National must watch out before the 'arrogant' label sticks

Todd Barclay ruined the fanfare around National's annual conference.
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Todd Barclay ruined the fanfare around National's annual conference.

OPINION: In my column in the aftermath of the UK election, I said the one certain takeaway was that nemesis follows hubris. That is to say, fate tends to punish arrogant governments. National may have a clear lead, but the rapid hobbling of Theresa May shows how fast things can change.

This rule asserted itself with ferocity last week. Before Tuesday morning, the Government had no idea what a rough time it was in for. National did not foresee the run up to its conference being blown to bits by Todd Barclay's bad behaviour. Bill English was not prepared for his honesty and integrity to have been put on the line. And, obviously, Barclay himself will not have started the week knowing he was going be retiring by the end of it.

Of course, the story didn't come from nowhere. It was the result of careful and detailed work by Melanie Reid, a reporter for the news website Newsroom. And the problems that were the subject of the story have been around for more than a year. It was the kind of thing that had too many loose-ends for it not to become a story at issue point.

I attended the National Party conference in Wellington as media last weekend. This gave me the opportunity to talk to members and activists about how they felt about the past week. Annoyance at the leadership and its advisers for being asleep at the switch sums it up.

Supporters of the Government may be tempted to write the story off as a Wellington story. Mike Hosking thought so. On his "Mike's Minute" on the issue, he indicated that, in the grand scheme of things, the matter was a "beltway bother".

And it's not an unreasonable assumption. Things that excite the Wellington media do not always weigh on the minds of regular voters. People with jobs and children and lives rarely have the time to worry about such things.

But that may not be the case here. I don't claim to have access to fancy data, but I do make a real effort to talk to people who only have a passing familiarity with politics. The feedback I have received is very much along the lines of: "It's not a good look for Bill English".

Will this affect the election? Maybe. Probably not to any material degree, though.

The Dirty Politics saga raged without mercy before the 2014 election. Coverage, which lasted for weeks, usually focused on (now) Sir John Key. There was a real sense of purpose about tying him to the scandal.

In the election before that, the big story was the teapot tape scandal. This bust-up implicated the former prime minister directly. Conjecture about what he said to John Banks was one thing. A fortnight of criticism over how he handled it was probably worse.

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Yet, as history shows, those controversies failed to move the needle on the public's voting intentions. In each case, National's vote held despite voters generally disapproving of it in those matters. While sore losers will always blame this on voters being too dumb or venal, when it came down to that single, macro decision about how to use their sole party vote, people based their decision on other factors.

And National got lucky with the emergence of another scandal last week. I refer, of course, to the "Labour camp" scandal. This involved foreign students being induced to come to New Zealand on the promise of top-notch campaign schooling and experience. Instead, some claim to have been consigned to low-grade activities and forced to live in substandard conditions. Having booked return tickets in advance, it seems some of these students were unable to return to their home countries as soon as the truth emerged.

With at least some of these young people having been gagged by non-disclosure agreements, we don't know the full extent of what happened.

Broken by journalist Richard Harman the day after the Barclay expose, this story could almost have been designed to give National breathing space. Lessening this effect is that the rest of national media have proved surprisingly incurious about getting to the bottom of Labour camp matter. However, it did allow Bill English to open the National Party conference by noting that both major parties were coming off a bad week.

Beyond that, the National Party can only take consolation in the timing and limited nature of the scandal. At the time of writing, this damage appears real, but non-fatal. The Government's response to the controversy will not inspire confidence among its supporters, however.

There are still three months to go before election day. With the Government's opponents in Parliament and the media eager to establish a narrative of arrogance and complacency, National probably can't afford too many more weeks like last week.

 - Stuff

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