National discovers a new feeling - panic

Can Bill English win a selfie election?
MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFF

Can Bill English win a selfie election?

It's known colloquially around Parliament as "the tiles" – the black and white-tiled floor where ministers, MPs and media mill around in the 15 minutes before parliamentary question time whenever the House is sitting. It's just a short walk from there to the debating chamber. But it's the longest walk in the world for a minister or prime minister embroiled in scandal. 

Even in their toughest times, however, National MPs would rather make that walk than not. It's hard earned. It means you've got power. You are important. You are the government.

John Key v Kim Dotcom was the big battle of the 2014 election.
GETTY IMAGES

John Key v Kim Dotcom was the big battle of the 2014 election.

For nine years now National ministers have made that walk,  folders tucked under their arm, on their way to and from the House, perhaps off to a meeting, the chauffeur-driven Crown limo idling at the door to the basement car park a couple of floors below. 

As they made that walk on Thursday, it must have hit them – for the very first time – that it could be their last.

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John Key - as long as he was around National felt bullet proof.
GEORGE HEARD/STUFF

John Key - as long as he was around National felt bullet proof.

 

National has always talked a big game about taking nothing for granted, that every election could be its last, that there was no room for complacency. And yet no one has really believed it, let alone voters. 

The John Key-Bill English-led Government has reigned supreme for nearly a decade. It's one of our most popular governments ever – freakishly popular, in fact.  

It got us through the global financial crisis, the Christchurch earthquakes, Pike River. It clawed New Zealand out of recession. So voters forgave it for a string of mini-scandals – the GCSB spying debacle, ponytail-gate, ministerial resignations, the teapot tapes, John Banks, secret donations, dirty politics.

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The accumulated baggage has tarnished National a little – but not much. On Thursday night's Colmar Brunton poll it's at 44 per cent – that's still doing better than any other government in modern times.

But it's enough of a drop still to put the wind up the party's skirts, as one National MP indelicately put it on Thursday after the poll landed. National no longer feels bullet proof.

It is facing an opponent that has all the qualities that carried National's former leader, John Key, through three elections.

New Labour leader Jacinda Ardern has that same easy rapport with voters, self-deprecating wit, and ability to think fast on her feet that worked to such devastating effect for Key against a tired-looking Helen Clark on the campaign trail in 2008.

Key's shock decision to step down in 2016 was supposed to be about stamping a fresh face on the National leadership to counter any mood for change. 

English was the "fresh but not fresh" option – a new face at the top, without Key's baggage.

But installing English – even with his gravitas and huge credibility with voters as the safe pair of hands on the economy – carried its own risk that he could look just as tired and out of ideas as Clark did nine years ago.

National considered that a small risk while Andrew Little was in charge. Even when it contemplated Labour making a leadership move – and as campaign manager Steven Joyce often reminds journalists, he saw it coming, even predicting it at the last press gallery party – it didn't see that as a huge threat.

Labour had chewed through Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little without making an impact. And while Key rated Ardern – he never made it a secret he considered her the biggest threat  had he stayed on for this election – many of his colleagues  did not.

In the days after she stepped up to the leadership they tried out lines like "flaky" for effect. They will regret now that they underestimated her impact.

Here are five other things National might regret on September 23.

WHAT NATIONAL MIGHT REGRET

* Assuming Labour wouldn't take risks.

The Ardern move could have been a disaster but Labour no longer had anything to lose. When the polls hit the low 20s Andrew Little knew the only way was down. He stepped down in a last-ditch effort to try to save the party but probably no one in Labour predicted such a dramatic change in fortunes under Ardern.

* Not taking enough risks itself 

National has the gift of a strong economy and low interest rates but it hasn't maximised the opportunity to deliver some forward-looking policies that tick the boxes on vision and legacy. Instead it has favoured the stability and continuity line, which worked well for it in the years after the global financial crisis but now risk making it look predictable and boring.

* Ignoring the mood for change

For months National ministers have been insisting the mood for change is a media invention and that this election will pivot on the familiar theme "don't' put it all at risk".   Among the 44 per cent of people who are voting National they are right, but that leaves 56 per cent of people who want change and were just waiting for a lightning rod.

* John Key resigning before, rather than after, the election. 

It was always a toss-up for Key whether he should go before or after the election and on the state of the polls and Labour when he quit in 2016 he made the right call. National will never know, however, whether he would have been an asset against Ardern, or a liability.

* Denying the housing crisis for too long

Everyone could see that house prices had reached ridiculous and unaffordable levels in Auckland – except National. It spent too long denying the problem rather than talking about fixing it.

But it's not all one-way traffic. Labour has shot itself in the foot too many times not to have its own regrets.

Here are five things it might wish it had done differently on the morning after September 23.

WHAT LABOUR MIGHT REGRET

* Chewing through too many leaders 

Nobody can keep count any more.  

* Infighting, disunity and disloyalty

Voters have long memories about these things.

* Cannibalising the Green vote 

The Ardern effect has brought the Greens to the brink of extinction. That will make some Labour MPs very happy but long term it could come back to bite Labour.

Scrapping some of their flagship policies from the last election, like the capital gains tax

Labour pushed a lot of its 2014 economic policy platform overboard because it thought the policies were unpopular, when it was really just the leader that was the problem. But now it's finding itself boxed into a corner.

Changing its constitution to take leadership decisions out of the hands of its caucus

Ardern was elected by a caucus vote because the constitution allowed it this close to an election. Little and his predecessor, David Cunliffe, were imposed on the caucus by the party's constitution giving equal say to the wider party membership and unions.

A TIMELINE OF NATIONAL'S THIRD TERM IN GOVERNMENT

March 8, 2015: Winston Peters wins the Northland by-election.

May 8, 2015: Former foreign minister Murray McCully becomes embroiled in a Saudi Sheep Scandal, with protracted claims of bribery in the establishment of a New Zealand taxpayer-built agrihub in the Saudi desert. 

June 30, 2015: Government books are back in surplus.

February 4, 2016: Historic Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal signed in Auckland.

March 24, 2016: New Zealand retains its flag in a referendum.

April 3, 2016: New Zealand and its foreign trust industry are caught up in a major leak from trust firm Mossack Fonseca, dubbed the "Panama Papers".

September 22, 2016: Prime Minister John Key sits as president of the UN Security Council during leaders' week, to call world leaders to a historic debate on Syria.

December 5, 2016: John Key resigns, sparking a National leadership race which Prime Minister Bill English won a week later. 

February 25, 2017: Jacinda Ardern wins the Mt Albert by-election. A few days later, Annette King steps aside to open the way for her to be Labour deputy leader.

July 15, 2017: Metiria Turei admits to benefit fraud as a young single mother in the early 90s. 

August 1, 2017: Andrew Little steps down and the party appoints  Jacinda Ardern as leader following devastatingly low poll results off the back of the Greens' benefit bomb. 

August 9, 2017: Turei resigns after her story unravels and her position becomes untenable – she's already ruled herself out of any Cabinet, before Ardern ruled her out. 

August 15, 2017: Chris Hipkins lodges parliamentary questions after an approach from a buddy in the Australian Labor Party. He's pipped by the Australian media but his involvement in revelations that Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is a New Zealand citizen sparks a diplomatic row. 

* Comments on this article have been closed.

 - Stuff

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