A Key year for National

01:03, Jan 26 2010

On the House is back in session. I hope everyone had at least some sort of a break, and that you managed to spend it outside Wellington. Otherwise you will be pale, sun-starved and driven crazy by the capital's lousy summer.

Judging by the number of comments on the site over the break, it seems most of you have been quite happy talking among yourselves, but in the interests of giving the debate some sort of direction it's probably time to resume postings for the year.

And if that sounds like a fairly lukewarm way of resuming normal service, it's only because I'm still in grief mode at being back at work.

So, it seems, is Phil Goff. Labour's leader has issued a ringing endorsement of his own abilities today at Labour's caucus meeting in Auckland.

"You'll have to put up with me for a couple more years,'' he told reporters this morning before Labour's traditional vote on the leadership, which has returned both himself and deputy Annette King.  "I think it's a recognition that the leadership team they've got is the best team they could hope for.''

Bloody hell. Talk about damning with faint praise. I can almost see Labour's next election slogan now: "Phil Goff: The best Labour has to offer.'' Or maybe "Goff - there's really no one else.'' It's almost as bad as Dunedin's "It's all right here'' or Hastings' "Take a fresh look''.

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Mind you, it's probably not Goff who has to worry much this year. As he says himself, there really isn't any alternative. As long as he can keep the Government honest and score a few points during 2010, he'll still be there at the end of the year.

No, I'm starting to think it's our prime minister who has his work cut out this year. When even the Right-leaning business publication the National Business Review starts telling National to get on with the job, you know that the tolerance of National's natural constituency for its steady-as-she-goes approach is coming to an end.

To be fair to Key and National, it does have some major plans this year, ranging from tax reform to the Whanau Ora policy of allowing private providers (mostly Maori) into the provision of welfare. It's got national standards to implement in education, energy sector changes to complete, the legal aid system to overhaul, and the Foreshore and Seabed Act to repeal and replace.

But there's a difference between planning things and actually implementing them, and that's going to be the litmus test of this administration this year. In 2009 Key proved himself to be a political manager almost of Helen Clark's calibre. In 2010, we'll get to see whether he can match her in getting things done as well.

Sure, we've already seen the Three Strikes policy announced, and without wishing to get the thread bogged down in this again (you already know what I think of this policy) that was easy-peasy, as Jo Seagar used to say. Talk tough about cracking down on crims, the public loves it, even though it won't make a jot of difference to the crime rate.

But there's much harder stuff coming up, such as the report of the Tax Working Group lobbed at the Government last week, which proposes cuts in income tax rates paid for by a rise in GST.

I can see some merit in this proposal, particularly since it raises the impost on consumption and encourages saving, both of which are sound fiscal policies. The problem is a rise in GST is going to hit the poor harder than the wealthy, and those on low incomes won't benefit from tax cuts anyway.

There will also be a lot of public resistance to any rise in GST, even if it is accompanied by tax cuts. I'm not sure Key will want to risk getting offside with voters on this one. He can't ignore the group's report, however, since its underlying conclusion is that our tax system is fundamentally unfair and needs some fairly major changes.

The budget is the obvious place to make such change, and is now looming as the first major test of National's stomach for far-reaching change that may actually make a difference in people's lives.

No one expected much from Finance Minister Bill English's 2009 effort; it was his first, and was delivered in a recession. That's not the case now, and just tinkering, as English himself said late last year, "ain't going to cut it''.

The first sign we'll get of what Key is planning this year will be in a couple of weeks' time, when he delivers his opening speech to Parliament. I'm told it will have three major themes:

Education - the introduction of national standards, and raising the standard of schooling more generally; The economy - and ways to grow it (including a reprise of Gerry "sexy coal'' Brownlee's idea of mining areas currently in national parks); and thirdly structural issues - including tax reform, efficiency in the government sector, and the Resource Management Act.

That would represent a solid start to the year. Though I'd like to add a couple of other suggestions. End interest-free student loans. Stop those earning over $100,000 claiming Working for Families payments.

Monday-ise Waitangi Day and Anzac Day. Legislate to stop cafes and restaurants charging up to 20 per cent "surcharges'' on public holidays for starters.

Oh, and fix Wellington's weather.

What's your wish list for John Key this year? Or for Phil Goff?

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