Mana and the mana of high office

A miscreant minister didn’t stop Mana voters giving National a 7 per cent higher share of the vote in the by-election on Saturday than in the 2000 general election. The same day John Key was at his empathetic best in responding to the Pike River mining disaster.

Two years into his prime ministership Key still looks bulletproof, unlike Barack Obama two years in. Unlike Kevin Rudd two years in, he is not accumulating resentment in the ranks to explode in his face next year. So far he has got seriously offside only with the unions, which are Labour-aligned anyway. His mana is high.

But there is a small but growing achilles heel.

First, set aside Mana. It is a good result for National. From the 2008 final to Saturday’s election night the two-party Labour-to-National swing was 6.6 per cent. The swing from left (Labour plus the Pacific party in 2008, then plus Matt McCarten on Saturday) to right (National, ACT and, in 2008, United Future) was 3.8 per cent. The Greens, calling Labour “National-lite”, held their 2008 6.7 per cent.

Contrast that with Labour’s success getting out its vote in Mount Albert last year and last month in south and west Auckland for Len Brown in the mayoral election. Add the Mana electorate’s rising socioeconomic average. Factor in Kris Faafoi’s new-boy low profile, even among Pasifika, and National candidate Hekia Parata’s high Maori rank, sitting MP status and candidacy in 2008. Add the tax-cut gains in the better-off precincts.

The picture is of a set of factors specific to the time and place — as in Mount Albert (a muddled candidate and campaign, an unpopular road, the shotgun supercity amalgamation) and the Auckland mayoralty (a divisive conservative candidate and supercity unease). Then note that David Shearer’s extraordinarily strong Mount Albert vote did not translate into a national opinion poll surge for Labour.

So, though national factors were also operating in Mana, Key cannot read “mandate” into the result. On the other side Faafoi has now to embed himself in the electorate, particularly among Pasifika who didn’t vote in droves, and Labour still has a big job to do to get competitive. Phil Goff was unwise to declare on October 17 that the by-election would be a “judgment on National’s failure to make the future better”. If so, it was a positive judgment.

The good news for Labour is Matt McCarten’s tepid showing. The left-left is still weak, as it was when, in the Alliance breakup in 2001-02, McCarten went with the left-left faction, which disappeared from Parliament.

But Labour has an uphill climb ahead over the next nine or 12 months (depending whether National cuts and runs to an early election in August or holds its nerve until November) to get voters, particularly its own base voters, to take notice.

The flipside is that substandard political management by Key and his ninth floor could flip votes to Labour.

The handling of Pansy Wong’s misdemeanours is a case in point.

An alert ninth floor would have instantly inquired if there was more to the affair than her signature as a minister on one of her husband’s transactions in China. And old rule of muckraking is to tell only part of the story initially to whet interest and maybe trap a denial, then progressively feed out the rest.

The ninth floor’s contemptuous treatment of the media and Pete Hodgson after the initial revelation showed this simple rule was not understood. Key himself stumbled, refusing to answer questions about Wong on the grounds she was no longer a minister, just an MP, while at the same time actually exerting authority over that MP by telling her not to give interviews.

Put that no-interview order alongside the many closed sessions at the National party conference. In one such session Key lectured delegates edgy about the bad press this was getting them: the media, he said, would focus on and exaggerate on any disagreement, which would be bad for the party. Once upon a time the party thought vigorous debate demonstrated a healthy party. That is actually still the case in an entertainment-driven media age. Key’s episodic secretiveness ill-becomes him.

Another example of secretiveness was the surreal “briefing” of media the day before Hillary Clinton’s visit. Officials were under ninth-floor orders to say very little and the ninth floor representative scowled tight-lipped. What briefing there was came through the wires from Washington.

Examples of political management slips were the lax oversight of Gerry Brownlee’s proposal to prospect conservation land for minerals, which upset some Nationalists, and Anne Tolley’s bungling of “national standards” to the point where National-leaning members of some school boards fear them.

Political management is in part about spin. More important, it is about running a cohesive government that is confident and upfront and interpretable. Key’s sometimes is not, which risks him landing at some point in Obama’s or Rudd’s shoes.

It’s all about mana, not Mana.