Where has Clark's competent government disappeared to?

Graham Kelly has done his bit to dent the credibility of Helen Clark’s government. So has Pete Hodgson, blaming officials. Who’s next in the batting order?

The National party could hardly have a better platform for its pre-election conference this weekend. It really is now in the power game — albeit in harness with Winston Peters.

Three months ago a National-win scenario could be constructed only by stretching credibility. But now its multiple wins in Parliament and in the media have made win-scenario-making a doddle.

Clark has time to mend her cabinet’s fraying fabric. But Don Brash and Co have knocked big holes in one of her two electoral strengths: the projection of competence. (The other is the economy, which is still probably a plus.)

Competence is a matter of management.

Who managed NCEA into a mess? Trevor Mallard. Who managed “tertiary” education into a mess of wasted money? Steve Maharey. What do those messes equal? Lost votes.

Who managed immigration into a vote factory for Peters? Lianne Dalziel and Paul swain. Who managed hospital waiting lists into Neverland? Annette King. What does that management equal? Lost votes.

Who managed tax into a losing issue? Michael Cullen. Why? Blind ideological belief that voters want spending, not tax cuts when evidence was growing to the contrary. What does that equal? Lost votes.

The list is long and lengthening and damaging. Clark can say, rightly, that remedial action and new policy is in train and can assert all those messes will be fixed in a third term. But that is then and the election is soon and she’s had six years.

And that is only half the story. The other half is National’s big improvement.

Last year Brash’s Orewa speech doubled membership, opened corporate chequebooks and hugely lifted morale. National has two top-drawer new candidates in Tim Groser, a future foreign and trade minister of wiles and skill, and Chris Finlayson, a future Attorney-General of high order. All that has built National a much stronger base for its campaigning, which it is doing with real skill.

This campaigning takes four forms.

* National is attending to core constituencies — farmers last week, for example, with promises of more money for biosecurity and defence of their property rights so no one may walk on their land without their say-so.

In vain did Jim Sutton detail the substantial safeguards in his proposed walking access law and the big boost to biosecurity spending in the Budget. The proof of those is in the third term and the election is nigh.

* National has established a credible major point of difference: tax cuts. Incredibly, Cullen shut the door last Thursday on bringing his changes forward to cut that difference.

* National is scratching populist issues, thereby resetting its conservative credentials. Watching Brash the man of principle do populism is spellbinding (and disjunctive).

The biggest scratches are the Treaty of Waitangi and political correctness, on which National paints Labour as alongside the extremists. And it has backed this with brilliant billboards grossly but slyly overstating Labour-National contrasts. That initiative suggests its election advertising will be the strongest since 1975.

* And National is becoming adept at dog-whistle politics, a speciality of Lynton Crosby, the Australian Liberals’ mastermind.

The “Beaches-Iwi/Kiwi” billboard is an example. National can assert with a straight face that differentiating iwi (as Labour) and Kiwi (as National) says no more than that Labour is sectional and National is national. But the subliminal message, which a segment of voters will not miss — as a dog hears a whistled message that is lost on humans — is that iwi are not Kiwi and National’s “one law for all” will make as all Kiwi again.

Labour so far has no answer to any of this, except defensive argument. We can expect a riposte in due course, not least from the hip advertising men it has hired. Labour is far from beaten. But time is now short. And National will likely get three days top-tier publicity out of this weekend.

There are two corollaries to National’s rise.

A repeat is now unlikely of the 2002 phenomenon of National-sympathetic voters deciding late in the campaign to go to United Future to restrain what they saw as a certain Labour-led government. Couple that with Labour’s social liberalisation drive, which is anathema to the Christian segment of United Future’s 2002 support, and the outlook for Peter Dunne is cloudy.

And increasingly it looks like dusk for ACT. Rodney Hide, whose job is to sell tax cuts, still can’t resist a scandal: knocking off a minister on the say-so of a couple of ratbags is his grist. But it leaves tax cuts to John Key and it doesn’t win votes. And every vote ACT does win if it doesn’t win seats is bad news for National.

Unless the Greens also biodegrade below 5 per cent. That would open the road for Peters to return as Deputy Prime Minister. And Foreign Minister? Think on it.