Liam Hehir: Little reason for the opposition to celebrate

A fresh-faced Bill English speaks to Paul Holmes after becoming National leader, first time round, in 2001.

A fresh-faced Bill English speaks to Paul Holmes after becoming National leader, first time round, in 2001.

OPINION: From a governing perspective, I can't be more satisfied that Bill English has acceded to the prime ministership.

As a matter of experience and acknowledged competence, there is nobody better placed to do a good job. As an economic centrist, he is unlikely to do anything to upset the political stability that is one of New Zealand's best assets.

As a partisan of the Centre-Right, however, my only real concerns are around electability. Bill English was the leader of the National Party in 2002, when it suffered its worst ever defeat. He is also a taciturn South Islander, which stands in stark contrast to the outgoing and upbeat John Key.

But while we don't yet have nearly enough information to know one way or the other, there are some very good reasons for why our friends on the Left should not simply assume that Bill English will be the supposed easy-beat he was in 2002. Here are four reasons things will probably be different this time.

Bill English is older and probably wiser

The new Prime Minister has been in Parliament so long that casual observers tend to assume he's a wizened old man. In reality, English is actually a bit younger than John Key and was only 41 when he fought his first general election as leader.

While the term "career politician" is mainly used as a term of abuse, you don't survive very long in high office without learning a thing or two along the way. Since losing the leadership, he has accrued an additional 14 years of experience. Eight of those years have been a very successful tenure as the number two man in government.

Bill English is a man who has suffered victories and defeats in the course of his career. More latterly, the victories have predominated.

We are at a different point in the political cycle

Where we are in the life-cycle of a particular government probably has more to do with the result than anything else.

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For example, when David Lange beat Sir Robert Muldoon in 1984, he was challenging a polarising and tired prime minister whose party had actually lost the popular vote in the last two elections. The country was in the grip of an existential financial crisis and inflation was rife.

By contrast, when Bill English took on Helen Clark in 2002, he faced a very popular prime minister who had just completed her first term in office. He had been leader of the opposition for just eight months and was barely known to the country.

Today, he is the newly minted prime minister of a popular government. The economy has proven resilient in the face of difficulties and New Zealanders are feeling optimistic. His rival, the equally serious and reserved Andrew Little, has failed to capture the public imagination so far.

The Centre-Right is unified

One of the reasons National did so badly in 2002 was that, from the outset, it was clear that it had no real path to power. The perception of inevitable failure caused the Centre-Right vote to sustain a terrible splintering. The Act Party was then a genuine electoral force and it retained 7 per cent of the vote. More importantly, thousands of National voters gave their support to Peter Dunne's party in the hopes he could lock the Greens out of government – a tactic that largely succeeded.

For a long time now, however, the Centre-Right vote has consolidated behind National. Act rarely scores more than a single point in opinion polls and the Peter Dunne phenomenon is well and truly over. National hasn't scored lower than 40 per cent in a public poll since September 2006, which, incidentally, was before John Key became leader.

The National Party works better now than it did then

National was facing headwinds in 2002, but a terrible campaign also didn't help. It is common ground for most observers that the party had not yet come to grips with MMP and that it failed to communicate to its potential voters the importance of the party vote.

Since that time, party officials put an awful lot of work into modernising how the party functions and campaigns. When it heads into the election next year, the prime minister, Nick Smith, David Carter and possibly Murray McCully, will be the only candidates who were MPs before the MMP era. Nobody in the National Party today is under any illusion as to how an MMP election can be won.

Maybe this is just wishful thinking on my part. We don't have enough information to know for sure. Unfortunately, it's one of those things we are just going to have to wait to see.

But if I were a Labour or Green member of parliament, I'd be keeping the champagne in the fridge a little while longer.

 - Stuff

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