPs just how difficult it will be to win the next one. Ironically, John Key might be what stands in their way of winning a third term. A deal with NZ First might save National in 2014 - but will be harder to do with Mr Key at the helm. The flip side of that, of course, is that without Mr Key - was six years the time limit he put on his leadership as well? - winning is a distant prospect anyway.
On the current polls, the odds are still in National's favour in 2014.  But it doesn't want 2012 to end as it began. For Mr Key to warn his caucus and the wider National Party to bring an end to the Nick Smith/ACC affair as quickly and with the least mess possible might be a good start.  

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