Why Boag's heavy-hitters make a difference

Michelle Boag is promising a third heavy hitter to add to her haul for National’s list of Don Brash and market-friendly green guru Guy Salmon.

For this election these icons will principally lift the morale of the faithful. Brash’s announcement certainly did that for regional conference delegates at New Plymouth at the weekend.

Their real value is in the longer game: as serious contributors next term to a now-hollow National parliamentary team and to strengthen the line-up on show to voters in 2005.

In that election Labour will still have little weight behind its front bench. It has at most only two potential heavyweight up-and-comers in its lower ranks and maybe — depending where the cut is — two more among the newcomers in its list announced on Sunday.

This long game is the one Boag and Bill English are playing. English wants his party to govern long-term and, he shakily alleged on Saturday, for the whole country. Right now National has neither the policies nor the firepower nor remotely enough Maori and Pacific island support for that.

But quietly, largely unseen by the public, Boag and English are laying the foundations. You might call it progressive-conservatism — indeed, at New Plymouth, while family back-to-basics conservatism was in vogue, the word “progressive” could occasionally be heard.

So, first, there needs to be breadth in the caucus to go with the depth coming from Boag’s vigorous shoulder-tapping of big-names and the candidacy in winnable electorates of international achievers merchant banker John Keys and business restructurer Brian Connell.

The beginnings of breadth comes from 14 Maori candidates, four of whom are likely to be in winnable list positions, and more women. Presentable white male electorate candidates not yet in Parliament have candidly told me they do not expect winnable list rankings.

Second, presentation. English must be both reassuring and modern — and credible with it.

His keynote speech on Saturday gave a flicker: eyeball-to-eyeball, admonishing, determined, assured, witty, holding out hope but with no candy-floss — credible and connectable, unlike his squeaky-voiced rants in the House, and television-friendly enough to promise a lift in ratings in the election campaign.

He got away a good one-liner, “Helen Clark thinks ethics is a town near London”, which imputed academic effeteness (her big-noting with centre-left luminaries in far-off places) and suggested the government sees ethics as distant from day-to-day life in Wellington.

For the first time, even though it is a sideshow, English has the upper hand on something: Clark’s errant signatures, her deputy Jim Anderton’s cynical circumvention of the party hopping law and New Zealand Post’s conduct before Parliament’s finance and expenditure committee gave his jibe purchase.

Third, policy. Here “progressive” and “conservative” meet.

English’s task this year is to lock in his core vote — small business, farmers, the old — but also to flag policies that point forward to 2010.

The core vote has been promised what Labour is gleefully calling a rightwards shift: on tax, economic deregulation and labour laws last week, a pro-American foreign policy line two weeks ago and a one-nation deadline on treaty settlements yesterday.

That’s mostly conservative. But “progressive” (as National sees it) is also meshed in.

Lower taxes and deregulation are, it argues, an international trend and necessary for faster growth. There is a push from some National Maori to recognise biculturalism as more than binary multiculturalism. English wants as the core of his Maori and social policy the reduction of dependency, which can be “conservative” or “progressive”, depending on detail and viewpoint.

Then there is the issue of customisation of private sector goods and services that seems likely over time to be a factor in public services. How innovatively English deals with that may well determine how credibly he can tack present a “progressive” party of the future.

He doesn’t have that field to himself. Labour’s Steve Maharey is edging the cabinet towards customisation, though glacially.

Which party is progressive? The 2005 election might well decide. National at least is now on the board.