John Key's need in 2007: build a broad constituency

If you have a parole system there will be mistakes. Psychology is an inexact art and humans are inexact practitioners even of exact arts.

So when someone on parole does wrong, the real questions are the design of the parameters and processes for granting parole and the care (or not) with which authorities have conformed to them.

It comes down to risk and the cost of containing risk. Risk cannot be eliminated in a society of fallible humans.

Locking up a killer forever stops the killer killing again (except other prisoners or guards). But prisoners cost $60,000 a year on average to keep and killers are not average. There is also a potential indirect cost: the loss of a possible contribution a reformed killer could make to society and in taxes.

There is another risk: political risk.

The government of the day, charged with the security of the realm, cops any blame embedded in the shock-horror law-and-order headlines which reflect the popular thrill at being scarified and scandalised.

Consequently, for 20 years governments have spasmodically tightened the screws. Helen Clark has hired more police and legislated longer sentences, tougher parole guidelines and tighter bail. That has filled the prisons to bursting. But still the headlines keep coming.

This will benefit John Key in next year’s election. Right on cue law and order re-emerged as a public worry last year in his party’s polling.

But what must Key do to ensure law and order doesn’t snare him in turn? That question encapsulates his wider task as leader in 2007. Just winning next year will not suffice. Key’s remit is to set National up for a long spell in government — to remake it as a normal party of government.

First, that requires Key not just to oppose — to dig holes in Clark’s competence and credibility credentials — but to propose. He must develop do-able and durable policy across all portfolios.

Second, it requires him to show he can deal with — and thus in a sense represent — people outside National’s core constituency.

And, third, it requires him, in the way he goes about meeting the first two challenges, to demonstrate a capacity for leadership — which, in a Prime Minister, requires decisiveness but no rushing to judgment, to be one-of-us but also exceptional (and exceptionally informed), to respond to public sentiment but also mould it.

Few voters delve deep into a party’s policy. (Too few opinion leaders do, as well.) But most voters do want a sense that a party aiming to lead the government has gone deeply into issues and that its policies will not be divisive.

Hence the importance of comprehensive discussion papers that draw on a range of expertise, as Nick Smith’s environment paper last October did. That repositioned National from incredible to credible on climate change, conservation and the environment.

Of course, it did not satisfy greens or greenish liberals. But policy written off Smith’s document is likely to enable voters who thought Don Brash’s National in 2005 un-green to, at the least, feel less apprehensive about a Key government and maybe even vote for it in 2008.

That is Simon Power’s task in the justice paper he aims to bring down by the end of March. Power is not a lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key man. He wants the bad bastards blackballed. But he wants those who can be socialised to be rehabilitated.

Bill English remains in charge of the discussion paper process. He is coy on topics for treatment this year after only Smith’s came out in 2006. But innovation is still on the list and others say health, one of the trickiest policy conundrums, is there, too.

And Key, unlike Brash, is an enthusiast.

Moreover, Key, unlike Brash, understands, both instinctively and intellectually, the need to contact and listen to people who are unlikely to vote for him — Maori, unionists, greens, teachers and so on.

That way policy is more likely to get breadth and depth and Key to get more credibility as a potential Prime Minister instead of just a fresh, marketable face, the lad who married his childhood sweetheart and made a lot of money.

That way Key might also by implication demonstrate he could put together and hold together a government of disparate parties, Clark-style.

So expect to see him out and about a lot in places you wouldn’t normally see a National leader and expect him to be conciliatory to all small parties. Of course, he will go round the business and National party traps. But he wants to win votes, not just secure the ones he already has.

So expect to see and hear him talking a lot on social policy. National and he have less credibility there than on the economy and business.

But is he a Prime Minister in waiting?

Last year’s leadership switch spoke volumes. He listened and talked and negotiated — and then made the hard calls decisively. The effect was electric: Gerry Brownlee down, Don Brash retired, the party united.

Now his job is to build on that remarkable beginning. The omens are promising.