Good heavens, it's raining and Labour's still dry

God is a socialist, surely. Just as voters braced for cold showers and blackouts, the rains came and filled the lakes. For good measure, June was warm (well, not too cold).

This is the second year it has rained on cue. In April last year one generator gravely warned me of price spikes in the campaign if Helen Clark pulled an early election.

She did. The rains came. The prices stayed unspiked.

Add in two super years for the economy — and then last month, along with the rain, consumer confidence back in the black in June. It’s enough to make you scan the heavens for omens. Clark says she hasn’t been down on her knees (can you imagine that anyway?). But what has this government got?

Put yourself in the pinstripes or pearls of those gathering in Christchurch on Friday for National’s annual conference. They could be forgiven for feeling spurned by some more ineffable being than the voters.

The turning point — when voters’ presumption about a government turns from benefit of the doubt to suspicion — is not yet here.

Not since National’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Sir Keith Holyoake, in the 1960s has a government had it so good for so long. And Holyoake did not have poll ratings like Clark’s and Labour’s. Labour averaged 53 per cent in June.

So the task for Bill English, the nearest to a Holyoake leader National has had since, is beginning to look Sisyphean. No sooner does he make some ground pushing up the political mountain than he slips back again. Over and over.

At least for now he is not under challenge as leader. The headless-chook episode back in April stayed headless.

But that is not to say English is now revered and celebrated. “It is still unsettled” in the caucus, said a well-wired MP last week. The next real leader, I hear repeatedly, is Simon Power and he is in no hurry to field a hospital pass. He wants much more experience.

Give English credit for grit, though: he has got up from the bottom of that indecorous April ruck and lumbered on — much like Clark in mid-1996 after Michael Cullen half-led a headless-chook bring-back-Mike-Moore event.

Give English credit for some good groundwork, too. He was a driving force behind the desperately overdue streamlining of the organisation outside Parliament approved by a special conference in April.

Now regional managers are on the staff of media mogul Steven Joyce, who is general manager, not secretary or director. The party now has the capacity it woefully lacked last year to run a coordinated national campaign.

A new, slim board will be elected this weekend and there are some promising candidates. A process that feeds party members’ views on policy into the caucus seems to be working — and there is a determination that the board will sign off official policy to avert the sorts of surprises the caucus sprang last year.

A pool of candidates is to be established and they are to be trained. Current president Judy Kirk, likely to be re-elected, wants the selection round for the 2005 election completed by end-2004. She is claiming a surge in membership and funds, though off a low base. A pamphlet proclaiming the party’s reformulated values and principles will be launched at the conference.

Another innovation at the conference will be a meeting of all electorate chairs, who are the lynchpins of a well-functioning party. The meeting will be a sort of unofficial council.

And the party has been polling and running focus groups.

At the parliamentary end English has now got out base papers on economic and welfare policy. Education is next and the Treaty of Waitangi later in the year.

This should help lay groundwork for overcoming a widespread complaint that it is not clear what National stands for.

National has also been operating better in the House and scoring some hits. Now that superstar Tony Blair’s Labour has suddenly slipped behind the Tories in Britain, who knows what might happen here?


The position papers are painfully slow in coming. MPs still complain English is indecisive.

And much of the MPs’ activity, especially in the House, is oppositionist: opposing almost anything the government does, sometimes using the most extreme imaginable scenario; and waving every shroud they can find.

Some of this verges on the silly. Much passes the punters by (a small exception is the methane tax on farmers, whose wives might now desert Labour). Oppositionism doesn’t establish what National stands for. Indeed it may obscure it.

English so far hasn’t found a balance between the strategic and tactical.

So there will be interest in his conference speech on Saturday. Will it be his last? Or a marker on the way to an illustrious prime ministership? Or a stage in, as he puts it, “consolidation”?

National is on the way back — but not yet with such momentum that anyone would notice who is not up close. The delegates this weekend could do with a made-in-heaven performance from their leader. But can She spare the time from looking after Labour?