Under-mining rich seam of popularity?

The pragmatist: John Key leads what one commentator labels a 'do-nothing' government.
The pragmatist: John Key leads what one commentator labels a 'do-nothing' government.

New governments can suddenly crash. A National government did it 20 years ago when it launched a terrifying slash-and-burn Budget. A Labour government did it nearly 40 years ago when the first global oil crisis exploded and its charismatic leader died. At mid-term, a government which surfed a giant wave to victory can find itself head-down and gurgling.

John Key's regime has so far had an astonishing ride. The polls suggest it has become more popular with time, as though the wave which took it to power had grown, rather than weakened. All the more surprising, then, to find a white hikoi with 40,000 marchers bursting into Queen St: the kind of demo, as everyone noted, not seen in Auckland for decades.

What's more, the marchers were angry and serious, accusing the government of betraying the country's cherished myth of environmental purity. John Key, guardian as tourism minister of the clean, green Kiwi brand, was proposing to dig huge mud-holes in the middle of paradise! Likable, smiley John Key was a fink.

So is this the beginning of the end for Key and his government? Certainly, it's a sign of trouble. Dr Barry Gustafson, former professor of political studies at Auckland University, says Key has till now "shown that he's very good at keeping a lot of balls in the air at once. But now they are bigger and there's more of them, and they're more slippery as well". Mining is the biggest and most difficult of all.

A previous National government, Gustafson notes, found itself in big trouble over a green issue. The proposal to raise Lake Manapouri in 1972 incensed National Party voters as well as left-wing environmentalists, and certainly contributed to National's defeat later that year.

But National had been in power for 12 years at that point: it was old and tired and the call for change was irresistible. Manapouri was just one of many nails in its coffin. And political pundit Chris Trotter points out that the Queen St demonstration occurred in a city close to the proposed mining sites on Great Barrier Island and the Coromandel. Aucklanders were unhappy partly because of the threat to their favourite holiday spots.

"National would have had more to fear," Trotter suggests, "if the demonstration had taken place in Dunedin or Invercargill." A big march in the heartland would have been a far more serious sign of trouble.

And everything depends on how the government responds. It is now a cliche to say that Key's hallmark is pragmatism: he does what works, and he backs off if it causes a row. Cabinet papers show that Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee's colleagues did not share his enthusiasm for mining in the DoC estate, and drastically cut his original plans.

Key could easily decide that mining was more trouble than it's worth, and quietly put it on the back-burner. As mining companies point out, it takes many years – years of prospecting, testing and planning – before any mine is built. Key has years to let the mining campaign dwindle or even die.

History shows that a skilful government can overcome trouble in its first term. Helen Clark's popular new government hit serious opposition from business soon after it was elected in 1999. But by its mid-term it had bounced back to a position similar to Key's government now. It had 43% support – up four points on its election-day share – and National had 32%. If the figures of its support parties – the Alliance and the Greens – are added, Labour had 56%. This is about the same as National, Act and the Maori Party had together in the UMR poll in March this year. And under Clark, Labour went on to win a total of three terms in office.

So governments can bounce back. Or they can get into terrible trouble by mid-term and survive only for other reasons. The Bolger-led National Party won a landslide victory in 1990 under the first-past-the-post electoral system of the time: its 48% of the vote delivered it an enormous parliamentary majority over Labour with 35%.

But after Ruth Richardson's "Mother of All Budgets", its support fell heavily and did not really recover.

And here, perhaps, is the rub. "Governments lose, oppositions don't win" is an old saw, but it is not quite the whole truth. Certainly Bolger's government lost a lot of support, but that support did not go to the Labour opposition, still badly damaged by its neo-liberal revolution and spectacular split between 1984 and 1990. Helen Clark's approval ratings were very low in the early-to-mid 1990s. Only in 1999 did Labour win the Treasury benches.

During Labour's previous stint in power between 1972 and 1975, on the other hand, the opposition won in spades under National's aggressive Robert Muldoon – arguably the best opposition leader in New Zealand's history. And the government helped to lose. Hit by a global oil crisis and economic woe, its charismatic leader Norman Kirk died just a little past its halfway point.

Right now, Labour has the worst of both worlds. The government has remained popular, and Labour has failed to dent it. (See sidebar.)

How come the government has remained so popular? Partly, no doubt, because of Key's relaxed and friendly personality. Voters genuinely like him. And partly, says Otago University political scientist Bryce Edwards, because it has been a moderate, non-polarising administration.

"More than anything, it has been a do-nothing government," he says.

It has not taken extreme positions on anything, unlike the 1990-led Bolger administration. The disastrous experience of that government, he says, "is etched on the memory of Finance Minister Bill English. This government hasn't lurched to the right".

National, of course, "is a right-wing party – but it is obsessed with being a centre-right party".

The upcoming Budget, he says, will crack down on landlords, "who aren't a typical enemy of the National Party". The increase in GST will be countered by help for the poor.

Key must juggle right and left, Act and the Maori Party. Gustafson argues that signs of discontent are now growing. Some National supporters dislike the concessions made to Maori – not, traditionally, a National constituency – and might stay away from the polling booths at the next election, he says. Similarly, there is some discontent in Auckland with Act's apparent monopoly over the supercity issue and some voters dislike the amount of power that will be wielded by unelected officials.

Trotter, however, says these concerns don't seem to have eaten into National's support base. There is noise from people like Michael Laws, he concedes, "but Laws is a talk-show host". So far, no National stalwart or ally has come out to hit the government. Business New Zealand plays a cheerleader role, issuing statements of support and only muted criticism.

A minor spat broke out last week when a businessman criticised Key for cutting short his participation in a Middle East trade mission, instead rushing home to attend the funeral of the three airmen killed in the Anzac Day helicopter crash. This might seem to show some cracks developing in business support for government. However, Cognition Education chief executive John Langley was quickly slapped down by his own board, which apologised to Key. A populist move to put a funeral ahead of trade talks appears to have done Key no harm at all.

Edwards agrees that dissent has so far been generally muted. Even with Maori issues, he says, "National hasn't had a wedge issue". Debate over the recent UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has been largely an argument conducted within Wellington's political "beltway", he says.

It could be added that the new family social services initiative Whanau Ora, launched by Key and Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia, which could have been a very expensive policy, was last week revealed to have a very modest budget. White taxpayers are largely untouched.

Gustafson points out that there are still many issues "that could blow up in the government's face". But at the moment, they remain dormant – except for mining. And it seems likely that Key will act to defuse it.

Sunday Star Times