As the Key administration prepares for the opening of parliament for 2010, where is the plan and wisdom required for good governance? And where's the opposition? Here's a report card – in plain language

A couple of years ago, before they became government, one of the more intelligent National MPs confided to a friend about the woeful lack of thoughtful voices and commentators on the right of New Zealand politics. He wasn't concerned about the volume of noise from the right. Attack dogs: plenty. Repetition of "nanny state"–style slogans: all the time. Grandstanding on law and order or repeating easy cliches about New Zealand being behind Australia: ad nauseam. But where was the reasoned analysis of issues, the development of policy on the big issues facing the country and the reservoir of good sense and self-criticism that might help the party work out what it stood for? It wasn't there, and the culture of the party worked against it suddenly appearing.
For an opposition party focussing on attack politics, this wasn't really a problem. Attack politics works in opposition (for political success if not for the country). But now they are in government.
By one measure, of course, National is doing well in government as well. This is the only measure that many observers seem to be interested in: namely, that the party is scoring outstandingly high in the polls. But it is a separate question whether National is doing well at being a government and it is obvious that mostly they are not. The reason for this is the same as the MP's lament about the party's supporters and commentators. There is a profound lack of talent, wisdom and ideas.
For example, in opposition Murray McCully had a reputation for being the back-room strategy brain, the dark prince. His performance as foreign minister has not lived up to the reputation. Foreign affairs insiders say that, compared to the reviled but surprisingly good foreign minister Winston Peters, McCully has been doing a surprisingly poor job in this role, including having trouble making decisions and completely lacking flair in international meetings. Beyond his usual petty enmities and prejudices, he appears to have very little to bring to the job.
John Key, by contrast, has so far proved to be popular and politically competent. Nonetheless, he came into politics with no ideas, apart from personal ambition, and doesn't seem to have changed. When Don Brash was leader he applauded his anti-Maori Orewa speech, attacked single parents and talked about privatisation. Now, when his personal advancement relies on being Mr Centrist, he says the opposite. I think he doesn't particularly care either way. His only memorable response to the recession, the biggest issue of his time as leader, is a cycleway (which, he told a reporter last week, "is doing very well".) He could (if the ideas existed) potentially be good or even very good at pushing through others' ideas, but he has no vision of his own for the country or the world.
Gerry Brownlee epitomises the predominant mediocrity of the Cabinet. A group of ministers went to Australia to find out why Australia was doing better economically than New Zealand. When told that Australia's massive mining industry had helped cushion it through the recession, they came home and Brownlee (unburdened, apparently, by any geological understanding of New Zealand compared to Australia) started promoting mining in national parks. There are other ministers even less knowledgeable and capable than him.
Then there is Tony Ryall, an effective operator, continuing on with the 1990s National government's sneaky gradual privatisation of the health system, and Steven Joyce, coordinator of the Exclusive Brethren's covert support for National before the 2005 election, with a vision of more and bigger roads. They represent National's traditional role of providing policies that suit their various big business allies. There is also a small number of ministers working away competently on their portfolios, doing their best to help run the country, but they are unfortunately a minority. Meanwhile, the ministerial offices have hired in a clutch of Young National types as political advisers, people brought up on slogans and sneering attack politics but not on seriously addressing issues. They are said to be exacerbating the problem of political management continually taking precedence over policy.
In short, while the National Government is proving to be good at politics (impression, image and management) – the fruits of which are seen in the polls – most of its ministers have very little to bring to running a country.
National's success to date has been aided by the Labour Party opposition. Think of the US. The Republican Party lost the presidency at the same time as Labour lost the 2008 election. You'd have thought the Republicans would be discredited and in disarray for years, but within months they were energetically back in the attack role that the US political right does so unscrupulously well. In comparison, Labour in New Zealand, with "new" leadership and an infusion of new MPs, seems tired and rudderless. This is a major factor in National riding so high in the polls.
Two recent examples of thinking within Labour illustrate the state that party is in. First, the Labour leadership is said to be reluctant to risk any policies that might be accused of being "nanny state", adopting as their guide a right-wing taunt that, if taken seriously, would eliminate nearly everything the New Zealand Labour Party was set up to strive for.
Then the leadership of Labour, New Zealand's largest opposition party, let it be known internally that they wanted to limit the number of National's proposals that they opposed in order to be seen as a "Yes party" not a "No party". In this environment, and as long as many commentators focus on polls more than policy, National's failings may continue to go unnoticed for some time.

Comments (9)

by Jonathan Devine on February 08, 2010
Jonathan Devine

Interesting piece, Nicky, if only a little premature.

I think the title provides the greatest critique of this article: 'Second Year Blues'. As much as any government might like to, there's very little that can be done in a year (and that's a good thing. Think of the turmoil if governments could push through ill-conceived election promises in the blink of an eye).

Try republishing this in a year - you may find that your predictions have proved true. In the meantime, you might like to sigh a breath of relief that this government hasn't done much of anything yet.

by stuart munro on February 08, 2010
stuart munro

Dead right Mr Hager - National's lack of talent, integrity, and direction is only exceeded by Labour's. The medieval metaphor for states as badly governed as New Zealand seems especially apt: a ship of fools. Every day I thank my lucky stars I left.

by Mr Magoo on February 08, 2010
Mr Magoo

I disagree that it is too early. Most governments like to get a lot done in the first year and this was no exception.

100 days of policy madness? Advertised job Summit? Abuse of house urgency rules?

And at the end of that the Rodney inspired meme of "getting nothing done" has got major traction in the media. What does that tell you?

I agree that in a year things will have changed, but isn't there now a huge hole to fill because of the above meme? Are not national feeling they HAVE to be frantic this year because of the current public perception they have let run their government for them? (i.e. via their large polling department)

Frantic policy from such an under-performing bunch (e.g. such as Tolley) will be a disaster. Hopefully it will be just for National...but history begs to differ to be honest.

by Justin Maloney on February 08, 2010
Justin Maloney

The Nats have focused on trying to not put a foot wrong, which if you are a government means you tend to do very little indeed. At some point they will have to pull out some stops and actually start offending people, there is no way you can keep everyone happy all the time!

I agree with the first comment above, that at the end of the second year it may be a different story and the time would be right to throw some big brickbats. The Nats will have to move on some fairly big issues in the next 12 months that could polarise people.

Also lets not be too hard on Labour just yet. You raise some great points but also are a little unfair.

It is hard for opposition to always just disagree with the government for the sake of it, you need to actually debate the issues.

It is also hard to mount an opposition when the ones you oppose aren't actually doing much!

Also to compare the changes in the political moods in the USA to NZ is a wee bit of a stretch. We didn't have the George Bush effect here, the leaving of Helen Clark actually hurt Labours popularity rather than improved it. There are also a myriad of other issues in the states which are quite alien to us.

I'd like to see Labour put up some strong, meaningful debate though. It might mean they need to swing a bit more left again to do it, back to their roots as you suggest. Even just to liven things up a bit.

Just adding the phrase "...will impact ordinary hard working New Zealanders..." to the end of every sentence will not win votes my dear Mr. Goff.

by stuart munro on February 09, 2010
stuart munro

Still no coherent action to sustain the fortuitous balance of payments anomaly. Unemployment testing 7.5 % & no action - treasurers are no doubt hiding under their beds and pretending they never heard of Okun's law. This government is economically disasterous, and the fact that Goff is not a whit better is neither here nor there.

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