A hard place, a rock and opportunity

A question hung over Bill English on stage on Sunday at his campaign launch: will he be in Parliament three years from now? He has been there 27years already.

If Jacinda Ardern is Prime Minister, he will surely not want to stew in opposition. Note in that light a TV1 poll published Sunday showing a massive party vote swing in Whangarei from 50%-18% National-Labour in 2014 to just 41%-37%.

But will English see through a whole term if he is Prime Minister, then pitch for a highly improbable fifth term in 2020?

Spectre No 1: The last time National won a fourth term, in 1969, knives were soon being sharpened. In February 1972 Sir Keith Holyoake was ousted. In the election that year Norman Kirk swamped Sir Keith’s successor, Sir John (“Jack”) Marshall.

Spectre No 2: To stay Prime Minister English will almost certainly have to pitch to Winston Peters.

In 1996 Jim Bolger signed a faustian pact with Peters. A year later he was gone, as Jenny Shipley claimed National back for the “blue” team off the “greys” who had backed the pact.

Shipley lasted two years. Helen Clark beat her in 1999.

If English does stay Prime Minister, he will, like Shipley and Marshall, be in a hard place, up against a Labour re-energised by a feisty new leader.

So what did English do on Sunday about these spectres?

He paraded Jacinda-lite — that is, Nikki Kaye. Same age, veterans of two “battles of the babes” in Auckland Central, both with work experience in London.

If the intended message was “see, we’ve got one, too” it was laboured. Kaye doesn’t have Ardern’s mystique and messaging.

Next up, solo-mum-to-Deputy-Prime-Minister Paula Bennett personifying National’s appealing underlying message that it stands for “opportunity”. (So does Gareth Morgan.)

But Bennett is more popular than weighty in her messaging.

So to the “rock” — English. Kaye and Bennett made this Kelvin Davis jibe a positive.

And Mr Reliable English was rocklike on stage on Sunday: solid, verging on stolid, except for a punchy last few lines, which suddenly ended in mid-air when he poured a glass of water and wondered awkwardly what to do before wandering off.

His specific “opportunity” was some education bits, notably to lift cognitive development by letting primary kids learn a second language, including even te reo as a bicultural gesture, though it must not be made compulsory, English said later.

The rest of the speech amounted to “incremental continuity” — deja-vu-plus-a-bit (subject, of course, to what Peters would bring).

Also deja vu is National’s first election television advertisement: an in-step, steady-paced line of blue-clad runners passing four lurching deadbeats clad in Labour, Green, New Zealand First and Opportunities party colours.

That was a re-warm of the rowing boat ads of 2014. It pretends National can govern nearly alone as in the past nine years, which will not be so if it is bound leg-to-leg to New Zealand First. Hence perhaps the slightly grey-ish tinge to the runners’ blue gear.

And, talking of opportunity, or just being opportunistic, campaign chair Steven Joyce used the pre-election economic and fiscal update (PREFU) last week to campaign on a families package for 2020, complete with the campaign slogan.

Ideally, the PREFU should be politics-free, a Treasury document, democratically parked outside electioneering.

But State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes cleared Joyce. That echoed his predecessor Michael Wintringham’s fronting public servants to the media to counter the “Corngate” damage to Helen Clark’s lead in her snap election in 2002.

In clearing Joyce, Hughes risked feeding analysts and others who fear or allege a creeping politicisation of the public service as too deferential to ministers of the day.

Hughes has a constitutional duty to ensure no grounds for such criticism. The risk is that if there is a change of government, incoming ministers may be edgier than usual in their adjustment to their (our) servants.

The PREFU affair is a small impropriety by world standards, including Donald Trump’s United States. But small can grow big if not nipped.

Constitutional propriety is part of this country’s brand, valuable in offshore dealings.

A Prime Minister’s job is in part to keep the brand polished. Which a re-elected English with limited tenure and so freed of re-election fixations could take seriously.

A small example: fix MMP, as the Electoral Commission recommended in 2012, by ending the “waiver” of the 5% party vote threshold for parties that win electorates so they can add MPs.

This term the Maori party added Marama Fox to Te Ururoa Flavell’s electorate seat. But the Maori party would not be in an English-Peters government.

Many bits of the brand need more polishing: for example, housing, hospitals, entrenched inequalities — and dirty rivers, the “clean-green” gone brown, about to be featured worldwide in Al Jazeera documentaries.

Can the rock move to take up those opportunities? Or will that need a seismic event?