National's second-term funk

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 08:30 23/04/2012

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Talk about going from hero to zero. Every party gets the blues at some point in their second term, but the speed with which the blue funk has descended on National must set some sort of record.

Some of that is beyond its control, such as the Crafar farms decision, which Labour could hardly have made any differently had it been in government, despite the overblown rhetoric about National selling us down the river.

But even so, it seems as if this Government is picking an extraordinary number of fights at present. Whether it is fracking, pokie machines or paid parental leave, National seems to be approaching every brushfire with a belligerence that wasn't there in its first term.

With the benefit of National's near daily polling, that belligerence might well be justified, but for those of us who only get to sniff the wind and base our opinions on a mix of gut instinct and what people around us are saying, it seems as if you can't be on the wrong side of so many arguments and expect to avoid a bloody nose.

However, maybe the poll statistics are telling National something quite different and it is able to take comfort that the clamour around the Sky City deal, or fracking, or ACC, is just noise that the average punter tunes out as beltway babble.

If so, it would be nothing new. During National's first three years, it sailed through every prediction of calamity unscathed.

The test of whether this is turning into a tale of two terms will be this weekend's 3 News poll.

The beltway babble view fits in with the narrative being woven around current events by the glass-half-full types in the National Cabinet, and there are more of those than just the obvious one, Prime Minister John Key.

Their story goes that the only thing the noise around fracking, the Sky City deal or foreign investment proves to the average voter is that Labour is "against everything" and "for nothing" that might give the economy a nudge. Therefore, according to their logic, voters will draw their own conclusion about whether Labour and the Greens should be taken remotely seriously on economic credibility.

This narrative relies, of course, on the average punter believing that the whole of National's economic plan is far greater than the sum of the parts currently under debate, namely fracking (for the uninitiated, a form of mining which involves shoving large quantities of steam, sand and chemicals into the earth with such force it is said to cause mini earthquakes), a convention centre, and sending farm profits offshore.

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There may be a master plan in there somewhere, but even National's allies are blowed if they can find it.

However, National has a natural advantage over Labour on economic management – that's the upside of being lumped with a label as the party of the rich. If there is one thing rich people are good at, it is making a buck, and it is assumed that applies to running the economy as well.

So while Labour and left-wing parties generally are labouring over producing spreadsheets and graphs to prove the numbers add up to all their squinty-eyed doubters, conservative parties just assume that it is taken as read.

Meanwhile, Labour leader David Shearer is yet to seriously challenge perceptions. He was, in fact, lucky that he delivered his second "big vision" speech while the media, if not the man in the street, were too preoccupied by the row surrounding Sky City to take much notice.

Among those of us who did notice, the only nugget in the speech seemed to be that Mr Shearer was mulling over an idea or two, while he ponders how to move Labour to the centre.

With his big vision series nearing the halfway mark, it should seriously worry Mr Shearer and party strategists that six months down the track he is still to deliver an epoch-making speech.

The rumblings from within Labour suggesting, admittedly very early, signs of division over strategy and direction indicate that the hierarchy is not blind to the problem.

Nor, of course, is National, which might also explain the all-round truculence. During its first six years, Labour was similarly of the view that no matter the crisis, its Teflon coating protected it – that and the fact that National was in such disarray that, no matter what the crisis, the alternative always looked 10 times worse. For the first four or five years, that was true.

It is probably too early to suggest that National is entering that dangerous period when the tide slowly starts to turn, but it is making such heavy weather of things at the moment that it is not hard to see that moment advancing quicker than expected.

The Greens have done a particularly good job of building a campaign against the casino, and the Government has done a particularly poor job at marshalling the arguments in favour of a convention centre.

National suffers from a similar lack of champions and allies over the Crafar farm deal.

National itself has done little to stifle the domestic backlash, with Mr Key himself coining the phrase "tenants in our own land". It is hardly surprising that it has been mercilessly used against him by Labour.

But Labour's game, while probably smart in the short term, isn't sustainable long term, particularly once the debate shifts from the Crafar farms to being anti-foreign investment. That doesn't put Labour in the political centre. It puts it in the wilderness.

- Waikato Times

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