A weekend for the strong, regenerating party

The next two weekends will contrast the strong and the weak. The weak will be Labour on July 5-6. The strong will be National this coming weekend.

National’s strategy this term was to generate “results”. And it has, including roads, welfare, hospital operations and school qualifications. Middle New Zealand may not recite the detail but probably gets some sense of a programme.

Confidence numbers and poll readings that the country is on the right track, while having recently topped out, remain very high, at a re-elect-the-incumbent level. The budget’s upward trajectory and careful potholing gave the cabinet an in-charge look. The GDP growth lift has eased middling households’ fears.

National has shrugged off the Labour-Greens-New Zealand First attempt to pin a “crony capitalism” label on it and last week turned the attack back on David Cunliffe, who made himself vulnerable to such attacks by stoking a big leadership bid trust last year.

Labour is polling under 30 per cent, which accords with anecdotal evidence. For swathes of the electorate Cunliffe doesn’t yet jell and Labour hasn’t worked out how to reach the middle from its minorities base.

That leaves voters on Labour’s side of the divide adrift and those in the middle with only one major party to go to: National.

Even parties on National’s side — ACT, United Future and the Conservatives — are in its shadow. John Key’s plausibility endures: he can get away with saying Labour should be “open, honest and transparent” despite see-no-evil-hear-no-evil ducking over John Banks’ guilt over mayoral campaign donations.

But strength has a weakness: overconfidence.

Key and president Peter Goodfellow will this weekend temper talking up achievements and prospects with warnings of how a lead can slip away. Helen Clark’s Labour dropped 9 percentage points from pre-campaign poll averages to election day in 2002 and Key’s in 2011 was 7 percentage points. In 1996 an “unelectable” Clark suddenly became competitive in the first leaders debate.

To reduce the prospect of such a fall in September, it would make sense for Key at this weekend’s super-tight-managed showcase to project a strategic direction for a third term, not just self-congratulation and warnings to voters not to punt on the Labour+Greens alternative.

This term’s agenda had more GDP growth, with jobs attached and maybe some real wage growth, more deregulation to foster business, more houses (a late addition), sober fiscal management, more hospital operations, more NCEA passes, more progress markers on the other cross-portfolio “results” set in 2013.

But if all Key projects is an extension of 2011-14 through 2014-17, that would be a subliminal message to electors that three terms would be enough. For Key, who by 2017 would match Clark’s nine years and beat Sir Robert Muldoon, Sir Sidney Holland and Bolger, it might be enough. But not for most of his MPs. And as the economy comes off its Christchurch and dairy bonanza highs and the social services pips squeak more loudly from too much “more with less”, a third term would get to feel like a third term, opening voters to an alternative “progressive” agenda from Labour+Greens.

The job of finessing such third-term-itis falls to Bill English, the cabinet’s strategic thinker. This term some initiatives he has quietly backed have been changing some of the language.

One is the investment principle, quietly introduced at the 2011 conference for narrow aspects of welfare. It is poised, if policymakers want, for application more widely: the budget took a small step down the Hutchison report path to investing in very early childhood.

This is a major shift from 1970s rights-based welfare state thinking and the 1990s reactive cuts mentality. It gives government action renewed legitimacy.

The budget also backed an education shift to a focus on teachers’ professional capabilities. That is central to National’s third-term plans. And, against English’s dour Southland scepticism, it took a small step toward getting innovation investment up to the OECD average.

Add in a recalibration of natural resources policy, driven by a major reworking of water policy but also to get mining and oil and clean-green somehow to fit together in practical politics. For this the marginalised BlueGreen National ginger group needs to be in the mix. Then add a new attempt to unpick regulatory complexity to achieve stated objectives.

Then for something different but related, note Key’s culture of regeneration of a quarter of his caucus.

New candidates in winnable seats include a number under 45, some under 40 and one, English’s replacement in Clutha-Southland, Todd Barclay, is 24. A number of younger candidates, including four under 30, have been selected for other seats and if they are in winnable list positions, by 2017 National may look more like the generational change party than Labour.

That could point to a fourth term. But that takes us far beyond this weekend’s line of sight.