Glad tidings for Labour and its leader

Last updated 10:00 14/12/2009

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Colin Espiner

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As Christmas presents go, it's not exactly gilt-edged and gift-wrapped.

However, TV3's poll last night that showed a lift in support for the Labour Party - and, more crucially, support for leader Phil Goff - is probably better than anything else the party is likely to find under the tree come Christmas Day.

Labour remains miles behind National.

However, it is the trend that is important.

Labour is up four points and National down five, while Goff, personally, is up three and Prime Minister John Key down seven points.

That will give Goff a little breathing space over the barbecue season. He came under heavy fire for his "nationhood" speech, which aimed to scratch the itch of middle New Zealand that was annoyed by the antics of MP Hone Harawira and the perception National was doing deals with the Maori Party that provided for special treatment for one ethnic group.

The broad consensus from both the commentariat and Goff's own party was that the speech was A Bad Thing.

Partly, this was because Goff wasn't seen as credible on race- relations issues, but also it was a topic Labour is normally happy to pretend doesn't exist.

Of course, one swallow does not a summer make - especially in Wellington, which has yet to see the sun this month.

However, if TV3's poll is mirrored by others, then it could be Goff who has the last laugh.

He took a risk, and accepted responsibility for that risk. That's what leadership is about. And, after almost 30 years in politics, it's also possible he knows the electorate a bit better than some of the 20-something handwringers who write for Labour's websites.

Whatever, after a year in the wildnerness there are the faintest glimmerings the party is getting its act together.

The first semi-coherent wisps of a policy platform are beginning to gel, although Labour hasn't yet got them down on paper.

It's sort of stream-of- consciousness at this stage, as if Goff is still mumbling in his sleep. It goes something like this:

"National's OK, but it's not doing anything much and [hard-working] Kiwis are suffering because they didn't get pay rises or tax cuts and business is getting impatient because National isn't fixing any of the structural issues with the economy or monetary policy and [hard-working] Kiwis are still losing their jobs while the Government is doing deals for Maori and that isn't fair but we can't quite say that.

"So, instead, we'll just make vague comments about how there should be one law for all and I'll keep turning up at motorcycle rallies and wearing open-neck shirts and try to appeal to those blue-collar types."

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It's easy to laugh, of course, and National has been doing plenty of that at Labour's expense this year. However, as Christmas approaches, there is the sense that the Opposition has a little more momentum.

It's the little things.

Defeating MP Todd McClay's shop trading bill last week gave Labour MPs great satisfaction.

As did watching Key perform a U-turn on his trip to the climate- change conference in Copenhagen - even if it didn't have much to do with Labour.

It's also National's back-track on the huge levy increases planned for ACC, which again had nothing to do with Labour and everything to do with the public backlash.

Some claim the announcement and subsequent back-track was all part of a cunning plan by ACC Minister Nick Smith to soften up the public for what is still a sizeable hit to the wallets of (hard-working) New Zealanders.

However, it's more likely that Smith was simply hoodwinked by ACC's board, which even under new chairman John Judge still seems to believe the corporation is in dire financial straits.

Others in the Government don't think it is, however, and believe that the ACC has pulled the wool over ministers' eyes in a bid to line its coffers with taxpayers' money - some of which is then gambled on the international stockmarket.

Watch for changes to the full- funding model for ACC in next year's Budget.

The Government has been through a spate of doing things and releasing reports, and all indications are the sleeves are rolled up.

Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee is getting rid of the Electricity Commission, while his colleague Simon Power, the Justice Minister, is doing away with the Legal Services Agency.

Brownlee's Clint Eastwood routine with the power companies has been worthy of an Oscar, and it is the minister's prerogative to make whatever changes to the sector he sees fit.

Power's outrage at the rorts within the legal-aid system appeared more genuine, yet in both cases their performances are going to be judged on results.

Brownlee has wound back expectations of a fall in electricity prices, instead claiming to have flattened future increases. He's bought himself at least a couple of years before the veracity of this can be properly ascertained.

That sort of sums up National's year, though - a lot of huffing and puffing, without a great deal of change.

As Parliament enters its final week before the lengthy summer recess, it's difficult to see how Key could be anything but pleased with 2009.

The economy weathered the so- called worst recession in decades far better than almost anyone expected and the Government is more popular than when it was elected.

And, while National has had the odd foot-in-mouth moment and mislaid the odd minister, it hasn't stuffed up in any area of major consequence.

In fact, it's run things more smoothly than most of the years Labour was in office.

Yet, Labour is not in disarray, as National was at the end of its first year in opposition a decade ago. It seems poised to make further progress, too - if Goff can somehow manage the egos on his frontbench.

Next year is going to be a tough year for the Government, and National knows it.

The middle year of the electoral cycle is the "doing" year, and the one where the public starts looking for results.

National faces the prospect of a continued rise in unemployment and a Budget that is likely to make 2009 look positively generous by comparison.

Pay rises are out for most in 2010, too, as companies seek to recoup their losses during the recession.

Next year features the beginning of the emissions trading scheme proper and the likely repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act.

The Government also faces tough decisions on tax and welfare reform.

In short, National has earned its Christmas break.

However, if public dissatisfaction with the Government next year sees votes flow to Labour, then the next election might yet be a closer result than some people expect.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Comment on this opinion piece below.

- The Press

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