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.
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
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.