Polity by Rob Salmond

45

The overconfidence man

John Key has given a big interview to the NBR (paywalled, so no link) about how he sees the 2017 election shaping up. NBR called it “The Confidence Man.” Key’s right about some stuff, and off the planet about some other stuff.

First, Key says National is toast if it just bumbles on:

If we don’t continue reinventing ourselves with new policies and new ways of doing things, a refreshed mandate, if you like … [voters] get to 2017 and they will say ‘well you’ve run your race, you were there to do a certain thing for us and you’ve done it.

I think Key is right about this. Absent big new ideas, National will struggle to win a fourth term. What would the fourth term be for? In fact, the non-partisan people I’ve spoken to are already drawing parallels between Key’s third term and Clark’s. That term didn’t end too well for her.

Their problem is that the big new ideas they’ve been trying in the last while have been spectacular failures. Upping the benefit rates was a good idea, to be sure, but it has since been drowned in negative publicity about the folly of “creative solutions” from Smith, McCully, Bridges, and others.

Even though the votes aren’t massively shifting yet (more on that in a moment), the public mood is turning against National because of perceived inaction on the big issues facing New Zealanders. Top of mind in Auckland is housing, not just among people looking to buy, but among the parents and grandparents as well.

In fact, I’m willing to bet the reason Key gave this interview is that he saw that feedback in his own focus groups, and is signaling a change in approach. I’d politely suggest he’d need some change in personnel to achieve that.

Second, he thinks leadership won’t play much of a role in the election:

It won’t be because Andrew Little has done something amazing or because I’ve done another dumb thing.

I’d say this is overstated. The gradual accumulation of dumb things Key has done probably won’t cost them the election by themselves, but they will reduce the personality-based boost Key provides to National’s vote in 2017, compared to previous years.

Third, Key says Labour’s plan is to sleepwalk to victory:

Labour’s strategy is really clear. It is a deliberate strategy of doing and saying nothing. Their whole analysis is, this is a third term National government – third term governments never last – and if they do nothing, stay out of trouble, they will inherit the Treasury benches by default.

Key’s claim here is, of course, complete nonsense, and I don’t for a moment think this is Key’s actual view. He knows that Andrew Little’s favourability rating is tracking well, even if – like all new opposition leaders – he has some way to run before he’s as well known as the incumbent PM. He knows Labour’s major announcements are proving more popular than his, especially this month in the housing space. And he suspects (rightly) that we’ll announce plenty more good policy before election time.

Key doesn’t actually believe Labour is in do-nothing mode – he just wants the public to believe that. Hence the interview.

Labour got 25% in the last election, and it would be a completely foolish party that thinks it could sleepwalk from their worst result in 80 years direct to victory. Labour’s top table believes nothing of the sort, which is why the party is reaching out to small business like never before, taking on the challenge of thinking about how work around the world is changing and what it means for us, and so on..

In fact, we’ve also done the numbers on third term governments in New Zealand. There have been five in the modern era (under Fraser, Holyoake, Muldoon, Bolger / Shipley, and Clark respectively). Two of the five got a fourth term. So we think the history gives National almost even money of getting a fourth term, given they’ve already won a third term, and we’re determined to work our guts out to make sure that doesn’t happen.

For me, I expect Key will ditch his underperforming Ministers, copy as many of Labour’s ideas as he can get away with, and go into the election with a new, refreshed team proposing big ideas for New Zealand’s new issues. That, and everything bad under the sun will have been caused in 2007, not 2009 or 2011 or 2013 or 2015.

Labour, and the broader left, will really have its work cut out for it. If the left wants to win, they’ll have to think hard, and work harder. 

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