Promoting John Key as a future man of action

It’s all about who is the future. John Key reckons he is and that fast broadband to every living room is a powerful symbol — and, moreover, that he knows about these things better than Helen Clark because he is younger.

The electoral strategy behind the broadband big bang is to draw a picture of Key in window-shopping voters’ minds as an action Prime Minister of the future and contrast that with older Helen Clark, a 1980s minister and boss for nine years.

So Key wants voters, especially those under 45, to contrast big plans for broadband against buying back the trains. There is a century and a-half between the two inventions.

Kevin Rudd did exactly this in Australia last year. First he expunged latte-Labor positions that were sitting targets for his wily old opponent, John Howard. He rode a gut issue that worked against Howard: workplace deregulation (here it is tax). Then he staked out a handful of differentiating positions, intended to paint him as the man of the future.

One of those was broadband. Howard tried to cover that off but he was too late.

Labour here might argue, as have Communications and Information Technology (ICT) Minister David Cunliffe and Prime Minister Clark, that Key’s proposal — and it is very much his proposal, prevailing over conservative shadow finance minister Bill English and born of a belief there is “market failure” in broadband — gives Telecom too much inside running just at the point when the government has at last shredded its stultifying monopolistic practices. And in fact National’s proposal was developed in close consultation with Telecom.

Others might argue that the second stage of Key’s big-bang proposal, super-high-speed fibre to houses, may make life more entertaining but won’t do anything to lift productivity, Key’s declared aim.

But that misses the electoral purpose. That is, as one party notable put it, “to establish the character” of Key as bold and imaginative — investing in infrastructure for an unimaginable future — and to contrast that with a business-as-usual Clark.

This is unfair to Labour, which has had to clean up a market-failure regulatory problem left by Maurice Williamson, National’s 1990s minister and still official ICT spokesperson. And it is unfair to Cunliffe who is a Key-and-English-age minister, able to relate to the digital generation, and one of the government’s more forward-looking.

But he is in a government which in 1999 convincingly painted the future to voters as addressing the inequities and social services holes bequeathed from National’s 1990s and thereby redefining the centre.

Labour did also talk a lot about innovation and occasionally has generated future-pointing excitements. But it has been less convincing on that than on its core business of making life “fairer” for today’s voters, especially older ones.

Its spending on research, science and technology (RS&T) has fallen as a percentage of GDP and is far below the OECD government spending average. Strategies, frameworks and “roadmaps” are no substitute for money on the table.

Labour’s broadband strategy, which has been years in the making and has taken stakeholders along and which it characterises as “thorough, deliberate and considered”, risks looking like catchup.

And midyear, if National’s all-too-slippery timetable sticks, the government will face a National RS&T big bang.

This will be partly institutional and partly in policy approach.

The aim will be to lift RS&T’s profile. An institutional option some other countries have chosen has been to create a position of chief scientist reporting directly to the head of government. The Royal Society argued this a couple of weeks back.

The policy approach will be to simplify the burdensome funds application and administration system and to back “excellent people”, initially only a handful but growing over time. The aim is not just to be a fast follower (National’s position on climate change) but a leader.

National claims this has resonated with newer scientists and researchers and would over time yield results. Simon Upton, the National minister who in the early 1990s broke up the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research into today’s Crown research institutes, with mixed results, has been influential in this thinking.

That does not mean more money initially. Over time, however, National’s general policy thrust presumes Labour has reached a high tide with its redistribution of the fruits of strong economic growth — that there is not much more to do — and that from here on, once the economy gets back to 3 per cent growth after the current slowdown, the fruits should go to tax cuts and investment in innovation and education to lift productivity.

So Key’s tax focus will not just be on cuts but on a bold restructuring of the system.

There’s that word “bold” again. This is the Key whom National — and Key — aim to project to voters.

The flipside of “bold” is “brash” (with a small “b”) and with brash comes risk. That at least is what Labour wants voters to read into Key’s big bangs.

Then Labour wants voters to recognise its own future-oriented initiatives in sustainability, the biotechnology, creative and ICT sectors and in education, the “schools-plus” plans for teenagers being its latest bid to develop talent and lift skills. And it will try to promote its own younger ministers as proof it can regenerate in office.

Who wins this game?

This week Key stole a march and he will now bang away on that drum for the next six months, counting on hard times generating eager and hopeful buyers for his promise — and for the meat in the policy.

Clark and Co will try to get the electoral contest down from Key’s atmospherics to the earthbound realities of experience and knowledge where they claim the advantage as dusk draws in on the economic boom.

For now, however, the window shoppers are quite taken with Key. This week he started the hard sell: come and feel the goods, was the invitation in his big bang.