Key after six months: mistakes, poise, promise

John Key’s government is six months old this weekend, time enough for some mistakes. What’s the prognosis?

This week’s mistake was the blindsiding of Peter Dunne over Christine Rankin’s appointment to the Families Commission. Not very mana-enhancing, twice-blindsided Pita Sharples might say.

One: Paula Bennett did not consult Dunne as the support agreement requires. Two: the commission is Dunne’s special baby. Three: he thinks Rankin may damage the commission.

More important is what was not mistaken about Rankin’s anointment. As an activist on the men’s side of the families issue, she (and Bruce Pilbrow) will rebalance the commission. That illustrates the Key ministry’s growing differences from its predecessor.

Before the election National presented the differences as competence and efficiency plus a different tax and regulation lean. It adopted large chunks of Labour policy it had earlier opposed.

In office a more distinct National is emerging, one which might over time make some big changes. This is part-driven by necessity — the financial shock — part-driven by opportunity — don’t waste a good crisis — and part-driven by predilection.

Take Rodney Hide as Minister for Regulatory Reform — not just to see through into law his Regulatory Responsibility Bill but to oversee reform of regulation generally.

Of course, Hide has to convince the cabinet. But initiative can count for a lot, especially in a cabinet charting new territory, as Sir Roger Douglas proved in the mid-1980s and, in a minor key, liberal reforming Ralph Hanan did in the 1960s. Hide has scope to marry necessity, opportunity and predilection in what Key told the ACT conference in March would be a “bonfire of regulations”.

Second example: Bill English’s opening of a wider and deeper debate on tax, as flagged here two weeks back and confirmed last week with the naming of a high-powered working group. That fits all the drivers: necessity — something more than tinkering has to be done about tax to make a real difference; opportunity afforded by delaying the next two years tax cuts; and predilection — Key’s finance sector mates (and others) would like root-and-branch tax reform. (English worries his party might be too conservative.)

Third example: the transport policy shift from buses, trains and sea freight to roads. Fourth: tighter rules for accident compensation, not flagged pre-election. Fifth electricity: security of supply trumps environmental concerns and ambitions.

So is this just a re-run of National’s early 1990s lunge to the right? No. That seared English as a new MP — so no lunge.

What is in the back of his mind is that after a big financial shock business-as-usual (in business and in government) is never the same as business-as-usual before it, in the world at large and at home. The way things were done in 1929 was near-unrecognisable in 1946, after the shock of depression and war.

That might just be the case now. Even if not, big policy change is needed if productivity growth is to be lifted. And there are the fiscal deficits.

If we are in a shift to a new business-as-usual, Key might turn out to be an apt Prime Minister.

He is flexible. He does not have a long history in the National party. The negative in that is that he doesn’t have a base constituency in the party (English provides that). The positive is that he has few debts.

He came to politics with a weak political compass. That should be a negative (and he does cycle down some odd paths). In turbulent times, it renders him open to new responses in unusual circumstances.

He is smart, is decisive (which delights some ministers) and learns quickly. He quickly got the hang of the weekly post-cabinet press conference. He doesn’t make the same mistake twice. Underneath, he is tough-minded and unsentimental.

In person, he is equable and affable. He delegates with comfort. But that can go wrong, as he found when he had to calm Auckland mayors riled by Hide’s tough talk. His long-leash portfolio delegations to the Maori party are a risk. His cabinet has yet to develop convincing cohesion.

Offsetting that, he is relational. Small parties remark on his attention to them. That smoothes over errors like shafting the Maori party over Maori seats on Auckland’s supercouncil. He called Sharples in for a cuddle and mana-enhancement resumed.

He relates effortlessly to almost everyone he meets. A former business colleague says he is a salesman more than a trader. He has unusual instinct and aplomb. If big policy changes are coming he has more capacity to take the country with him than any Prime Minister for many decades.

After six months polls say he is cruising. But he has yet to hit any big bumps in the road and a recession-wary public is lenient so far with its driver. Only when he hits big bumps — and he will — will we get a fix on whether flexible, smart, equable and relational is the mark of a for-these-turbulent-times Prime Minister.

Check back in 2011.