Orewa 2005: this time a swell rather than a tsunami?

Who won most in Helen Clark’s Christmas reshuffle? Bill English. Both education ministers were moved.

Not bad for the has-been, two scalps. Tony Ryall, for all his high-octane attacks on Phil Goff and George Hawkins, got neither’s. That may explain Don Brash’s failure to get a rise out of law and order last July.

And perhaps English’s success says something about the tone Brash might usefully set next Tuesday in his Orewa speech.

Orewa is a high jump for Brash and his party this year. Last year’s “no special treatment” speech on the Treaty of Waitangi triggered, with later Maori radical help, a polling tsunami which has set the media bar high for this year’s.

Consequently, some MPs have been urging him to be “aspirational” this year — for the nation and about a Brash prime ministership.

This would conveniently sidestep two of the traps National snared itself in last year: a refusal to state policy, on a pretext Labour would steal it; and a belief that slogans could hook the electorate.

Those misjudgments conflated into another: that the government recovered from Orewa last year because journalists were mesmerised by its “spin”. The corollary of such synthetic thinking is that if National could get the “spin” right, hey presto, it would capture the media and the electorate.

First, the government’s “spin” is not the svengali spell National imagines. It consists mainly of being available and addressing questions (plus, of course, the usual tricks such as sliding off inconvenient questions and giving half the answer).

Second, National’s media management has been deficient. Some senior MPs take days to return a call. There is no forward programme of MPs’, or even Brash’s, speeches and activities.

“Spin” is not the elixir of politics. When it works it works short term. Politics in the long run is about principle and policy.

That does not mean voters sift through bags of policy to decide their vote. Of course not. It means voters have some sense of how a party would tackle the big and small questions of government and what long-term direction it would set.

When that sense is betrayed, as in 1984-92, voters are disoriented and angry: they cut 13 per cent each from Labour’s vote in 1990 and National’s in 1993 and voted for MMP in protest.

National’s deficit right now is not “spin”. It is that Labour has regenerated in voters a sense of how it tackles big and small questions of government, that is, a sense of what it stands for — and enough voters think that is not too distant from where they themselves stand.

Of course, much of that congruence of opinion actually stems from their household’s share in the domestic economic buoyancy. If/when that buoyancy deflates, so will some of their sense that the government has been on the right track.

But, come that day, will National be ready with a convincing alternative sense among voters of what it stands for, how it would tackle the big and small questions of government? Or will it just have slogans?

That is the question for Brash to answer next Tuesday. Do he and National chart a course voters want in the 2000s? To answer yes he will need more than airy “aspirations”, to be followed by last-minute policy at campaign time. He will need principles, illustrated with some policy, now.

The irrepressible John Key — up and texting me at 9.01am the day after Boxing Day when most MPs were soporific — is attempting to do just that sort of thinking.

As a result, some of National’s economic principles should begin to take firmer shape from speeches he will make, starting next month, covering SOEs, privatisation, the ownership society, infrastructure inadequacies, the welfare state and the optimum size of government (should there be a spending cap?), the scope for tax cuts and on what basis cuts should be made and policy responses on some individual tax issues.

Much further down the track is English. He has landed a flurry of wounding blows over the past year, most tellingly about the creaking, misfunded tertiary sector. But much more important, he has developed four principles, drawn not from ideology but from observation, on which to found policy:

* lifting standards, particularly for the “tail” of underachievers;

* recognising the link between educational competence and breaking the “welfare dependency cycle”;

* enhancing local and school-based decision-making; and

* increasing “realistic” choice for parents (by, for example, removing the independent school funding cap, permitting more schools to integrate into the state system and relaxing zoning rules).

His theme is “aspirational choices” for all, from the gifted to the disabled.

Brash’s strongest electoral pitch is his now-compromised authority and gravitas. That is not a tsunami excitement. It is more like the ocean swell.

But it is swell, not tsunami, that is the secret of long-run politics. Brash could do worse than take his tone (and topic) for Orewa 2005 from the man he booted aside as leader.