Two parties' subliminal messages to real people

Need an ad break in the long-running Labour show? Some commentary a month ago suggested just that. Then, since modern media attention spans are short, there was the Labour recovery-of-nerve cameo.

Last week it was another episode in the Don-Brash-dead-and-buried series after a badly bungled press conference and photographs of him walking the plank. Brash’s Jim Bolger-brought-up chief of staff, Wayne Eagleson, should have managed better.

But are real people watching those shows?

Not if the polls have anything to say to us. There was no surge away from Labour over the second assault on David Benson-Pope or over David Parker’s unnecessary resignation.

Real people did not hang on every word of the Disgruntleds of Dunedin. They were, and are, getting the groceries, going to work, taking the kids to netball and footy, having a beer with mates.

Since they are not watching the shows they don’t need ad breaks.

Brash’s and Helen Clark’s ratings haven’t changed much since the election. There is no evidence that association with Winston Peters is corroding real people’s assessment of the government.

And on National’s side the real story is not the Brash gaffes and the attention-getting regional conference speeches of John Key and Gerry Brownlee a fortnight back. It is of the managers of National’s large caucus beginning to get some cohesion and coherence.

That was on show last week when no one broke ranks publicly. It is in part the product of the large gratitude on the new back benches to Brash for pulling them into Parliament. Tilting at Brash is not a good look to them. Moreover, Key is way short of the numbers, is not ready and has not shown himself enough of a team player.

But there is much more to it than gratitude. It is a recognition by caucus managers that solidarity is a vital ingredient to a durable government, as Labour has shown, just as is coherent policy (compared with 2005-style catch-as-catch-can).

Solidarity is also a vital ingredient in a durable leadership. National’s last two coups reflected a lack of solidarity. If/when Brash is replaced in due course, caucus solidarity should both facilitate a smoother change and make it more durable.

But National needs more than solidarity. It also needs real people to become unsettled. There is some — though so far slight — polling evidence that real people are becoming less comfortable with the state of the country and its direction. But they are not rattled. Last month, as if on cue for Thursday’s Budget, business and consumer confidence both lifted.

Hence the big soothe Michael Cullen will swaddle the Budget in. The economy, he will say, is not about to hammer households. So why switch allegiance?

Cullen will project a gentle unwinding of the huge imbalances in the world economy and the dangerous imbalances in this economy. Unemployment will gently lift but job growth will continue. The petrol price rise will be offset by the huge April Working for Families boost. House prices might stay stalled a while or even fall a bit but not crash. Or something like that.

This soothing scenario is of (short) slowdown, not stall, through which households should trade OK.

But that is not enough. A business-as-usual government, which this one became in its second term, cannot credibly claim a fourth term against a replenished National party getting its act together.

Hence the cabinet’s intention to present a big-bang Budget that would illustrate commitment to “economic transformation” by forcing internet reform on Telecom. But Telecom’s too-efficient tentacles in the government machine undid that.

Behind the scenes, away from the Labour show that plays in the media, ministers are in fact becoming more systematic about the Prime Minister’s three themes of heritage (national identity), family (social services and tax credits) and economic transformation.

Ministers have been assigned to three teams reflecting those themes in their policy initiatives and speeches. Such new spending as is left over from funding the huge election bribes and post-election deals in this otherwise mark-time Budget is also intended to reflect the three themes.

The aim is to present a government that knows what it is doing and where it is going and to get through to real people a sense of that direction to offset the economic slowdown negatives.

Critical to this will be a show of regeneration in the cabinet. That depends heavily on Parker, David Cunliffe and Clayton Cosgrove continuing to develop confidence and prominence, on which a small but promising start has been made.

Real people will pay this Budget little attention: the big bribes are old news; there are no tax cuts; the exciting bit was gazumped a fortnight back; National’s attacks will all have been heard before.

And, because real people will at most give half an ear to the media shows, the parties’ real messages will have to be subliminal. The real news is that both have some such messages in the making.