OPINION: Five years ago next week, a grinning John Key was almost carried to the stage by the party faithful in their euphoria over National's first election victory in nearly a decade.
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since, but one thing hasn't changed – the electorate's love affair with Key.
The latest Fairfax Media-Ipsos poll has National polling at 50 per cent. Other polls have National in the mid-40s. To put that in perspective, National won in 2008 with 44.93 per cent of the vote.
Its secret to success comes down to five things.
- John Key. As the world plunged towards doom and gloom in 2008, Key seemed like a leader for the times – cheerful, optimistic and a tonic for voters ready for a change after nine years under Labour.
He has also been National's first genuinely charismatic leader in a long time. Jim Bolger and Bill English were cut from the same sturdy but unexciting stock, while the electorate never really warmed to New Zealand's first female prime minister, Jenny Shipley.
Key's appeal lies partly in his back-story – the state-house boy made good, a man who earned his millions overseas before returning to New Zealand with his family to carve out a political career.
It doesn't just resonate with National's traditional blue-ribbon support base. Middle New Zealand also instinctively trusts Key as someone who understands hard times.
But it is also a case of "what you see is what you get". Even Key's gaffes, like mincing down a runway pretending to be a top model, referring to someone's "gay red shirt" or chugging from a beer bottle at a barbecue with Prince William, make him seem more like "one of us".
It is that quality that has allowed him to carry middle New Zealand along with a platform that in previous decades might have turned into political battlegrounds.
- Steering a course through the global financial crisis. In his speech to the the Wellington Employers' Chamber of Commerce this week, Key made a point of highlighting National's determination not to slash and burn in response to the global financial crisis and the massive debt burden that welcomed it into office.
Previous National governments would have worn the scorched-earth label as a badge of honour, and Key's government came under pressure from some quarters to hack into government spending under cover of the crisis. That National resisted doing so – and even increased spending on welfare initiatives at the height of the GFC – has earned Key a reservoir of goodwill with voters and neutralised Labour's attacks on him as a Right-wing wolf in sheep's clothing.
That has sustained National through five years of belt-tightening, exemplified by Bill English's zero budgets, and changed the political discourse around election time from one about hip-pocket policies and lolly scrambles to a debate over fiscal responsibility.
Getting the books back into surplus next year will be National's most potent campaign weapon.
- Softly, softly government. Change may not be fast under this government, but the cumulative effect of many of its decisions will be far-reaching.
It is an approach that has allowed National to campaign on unpopular policies like asset sales without incurring a drop in support, despite widespread public unease.
The same approach, and a strategy of signalling change well in advance, has also blunted Opposition attacks on issues like raising GST and employment law changes such as the 90-day trial period.
Wide-reaching public service reform has similarly been conducted largely below the radar, despite deep cuts in some areas. But National's radar for looming trouble is also highly sensitive, due in large part to the size of the machine devoted to making sure it is not surprised by headlines.
That machine includes an almost manic level of control exercised by the prime minister's ninth-floor operation over government department communications, meaning little information gets out of the public service through official channels without the Government knowing about it.
National also has a sizeable budget for polling and focus groups and can sniff the winds of changing public opinion often before anyone else.
- Tragedy and disaster. National might have thought it had enough on its plate when it won power in the midst of a world wide economic crisis and the domino-like collapse of finance companies, including South Canterbury Finance, which required a $1.7 billion bailout. But it has also been tested by a succession of New Zealand's worst tragedies and disasters, including the Pike River mining disaster, killing 29 men, and the Canterbury earthquakes, which cost 185 lives and left a repair bill of billions of dollars.
It has been a staggering run of bad luck, but electorally it did National little harm since the events were beyond its control and enhanced its credentials as a safe pair of hands.
- Raising the bar for ministerial performance. Key is known to keep his ministers on their toes by putting them through yearly performance appraisal reviews and laying out his expectations during individual chats at the start of each year.
He shocked many when he dumped Cabinet ministers Phil Heatley and Kate Wilkinson at the start of this year for under-performance, an unheard-of occurrence.
He has also been ruthless about using ministerial sackings as a way to neutralise scandal. Richard Worth and Pansy Wong were unceremoniously dumped and their disgrace was made even more complete by their immediate departure from Parliament, another unheard-of occurrence.
But Key's opponents will say his instincts deserted him over ACT leader John Banks, who stepped down only last week over electoral fraud allegations that date back more than a year.
- Fairfax Media