On their own, the odd golf game, visa waiver or dinner doesn't shake public confidence in a government. Until something happens that pulls the threads together and puts them in a new light... Enter Maurice Williamson...

In his 2000 book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell made sense of the way social trends and ideas seem to suddenly take on a life of their own, by comparing them to viruses. The way Hush Puppies became popular again because a few New Yorkers took a fancy to them, for example. All the idea or product or trend needs is a tipping point – "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point" where the drip, drip, drip becomes a flood.

Political trends work much the same way and Labour is looking for that point this week. Since John Key first ran for top office in 2008, Labour has been looking to paint the former Wall St man as one of Michael Cullen's "rich pricks". Mike Williams famously went digging into his past and the line was run that a currency trader worth $50m was out of touch and too close to big money and the exclusive elite.

The strategy was a flop due in large part to John Key's character – and persona. As calculating as the Prime Minster can be (and as wealthy and well-connected as he is) there is an authenticity about him and a easy-going manner that has confounded such Opposition attacks.

Until now. Key, apart from arguably too many golf games and a tendency for him to use his popularity to become 'Fundraiser in Chief', remains clear of any taint, but his government is starting to look questionable beyond the beltway. The complaints of "crony capitalism" and too much help for "the big end of town" that used to bounce off the Key-led government are now striking the odd hit.

We're not at tipping point yet, but this past week suggests to me a change in the wind.

The golf games, dinners at Antoines and offers of face time to raise money for the Maori Party all looked a little dubious, but nothing a busy electorate would care too much about. Hey, powerful people do posh things, right? And isn't the economy recovering? The Oravida case was a big dodgy, but really it was too complicated and nuanced for most people to understand.

Maurice Williamson and his phone call to the cops on behalf of a multi-millionaire Chinese businessman though, that people can understand. He rang the top cop in his district and, if the police are to be believed, prompted a review of the investigation into that businessman. It's dirty. They might not see it as a hanging offence on its own, but suddenly it puts all the other dealings in a different light.

Is this simply favours for rich mates? Is this special treatment for the few? And when these golf games, dinners in China and help with immigration are all followed by donations to the National Party, well, people start to take notice.

It's too soon to say, but could Williamson's misdemeanour be the start of a tipping point? That's what Oppposition parties are hoping for and what they will be pressing in parliament this week.

Add in the u-turn on legal highs last week and the general air of competence that surrounds this government is looking less robust. Then add Labour's new monetary policy that a) wasn't bungled and b) earnt mild praise from business leaders and Don Brash, and suddenly there's a new degree of pressure on National's discipline.

I wrote just over a week ago that this past week was going to be crucial for Labour; that it was running out of last chances. Well, it certainly took those words to heart and made the most of its week! Now it needs to do it again. And again.

Think about it through a rugby analogy. It's much easier to keep possession, force penalties and spot the gaps when you aren't under pressure. You have time to play your natural game, you can focus on your own tactics and not be distracted by the opposition. Under pressure, you make mistakes. Just look at Judith Collins' outburst at Katie Bradford yesterday.

Labour has some points from Williamson's resignation (sin binning), but it needs to stay down National's end of the pitch and get more points while Williamson is off the field.

National knows all this and I'm sure the message going round the troops is to double down, get their hands back on the ball and maintain discipline. This is not the time to be giving away easy penalties.

There's every chance National can soak up the pressure and fight back; this government has done it before and – to switch to a cricket analogy – it's got a power play coming up in the form of the Budget. Focus and opportunity swings back its way soon.

Enough of the sport metaphors. Williamson's departure of course makes Collins' survival all the more crucial for National. To lose one minister shows discipline; to lose two suggests incompetence. Key, however, must be sick of defending her and the personal attack on Bradford might have been the final straw required for a stand-down in any normal week. But this hasn't been a normal week. So Collins' incredible luck holds.

Her problem though is in part of the Prime Minister's making. When it became clear that the Oravida dinner wasn't just a drive-by on the way to the airport and there was more to it than Collins had previously revealed to him, he had every reason to stand her down. He chose instead to stand by her and may well now be regretting that choice, because the "perception of a conflict of interest" that the Cabinet Office referred to is sufficient to keep Opposition parties on her tail. What's more, the fact he publically said she was on a final warning was a mistake – it put a target on her back and gave the left every incentive to keep hunting for the single nugget that will push her over the edge. Another potential tipping point.

So can National push back from the edge? Or can Labour and its allies finally make the charge of crony capitalism stick this time? With the Budget just two weeks away, they have a small window in which to exploit that opportunity. On the other side, it'll be interesting to see whether National just clings on for a week or if it can find some offence to use as a form or defence. Remember, the election is still National's to lose.

So can National contain the epidemic or can Labour make it contagious? We should know by the end of the month.

Comments (19)

by Richard Aston on May 05, 2014
Richard Aston

Yes indeed it will be an interesting month in politics. Looks like labour and NZF will keep up the pressure on Collins and it seems she doesn't behave well under pressure. She may let something else slip or someone may find more incriminating evidence.  Effectively blaming her staff for seeking a  MFAT briefing before her dinner is not good form. She is not well liked on the inside; I wouldn’t be surprised if something gets leaked.

I bet the official information requests will be flying thick and fast as the diggers seek out that last piece of evidence.   

This election may be Nationals to lose but we still need some compelling reasons to vote Labour + whoever. The new Labour policy on interest rate control/Kiwisaver is a great start.

by Lee Churchman on May 05, 2014
Lee Churchman

So Collins' incredible luck holds.

If it keeps holding, it's not luck but leverage. I'm sure Key would like to sack her, but she is untouchable for some unfathomable reason. 

by Tim Watkin on May 05, 2014
Tim Watkin

Lee – not so unfathomable. In no particular order... First, politics within the National Party. Second, her seniority and ability as a minister. Third, not wanting to offend China and make that country's officials look open to influence. And now, fourth (and luckily), the need to not lose two ministers in close proximity, having now lost seven in just five and a half years.

by Lee Churchman on May 05, 2014
Lee Churchman

I would wager that the first is the most important, but I have nothing other than speculation to go on - hence, it's unfathomable to me. Do you know anything more about that? 

Surely she can't last another week. Winston and Labour must be salivating in anticipation of question time.

by Shaun on May 05, 2014

Prior to last week it was Labour who were under pressure to gain traction, and as you say, they appear to have responded positively. This can be contrasted with how Judith Collins has reacted to questioning.  Both are examples of responses to pressure, yet from the perspective of each party represented, one is positive, the other negative.

Your rugby analogy is a good one, and I agree that performance is related to an ability to play ones 'natural game'.  In the political arena, there would be a great deal of satisfaction derived from this.   I was wondering though, how pressure applies to Labour's position prior to last week, but also what relationship a 'natural game' has to complacency?

Doesn't it also suggest that pressure can work in a positive way, and that there are extremes that can have positive and negative outcomes?  There appears to be a threshold (akin to Gladwell's 'tipping point') at opposite ends of a spectrum. 


by Tim Watkin on May 05, 2014
Tim Watkin

No Lee, I'm not especially expert on the inner workings of the National Party. The obvious observation is that Key has all the power his popularity commands... but, but Collins is very popular with parts of the party (towards the right) and, this one trip aside, has been very adept and diligent when it comes to politics nationally and internally.

Shaun, pressure and Labour have been very good friends. To continue the rugby analogy, they haven't had the strongest team to put on the park – they just lack fresh talent, a decent halfback-first five combo and the handling has been atrocious at times. I don't think they're complacent, those MPs; it's more coaching and rotating captaincy. Picking a new captain and new playing style just a year out from a world cup is risky stuff.

But perhaps more stability and talent in the backroom and the players learning the new tactics and that darting, unexpected run by Parker is all helping. Right, metaphor exhausted now?

by Lee Churchman on May 05, 2014
Lee Churchman

Sure Tim, but she must have some insane amount of leverage within the party to be basically unfireable. I don't think it has much to do with Williamson's recent travails as it was obvious weeks ago that Collins could do anything and not get fired. Based on today's events it strikes me not as a leader trying to preserve a valuable colleague, but a leader absolutely desperate to avoid firing someone who has broken the rules over and over again, and has made him look stupid on various occasions.

People who support the National Party should be asking themselves how anyone can be indispensable to the point of risking the party's electoral prospects. That's what makes no sense to me. Perhaps Key has Oravida connections that would come to light if Collins were sacked (although unlikely, at least that would make some sense of what's been going on).

by Shaun on May 05, 2014

Right, metaphor exhausted now?

Not if we're trying to account for the role of complacency, and how these metaphors apply to both parties equally.  It's possible that for several months with National riding high in the polls and 'playing their natural game', this has led to some recent events (such as Judith Collins visit to China last year leading to today's news).

 After posting the first message,  I went back to the main page, and noticed that Andrew Geddis had posted on that topic, mentioning Bill English's words about 'a close election' were a warning about becoming complacent.

Regarding Labour,  I was going to say that the general reception to David Parker's policy announcement was more akin to your 'Power play' cricket analogy, to demonstrate that the metaphors you used applied to both parties at different times.  

Metaphors aside, I think the answer to your final question really depends on how much the voters care, and agree that there is some momentum shifting.   With all the news about Collins & Williamson this week and 'conflicts of interest', I detect there will be more to come with other candidates whose selection is based upon complacency. 

If voters sense they're being taken for granted, the party risk loss of goodwill.  The selection for Clutha-Southland (16,000 vote majority) is one example, due to the candidates background.  Speculation on my part, but I wouldn't be surprised.

by william blake on May 05, 2014
william blake

Lee, I think john Key has his interests tied up in blind trusts, so difficult to prove connections. 

I think Maurice Williamson's Chinese business connection have gifted Key Hobson's choice over Collins, damned either way. The "stress" leave is as much for him as Collins.

by Tim Watkin on May 05, 2014
Tim Watkin

Of course William, as they're blind he won't know what his interests are. But yes, he's caught between the devil and the deep blue party.

by Lee Churchman on May 06, 2014
Lee Churchman

I didn't mean Key personally, but as representative of the National Party. Key doesn't need money from anyone, but the National Party sure does. I don't think it is actually wrong for any National MP to be close to Oravida as a party donor, but it would be extremely inconvenient were that to be made public right about now.

by Alan Johnstone on May 06, 2014
Alan Johnstone

Political tipping point ?

We'll know in a couple of weeks, we've certainly had bad politicial management from National recently, but the impact is as yet unclear.

What we actually need now is polling, the main media organisations are frankly remiss in not having carried out polling after labours finance policy release last week to see if it had legs.

We should have had pre and post budget polling. If Labour get a 3% or 4% polling uptick, then the storyline will shift and we can discuss a tipping point. If we get through the next 10 days and polling hasn't moved from mid april, then we can safely say the matter is settled and National will win.

by Tim Watkin on May 06, 2014
Tim Watkin

Alan, the Budget isn't here yet so there may well be pre and post Budget polling. But polls are expensive  and our media companies aren't made of gold... These things are planned and have to come within someone's news budget and it being an election year there are already more polls than usual scheduled, so be patient.

by Tim Watkin on May 06, 2014
Tim Watkin

Oh, and I'm not so sure about your confidence that the election will be settled in the next 10 days. Ten days ago, would you have even considered Labour could have the chance to close the gap in May? While the odds may still be on your side it's far from "settled"; a lot can happen in a short time

by Lee Churchman on May 07, 2014
Lee Churchman

My guess, based on the last week or so, is that National will be exposed as being on the take on a massive scale (for NZ anyway), that this will be accepted by the public as true and promoted as such by the media, but they'll still win.

After all, the US and UK electorates returned war criminals to office. NZ's political sleaze is small beer in comparison.

by stuart munro on May 07, 2014
stuart munro

I think it's fairly clear what Judith's leverage is - Oravida and related companies have donated heavily to National and received for their payments little things like the Crafar farms. This was really unpopular when it was only an overseas investment issue, but as the 'cash for judicial result' becomes better known the chances are the Gnats will be punished. Whether the Key/Oravida/Kordamentha links will be actionable may be doubtful without a whisleblower's evidence, but the public are likely to disapprove. The same team that wrecked SCF has been up to no good again, and probably for the same reason - Hubbard held a lot of dairy farm debts.

by Alan Johnstone on May 07, 2014
Alan Johnstone

So, we have some polling tonight and it adds weight to the tipping point theory.

Of course what matters is the trend, lets see what the next week or so brings

by Tim Watkin on May 07, 2014
Tim Watkin

Exactly Alan. It's just one poll and the more telling ones will be in a couple of weeks.

by Alan Johnstone on May 08, 2014
Alan Johnstone

The more I think about this, the more I think we may be hitting a tipping point.

As I'm sure you'll all recall, Helen Clark was really really popular, until one she wasn't. It's hard to say exactly what happened or when it happened, it just did.

I sense the same thing starting to happen, power isolates people from the general public, they lose their touch.  

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.