The election John Key really needs to worry about

To watch John Key right now is to watch the bland leading the bland. No horses are to be frightened before the election. Is this the man to take us boldly to a brave new world?

Marketing political leaders is routine. Remember the astonishing makeover of Helen Clark in 1996, the hairdo, the lipstick, the designer clothes. Remember the goofy Don Brash in 2005 concocted by marketers trying to make a populist of a serious man of ideas.

Now consider John Key, the trader who used to back himself and made a whizzbang fortune at it. Where has he gone?

In policy after policy he says he will keep what Clark has put in place. Yet he also says he will drive a step-change in the economy and close the wealth gap with Australia.

Where once as shadow finance minister he was keen to sell down 20 per cent of state-owned enterprises (SOEs), to spread the capitalist idea among mums and dads and smarten financial discipline, he will now keep the lot, he says — even KiwiRail! He insists his one-page workplace relations policy will not change much. On National Radio he coined the mind-expanding phrase “almost certainly likely” to describe his aim to open up the ACC employee account but said other accounts would need careful examination before any action.

As to economic step-change, he has promised fast broadband and will promise bigger science. Oh, and tax cuts and lighter regulation. And “ambition”.

What is on show is not the adventurous trader but the centrist Key says he is (not centre-right). That fits his caucus: the big 2005 intake was predominantly centrist; the 1990s crowd is in eclipse.

The aim is a multi-term government. National won a landslide in 1975 and in 1978 Labour won more votes. National won a landslide in 1990 and in 1993 dropped 13 percentage points to less than half a per cent ahead of a badly divided Labour. Contrast the 20 out of 23 years in power after 1949.

These numbers haunt Bill English, a first-term MP in 1993. Without power nothing gets done. Big ideas are for opposition or the fringes. Power depends on first winning then retaining the centre. And that depends on good management.

So in behind the bland one-pagers lies quite a lot of study, consultation with outsiders and internal shadow cabinet debate. A 14-page* paper backed the workplace relations one-pager. Law and order policy was well footnoted.

That applies in all major policy areas. In some, such as education, welfare and the environment, the background papers have been reworked over some years. Immigration and local government papers have been honed down. In some, as in housing, science and in a complex set of policies on infrastructure, some work remains to be done. In some the background is essentially a statement of principles.

In 2006 Key, freshly leader, backed an English programme to publish discussion papers, to be refined into policy after feedback (much as Kevin Rudd did in Australia). But only a handful emerged before the health paper’s bungled release last September abruptly ended the process.

Now some policy is being released without the supporting papers. Outsiders have to take on trust that the policy is based on solid thinking. Key read out to me the workplace relations paper’s headings but I have not seen it.

There are two risks in this style.

One is a risk for this election: that room is left for fear-mongers to scarify centrist voters about Key’s “real” intentions. Given long enough in government, will he sell KiwiRail (and other SOEs), balkanise ACC, stiffen employers’ hands against employees and whittle away Working for Families and pensions?

Key’s fresh glow will likely blot out this short-term risk.

The second risk is for after the election if National is in power: that blandness may allow over-expectations to build of what it would do in a first term, especially to ease household financial pressures. In addition, voters may well infer from National’s law and order, health and other criticisms that it can readily fix what it is criticising.

The economy is seriously unbalanced. Rebalancing will be painful. We have only just started. Large tax cuts might ease households’ pain but will not make it go away. National’s acceptance of most Labour programmes adds to the difficulty of dealing with the pain, let alone generating economic step-change.

And though English is proving tough in the shadow cabinet on spending promises, if that discipline didn’t hold in government — perhaps even if it did — there would be a risk of slipping into a structural budget deficit, with attendant economic headaches.

In short, the risk in combining blandness with step-change rhetoric is that voters will fill in the gaps in hard policy with their own too-high expectations and then punish National in 2011 if it flunks those expectations — the very spectre of 1978 and 1993 English is desperate to avoid.

Food for thought for longer-sighted delegates to National’s buoyant, expectant and tightly drilled conference this weekend.

* The column as published incorrectly said the paper was 34 pages.