"Active" versus "results": this year's contest

Jobs. That, in a word, is what the government is about this year. Against that Labour will pose “active government”.

Before the 2011 election senior ministers decided 2012 had to generate “results” to take to the 2014 election.

After a first term, in which a government usually sets up its agenda, atmospherics substitute in the election for demonstrable results. John Key provided the atmospherics in 2011.

But even a popular Prime Minister usually sheds gloss in a second term. To win in 2014, ministers decided in 2011, there must be demonstrable policy results or at least demonstrable progress towards policy targets.

Ten five-year targets were set last year across welfare, health, skills, crime and digital access to services. Progress reports are (or were) scheduled for early this year and next and for election time.

The embedded message is intended to be that the government is getting things done. So, though water and planning are among big policies still in the pipeline for 2013, ministers will focus more on implementing policy than generating it.

For this tactic to work with voters ministers will need to convince households improvement is coming even if the economy stays slack. During 2012 the cabinet, in the form of superminister Steven Joyce, made GDP growth No 1 priority, trumping competing options such as the environment, climate change action and higher wages.

So: more cows, more mining and drilling, more tourists. So, too: more jobs or at least a realistic prospect of more jobs round the corner. And so: ministerial jibes that the alternative “Greens-Labour” option (note the word order) is “anti-growth”.

That word order pinpoints an issue for the opposition. If voters are to see a Labour-Green arrangement as a government-in-waiting by the 2014 election the two parties will need to work out their relationship this year. That will require David Shearer to develop in to a figure of authority and Labour to siphon some support from the Greens to relegate its partner status.

Labour has come into 2013 with a promising slogan: to be an “active” government in contrast with what it says is a “hands-off” government.

Active intervention might begin to resonate with middling voters if household incomes say flat, if the labour market stays soggy and if house prices stay in the stratosphere, averaging nearly double the United States average — all the more so if the exchange rate stays high, keeping pressure on manufacturing and stripping out jobs.

That was the rationale behind Shearer’s billing of a programme to get 100,000 houses built over 10 years. Set aside the practicality of getting them built for the $300,000 price tag Shearer set and then the affordability of even that for modest households. It sounded much more forceful than Bill English’s regulatory adjustments and chats with Len Brown. And it sounded as if Labour would interfere if market forces damage middling people.

The same rationale is behind Labour’s proposals to broaden the Reserve Bank’s brief and mechanisms to somehow bring down the exchange rate (not to be confused with Russel Norman’s proposed quantitative easing), to support manufacturers and push innovation, high-tech and green-tech.

Which line wins? Just as Labour and the Greens (and New Zealand First?) have difficult political management ahead, National and its mates (the Maori party last year sounded more often like an opposition party than one in the government) need a step-change in political management from last year’s fluffs, blunders and brain fades.

That turns the laser on to Key. Towards the end of 2012 Key was fronting meetings and media interviews much better briefed and was taking an active and close interest in some of the cabinet initiatives, even annotating papers.

That hands-on manager Key would be more credible in the “results” frame than jokey, blokey, floaty first-term Key. He might even have voters thinking he means it about jobs and can deliver. That’s Key’s 2013 test.