Brand-Key and a long work-in-progress list

Having given Winston Peters air with what he is said to have said at his tea party, John Key has declared he will milk Peters’ inconstancy hard in this last week of campaign. That is either marvellously machiavellian or making the best of a mistake.

New Zealand First’s poll average has lifted 1 per cent to about 3.5 per cent this month. Then last week Peters claimed to know Key and John Banks had disparaged old people and “strange” Don Brash.

Key is right about Peters. A Labour-Green government depending on New Zealand First would at some point become unworkable because of Green-Peters incompatibilities. Key has said he won’t work with Peters.

But Key is also wrong. Very few votes are confidence issues. There would be few opportunities to bring down a government. Moreover, any small party can withdraw support on confidence and supply any time.

Key’s problem is a lack of strong support parties. ACT’s credibility is much diminished: Patrick Gower’s TV3 interviews with Banks (who could and could not remember what he had said and not said) and with decent, brainy Paul Goldsmith (who couldn’t quite bring himself to run the Key-Banks line) illustrate how tight Epsom’s National loyalists will have to hold their noses on Saturday. Peter Dunne is polling in overhang territory which could conceivably cancel out the one-seat gain National aims for in Ohariu. The Maori party has to rebuild its mandate.

What is not really a problem to Key’s re-election chances is his reaction to the recording of his chitchat. (By the way, there are no “tapes” in these solid-state days.)

Alleging the media here are on a slippery slope toward News of the World-type hacking of murdered teenagers’ and suicides’ phones — bluntly contradicted by the murdered teenager’s family’s lawyer — was unbecoming of a Prime Minister. This was a matter of personal embarrassment, not of national security which would justify setting the police on to the media. Under pressure, Prime Minister Key miscued.

But campaigning party leader Key most likely did not miscue. He is highly popular, accepted and trusted, so gets the large majority’s benefit of any doubt. And a politician attacking the media is likely usually to win because the public hold the media in lower regard than even politicians. Media commentators’ indignant grumping was a minority taste.

And Key has been careful to avoid other potential embarrassments. He did not show as scheduled on Sunday at the populous Avondale market where Labour, Mana, the Maori party and Greens were the only parties in evidence. Leafy Albany was safer.

And Key has an ally: alternative Prime Minister Phil Goff.

Someone ready to be Prime Minister doesn’t three times forget the numbers on a core policy plank as Goff did on November 2, 18 and 20 for capital gains tax, described on Labour’s video by David Cunliffe as a “centrepiece”.

Labour likes to paint Key as insubstantial, which has led it consistently to underestimate him. Goff has upstaged him on that score. Senior MPs have distanced themselves. Goff’s pluck doesn’t make up for not being across major detail. Nor does Labour’s impressively smart advertising. (Smart, that is, except for its references to the “last” Labour government.)

Labour’s task in the next few days is unchanged from 2005 and 2008: to get its core voters into the booths. It succeeded in 2005, failed in 2008 but has since succeeded in by-elections and in Auckland’s mayoral election.

MPs say it looks better than in 2008. It needs to be if Labour is to get over 30 per cent, let alone beat its 34 per cent in 2008.

Clearing 30 per cent would help the big rebuild ahead for Labour, which needs also to build bridges to the Greens’ leadership because there cannot be a Labour government without the Greens. Note: the Labour-Green combined poll support has been stable around 40 per cent for two months.

That points to this campaign’s missing ingredient: a substantial, durable small party on the right. The Conservative party doesn’t yet have real traction.

The risk for National post-election is that the next significant party might instead be populist, reflecting such parties now rising in Europe and the United States’ Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements. That would be no substitute for a strong ACT, United Future or pro-National Maori party.

The pressures on middling voters here aren’t (yet) as intense as in Europe and the United States. And Key for now mops up most populist tendencies with his one-of-us-ness with a wide swathe of the public. If Peters gets back on Saturday he might divert it for a time. But in the 2010s Peters is not the logical vehicle.

Meantime, National has brand-Key plus a long work-in-progress list voters broadly support even if they don’t like some of it. That looks enough for a second-term Key-led government on Saturday. Not bad for a guy who helicoptered in only 10 years ago.

* For the record, I won’t vote. I haven’t since 1975. That, in my view, goes with the job.