Gaffes take gloss off what is supposed to be Labour's scene-setting

VERNON SMALL - FIRST READING
Last updated 10:54 09/12/2010

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OPINION: Only the God of politics could have delivered Don Brash walking a plank when his party was preparing to dump him. It took the same divine intervention to make John Key say he was going to lead "a Labour Government" when some hardliners in his party were worrying his compromising style would create a "Labour-lite" administration.

The same evil deity had his sport with Labour leader Phil Goff this week. First it made him refer to his finance spokesman David Cunliffe as David Caygill - reminding anyone who can remember that far back that he was part of the 1980s Labour Government and the legacy that Labour has been so keen to distance itself from.

Then he shot himself squarely in the foot by saying at least he had not said he would be the leader of a Labour government.

Well, if you say so, Phil.

These gaffes and tongue-slips always get more prominence than politicians believe is fair; especially on the television news; though usually only when they have some symbolic relevance. We are still laughing at Mr Key's "President Clinton" cock-up in front of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but its resonance stops there.

The problem for Mr Goff is that the $64,000 question for the next 12 months is precisely whether he can give himself even an outside chance of winning.

His double gaffe also took the gloss off what was supposed to be Labour's scene-setting speech for the holiday break; when by common wisdom voters have a break from politics but actually bed in some of their views ahead of election year.

The speech itself put a couple of important stakes in the ground for Labour. It has made "the big call" to repay net debt faster than the Government. Extra social spending would either have to create jobs, ease the cost of living or improve the lot of children. Any other major spending would have to be paid for from reallocating existing spending.

It is easy to see why.

Labour is always vulnerable to attack as a tax, borrow and spend party despite the work done by Helen Clark and Michael Cullen to neutralise that view and establish Labour as a responsible fiscal manager.

It is also patently obvious that next year - in the face of mounting debt and a world economy on the edge of another crisis - money is too tight not to mention.

It is a direction Labour already signalled at its conference, where a radical prescription in some macro-economic areas - the Reserve Bank and foreign investment rules in particular - was clearly not going to be matched by a fiscal loosening.

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Mr Key has made hay of the seemingly extravagant promise to return to pre-funding the Cullen superannuation fund, which he has costed at $2 billion a year.

But both Mr Key and Labour are being cute on this. Yes, it would be a $2 billion promise if Labour had pledged a return to "full funding". But while Mr Goff and Mr Cayg... - sorry, Mr Cunliffe - might be leaving that impression the fine print of the policy is actually to phase that in over time - leaving plenty of room to make the promise but wriggle well short of a $2 billion bill.

Labour has made a fiscal commitment worth maybe $250m a year to remove GST from fresh fruit and vegetables - a policy that has opened it to derision but which party insiders insist has gone down well on the hustings.

Beyond that, Mr Goff had little new detail to add in his speech, though in his New Year "state of the nation" address he is expected to unveil another flagship policy for the election.

If Mr Goff wants to increase his extremely slim chances of an upset at the next election, the process is all too slow and too late.

Of course, the received wisdom is that oppositions should keep their policy powder dry till close to the election when voters are focused, the media are more even- handed between the government and the opposition and your best ideas cannot be stolen by your rivals.

But these are not normal times.

Mr Goff is a decent and able politician.

But he is up against perhaps the most popular prime minister in his lifetime. If he and Labour seriously think that in a presidential-style campaign he can shade Mr Key they are dreaming.

If they think he can be sold as the experienced solid alternative - when Miss Clark failed on that score - they have not been watching the crises Mr Key had to negotiate in his first two years as prime minister.

Labour's slim hope is that National will lose the election through a series of unforeseen errors or disasters or a severe downturn in the economy.

Barring that, the best it can do is to set aside its policy nervousness and - well before the election - try to create an appetite for its policy mix.

That will mean sooner rather than later fleshing out Annette King's social policy prescription, centred on kids, and the economic and savings policy work being done by Mr Cunliffe and policy heavyweight David Parker.

- The Dominion Post

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