Six months into the first year of its second term the government was on the back foot. How did this happen, after a big vote of confidence last November? Blame management.
The plan was simple and front-footing: initiate a raft of changes to demonstrate a government in charge, clear-sighted, with a programme and focused on “results”.
By the end of March, all that looked more gauche than grand. By April the government was reduced to attacking Labour through more-or-less-National-friendly blogs suggesting threats to David Shearer’s leadership, obligingly parroted by the traditional media.
But two of those blogsters nevertheless condemned John Key’s second-term government for having no theme through a March quarter “horribilis” (reflecting the Queen’s annus horribilis some years back).
John Banks then made it “horribilissimo” with his self-confessed “obfuscations” over Kim Dotcom’s “anonymous” donations to his 2010 mayoral campaign. That prompted Key to lower his bar for expectations of ministerial behaviour from ethics to bare legality, from eyebrow-level to knee-level, around where Banks’ trousers were.
Even worse: Banks was in Parliament and in Key’s ministry only because Key lobbied National voters to put him there.
MMP requires such manoeuvres. Labour got an extra seat when Jim Anderton’s separate party held the Wigram seat. Key was doing the best by his party.
But just after that famous vote-Banks “cup of tea” there was a failure of political management: having discovered a recording device left on the tea table, Key declared the media on a slippery slope to emulating British tabloids’ hacking of cellphones of celebrities, MPs and a murder victim and sicked the police on to even staid Radio New Zealand.
The result was a shift in the political media “pack’s” attitude toward him. That was bound to happen anyway, but gradually over time. He kicked it along hard and early.
A skilled political manager would first have taken a long and deep breath — and/or would have had out the back somewhere a political operator mandated to inject a “hey, but” at critical times.
At the least, the resultant incredulity at the heavy-handed action to offset a minor potential embarrassment would have alerted a politically savvier Prime Minister to rethink over Christmas and appoint a hey-but person. Even politically super-savvy Helen Clark had Tony Timms, who didn’t need focus groups to tell him what was up, as an extra set of her eyes, ears and bite.
The events of March and April indicate Key did not do that. But he did come back from Hawaii with a programme, a theme and an action plan. He and Bill English, the thinking man’s thinking man (by political measures), agreed that “results”, not smiles, were needed to win in 2014.
They set that out in late January and in the February budget policy statement, then in March in a set of 10 targets, with specific goals. In essence: get the budget back to balance by 2014-15, start on public service remodelling, start some welfare-to-work reform, some asset selldowns enabling development investment without borrowing, a large regulatory and local government reform programme and a bit more science and technology.
But the tax revenue numbers slid. Murray McCully botched the foreign service remodelling (then nobly ducked for cover — ethics again). An imaginative public service reform report was cut to a few targets and a big upheaval to create a department to match Steven Joyce’s burgeoning ego. The asset selldowns rationale changed month to month. The science and technology future got swallowed into a zero-new-spending budget.
And Nick Smith resigned over a letter for a friend who had provoked four privacy investigations into the Accident Compensation Commission and led to Judith Collins suing two Labour MPs, thereby ensuring this won’t die for a year or two. And Banks obfuscated.
Some bad luck in all that. But also some substandard management — political management. Not the way to get a third term.