The Key to a cruisy second term — or not

A year ago Helen Clark’s government was in its death throes, a week away from election defeat. John Key was on a roll. He still is.

Key is set to roll over the top of Phil Goff in 2011. Indeed, the spectre for Labour is National’s fall in 2002 after losing power in 1999.

It is not beyond imagining that Labour could come in below its 2008 vote and the Greens not get 5 per cent, in which case National then cruises with an easy majority through a second term. A complicating factor in that event could be a despairing vote by some to lift New Zealand First back over 5 per cent to provide the sort of antidote United Future provided to Labour in 2002 when National was down and out.

A low vote in 2011 could potentially block Labour from power until 2017, by when, after Simon Power’s two referendums, there might be a voting system that gives more weight to electorate seats where National has an advantage.

Why might Labour conceivably go backwards in 2011? Not because it is in a mess. As parties go after an election defeat, especially after a long spell in office, Labour is in good shape. Money is short because Clark drove the party into debt in her drive to cling to power last November 8. But there was a smooth change of leadership in the caucus and the party organisation, there is a vigorous contingent of new young MPs and there is new thinking in the wider party.

Labour’s longer-term future looks promising. With new international thinking on social and economic issues coming more from what might be called the “left” than what might be called the “right”, Labour has an opportunity to recast the political language in terms closer to its basic message.

But that would be academic if Labour can’t get the numbers to express its new thinking in terms of government programmes until 2014 or 2017.

The reasons for Labour’s troubles lie on the other side of the House.

One is Key’s personality. He engages. He doesn’t hate. He looks at home with people of widely varying backgrounds and foregrounds. Unionists got a taste of that at the Council of Trade Unions conference last week when he fronted hostile questions in a friendly but firm manner. He didn’t exactly seduce them but he gave them no grounds to entrench bitterness.

Even when he makes cultural gaffes, as he did at the Chinese new year in Auckland, Key is forgiven.

Come 2011 he should still be fresh enough to be making friends.

The second reason follows from the first.

The Maori party has had a number of good reasons to complain about its treatment by ministers, the most recent being the handling of Te Puni Kokiri officials over the Maori Television bid for the rugby world cup rights backed by Pita Sharples. A number of the government’s bills have gone against the party’s grain.

But Key is able to sweet-talk Sharples around every time — even when, after the world cup episode, Sharples goes publicly ballistic. There is no compelling reason Key will not keep the Maori party in the tent through to and at the 2011 election.

The third reason is the economy. The crisis has passed (for now), unemployment is low by 1990s standards and most households are better off than a year ago. But after the scare people (except those directly affected) are less resistant to the government being less generous.

There is a good chance that mood will last through to 2011.

The fourth reason is Labour’s invisibility. That is not Labour’s fault. It has a innovative website which is scoring well. It pours out press statements, many of which make a real point. It joins protests and organises meetings. Labour is not silent.

But a government does things. And a new government does new — or new-ish or at least different — things. That commands attention — all the more so when Goff and Annette King have been on television screens for nine years in the Clark government and even reaching all the way back into the 1980s.

Fifth, the government hasn’t trodden on too many toes yet. Over the next two years the count will rise but should still be low enough for Key to keep most of the votes he got in 2008 and maybe even pick some up.

Sixth, governments are managerial more than ideological now. Voters are much less loyal to a single party than 40 years ago. If a government looks to be in charge, tolerably competent and not doing too much damage, voters are likely to stick with it.

It is at this point Labour has good reason to discount a lower vote. Key has run a loose cabinet and ministry which gets into a muddle too often. The scramble to stitch a majority for the ACC bill was a recent example. Bill English’s house finances should have been cleaned up far more quickly. His Television New Zealand ad is a bad look.

If, come this time next year, Key hasn’t tightened his administration, his and his government’s star poll ratings will likely droop.

In that event a second term for Key will still be likely. But not with the comfortable margin he has as he celebrates his first anniversary.