Spies, education, finances, a star and a forecast

John Key pulled the election date forward. He said it was to avoid clashes with likely global leaders’ visits after the G20 meeting in Australia in November. But clouds were looming too.

One was John Banks’ conviction, widely expected. By shutting Parliament in July, not October, Key avoided needing the Maori party for a majority for too long. September 20 also was sure to predate any significant effect on households of rising interest rates.

He didn’t predict the Nicky Hager saga or the Kim Dotcom mass spying fireworks. But focus group evidence suggests most voters see “dirty politics” as a tautology — “they all do it” — and Key was pre-armed for the Dotcom attack. Hager and Dotcom may have actually have helped National by consuming much media space and time Labour desperately needed.

If there have been winners, they have been Winston Peters and Colin Craig.

Once Key had sinbinned Judith Collins he could get his campaign back on to his two main lines: himself as an attractive leader and household finances. These happen to be the two big deciders of modern elections.

The Key government’s dominant policy focus since 2008 has been GDP growth, focused on fiscal consolidation (which caught up a wide range of topics from welfare to local government), deregulation (especially of wages), more cows (Key has promised again to double agricultural exports), oil, gas and minerals exploration, infrastructure investment (mainly roads and broadband) and new trade agreements, especially the elusive Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The main GDP growth was supposed to come from exports. But even the cow bonanza has scarcely moved the exports-to-GDP ratio and now cows are not so lucrative. A critical driver of GDP growth has actually been a domestic factor, the Christchurch rebuild, which is a temporary, not a structural, phenomenon.

And the heavy focus on GDP fullstop inverts its role in the wider scheme, making it less an enabler of wellbeing than an end in itself.

For example, National sees education in mainly economic terms: it makes workers, enables people to play an economic role and then a bigger economic role.

Labourites and Greens agree with that but the more insightful of them also see education as social infrastructure as well as economic infrastructure. The better the quality of learning through childhood and later in life, the more capable a person is of being a full and contributing member of society.

That is, education improves wellbeing in ways GDP growth by itself doesn’t. Alongside health (in its broad sense of human wellbeing), investment in and maintenance of ecosystems and innovation through science and research, education is a pillar of good government.

Education through the twentieth century was a factory. Modern education has to be far more sophisticated.

The two major parties now broadly agree. They agree that the quality of teaching at all levels is more important than mechanistic “standards” and certificate numbers and that to lift the quality requires much higher professional skills, coupled with modern technology and teaching spaces, and that to make that transition well will require heavy investment.

The budget made a start. It would be a focus for National in a third term. It would be a focus for a Labour-Green-based government, too. The two sides disagree on detail, including some large detail, not least the role of unions. But the direction is clear.

But what do people actually vote on? Some vote on specific issues, hates, likes, worries and hopes. That feeds small-party numbers. Tribal allegiances count for the big parties and for some longer-lived smaller parties.

But in a modern election two voting influences stand out.

One is the state of household finances. That is what “the economy” is in an election.

For a wide swathe of middling households finances have lifted over the past two years, with modest job and income growth. That is reflected in strong poll readings of consumer confidence and whether the country is on the right or wrong track.

Key also has the other modern election deciding factor on his side: his runaway lead as “preferred prime minister”.

As politics becomes increasingly personalised in a twittering, personal-media age, he has one of the sorts of personalities which connect. Many want him out and use strong language. But for most his matey, blokey, easy-mixing style and appearance of knowledge of issues take him well clear of the pack, including the slowly improving David Cunliffe.

Hence the heavily Key-centred #TeamKey campaign. The risk is that if the gloss comes off, as it did late in the 2011 campaign over the tea party with Banks, the personality factor could go negative.

Five days out, the gloss hasn’t come off. The pointers are for a third term for Key, though voters have yet to define his support matrix. That’s my forecast.

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