Island Life by David Slack

Be careful what you wish for

Can we take it from the latest poll result that 46% of New Zealanders number themselves in the mainstream? Maybe.

It would be astonishing if National could pull off an MMP election victory by campaigning as though it were still working under First Past the Post conditions, but remarkably, it's not far off achieving it on the basis of this poll. If Peters loses and NZ first fails to get the threshold, then that poll result is enough to give National all but two of the seats it needs to govern outright. Peter Dunne, come on DOWN.

Gordon King might yet get his perfect storm. We'll see. Centrebet still gives it to Labour at $1.55 against $2.25. That's a big change from a week ago, but still some distance from the $1.85 opening odds they posted for both parties. They say at Centrebet that the big punters wait until every possible event in the campaign has worked its way through the system, and then the big money goes on.

They also say that they frame their odds with a couple of factors weighing quite strongly: on the one hand, countries with an MMP electoral system tend to produce centre left coalitions more than centre right ones. On the other hand, they're mindful that all governments expire over time and that the odds of achieving a third term are always a bit longer.

The guy I spoke to at Centrebet about all this seemed especially interested in the possibility that one or the other party still has a big shot or two left to fire off. He was hugely impressed by the way Howard held fire on their logging policy until the very last, then went in and mowed down Labour. I think he's convinced something like that will happen here. We'll see.

So: maybe a change of government, maybe not. What is undeniably clear is that a party that was being prodded for signs of life after its election drubbing three years ago is back with a vengeance, and now might be as good a time as any to ask: is this is a government-in-waiting or a bunch of politicians singing along to a marketing campaign that recites a list of focus group grievances? Is National ready for prime time?

If you click over to their website, your impression at first blush might be that there is a substantial body of policy locked and loaded. First hundred days, here we come. But when you start fossicking around the news releases and speeches, you might become a little perturbed at a recurring theme. There is a sameness to many of the policy speeches, (with the odd exception, such as Bill English's more substantial work on education), and that sameness is this:
Express outrage and frustration, typically by fixating upon exceptional and marginal aspects of an issue (Taniwha in road construction for example).
Give the political correctness gone mad horn a blast.
Wave the that's not in the interests of mainstream New Zealanders flag a bit.
Then promise that when you're in office, things will be different.Very different.
How different? Well, er, we'll review it.

Take health: money has been wasted, they say. Too many bureaucrats and administrative bodies they say. That has to change, but it must not change much, lest we cause disruption. So we'll REVIEW THINGS.

Or take the RMA. It's a mess, and they'll fix it by...REVIEWING IT.

Well, no actually, that's a bit of a misrepresentation. They do have some specific measures in mind for that. For example, they'll strip out references to the Treaty and obligations to consult Maori.

That goes down a treat in the focus groups, no doubt, but it ignores some important historical lessons. The design of the Resource Management Act was influenced by tribunal decisions such as Motonui which had shown quite clearly that there were aspects of the environment that were very important to Maori. You don't run a sewerage outfall onto their traditional fishing grounds. You don't go developing on top of sacred burial grounds. You should make due allowance for the cultural values of the iwi who signed the treaty. It makes good common sense to talk to them and find out that whatever you're doing does no harm of that kind.

But the focus groups have spoken, so out she goes.

Speech after speech, more of the same: this is bad, and we will..REVIEW IT

What about economic policy? It seems to reduce to a pretty simple nostrum: bureaucrats bad, private enterprise good.

I don't doubt the sincere motivation of Dr Brash and his team to try to do what's best for us all, but from where I sit, the government in waiting appears to be offering itself for office on too flimsy a basis: too many simple solutions to complex problems, too little evidence of carefully prepared, detailed policy.

Why? In part because the leader's CEO style has left the caucus unable to resolve policy positions on crucial matters such as welfare, and in part because this leader is as entranced by the notion of a hands-off government as much as every other right-leaning Nat has been from Williamson and Luxton through to Shipley and Richardson. They love the idea of market signals and simple magic bullets, and no doubt they have boundless faith in the market to deliver us to the promised land.

It all sounds very nice but if you look across the Pacific to their ideological fellow traveller and the mess he's dealing with in - oh let's just pick two: - Iraq and Louisiana, you wonder whether we might just want to be careful what we wish for.