Finessing leaders can beat beating them

One thing voters look for in a government is sure-footedness. Vacillation and uncertainty are the kid brothers of vote-killing disunity. They give oxygen to opponents.
One part of being sure-footed is skilled political management to anticipate trouble, intervene to avert it and, if something does go off the rails, quickly sort it and minimise damage, all while hewing to a defined course.

Even in good times, as Helen Clark found, ministers make mistakes or worse. But most voters give some latitude to a Prime Minister who takes early, upfront corrective action.

Clark was upfront and effective early but standards later slipped, notably over Winston Peters’ carryings-on over party funders. That magnified John Key’s freshness as an alternative.

Key’s ease and affability made him attractive to large numbers of voters through his first term, which he supplemented with instinct for what middle New Zealand likes and doesn’t.

But there are gaps in his knowledge of the electorate (awkwardly plugged with focus groups, which can mislead or be misread). He is still learning politics and political conventions: past exhibits are his voicing an expectation the Reserve Bank would cut interest after Christchurch’s February earthquake, thus complicating its task because its credibility depends on demonstrable independence, and saying the Governor-General could refuse to sign a regulation when at most he can stall briefly by asking for more information.

These gaps pushed Key into another U-turn last week. He misread the political and cabinet conduct implications of Nick Smith’s letter on his ACC ministerial letterhead to support friend Bronwyn Pullar in her battle with ACC. He backed Smith, as if waiting to see where the market went. A day later, using the rationale of a second letter to save face as the politics rapidly soured, he concurred with vigour in Smith’s resignation.

Neither letter would cause much of a stir in most countries. But New Zealand is No 1 or 2 in clean-government ratings. That sets the bar higher here (to use Key’s own phrase).

That added up this week to missteps and failures of political management. The more that happens, the less sure-footed he, and consequently the government, looks.

There is a parallel of sorts from a year ago: Phil Goff initially stood by Darren Hughes on the ground that he should not pre-empt due process, then backed Hughes’ resignation (Hughes was not subsequently charged). Both were failures of political management, whatever the justifications or excuses.

Key’s initial prevarication was understandable. Smith leaves a big hole in the cabinet which Key cannot fill quickly, if at all.

Smith went through an erratic patch in the early-mid-2000s and some senior Nationalists wanted him out. Even as a well-ranked minister in the 2008-11 term, he was not on the inner.

Smith can be impulsive and too ambitious for colleagues, as on the local government changes, which were sent back for reworking. He overflows with ideas. He is highly political, which has led him to overstate positions, as with ACC’s finances in 2009 and local government debt this year (plausible explanations for which include John Banks’ debt run-up when Auckland mayor, leaky homes, earthquake strengthening, an infrastructure backlog and new duties the government imposes without funds).

But Smith’s downsides pale beside his capacity to absorb, master and process vast quantities of detailed, complex information on arcane subjects, such as climate change and the emissions trading scheme, water and the Resource Management Act. He was the cabinet’s lone green. He was accessible and articulate to the media.

But cabinets’ Smith-types require more careful management than Key’s devolved style. If they make “mistakes” which are compounded by mistakes of political management, that doesn’t look sure-footed. (Smith is the fourth “mistaken” Key minister.)

A tight political manager’s focus would also zero in on Murray McCully. McCully’s bullying of staff, interference and slippery buck-passing over his ministry’s reorganisation rebounded last week and is potentially toxic to Key. Jenny Shipley could tell Key about her problem with McCully in 1999.

The Smith-McCully slips of footing came in a week when public service and local body reforms were supposed to front-foot the cabinet as decisive, long-sighted, strategic and on the ball — in a word, sure-footed.

Instead, they opened space for David Shearer.

The media flayed Shearer’s less-than-Olympian keynote speech two weeks back for not producing a big idea to beat Key.

Key did not beat Clark. He established himself as different. He beat her at his game, not hers. That is, he finessed her.

Shearer is different from Key. He could get snared by National, the media or his advisers into trying to beat Key at Key’s game. Alternatively — though it is far too early for predictions — if Key’s footing slips too often and Shearer sticks to being Shearer, he might finesse Key.