Cure for third-termitis? A dose of the polls

A year on from the election and we now see loud and clear what defines the John Key government - a willingness to bend to public opinion and give the people just enough of what they want

How deliciously fitting that National should celebrate the first birthday of its third term with the decision to turn down Shanghai Pengxin's bid to buy Lochinver Station from the Stevenson Group, even though the Overseas Investment Office had permitted the sale.

It is a brutally political decision. Brutal, that is, to the Stevenson Group, which must now turn the hypothetical New Zealand buyer into a reality and accept a price some millions less it could have got from the Chinese. While it knew the risks of investing in what is legally designated "sensitive land", it could never have anticipated the 13,800-hectare sheep and cattle station could become a political football. Especially one, lest we forget, kicked off by Colin Craig.

And in case you're wondering just how political a decision this is, consider this exchange between Steven Joyce and Grant Robertson on The Nation in last year's election campaign:

Lisa Owen: I want to start with you, Mr Joyce. Ownership of assets is what makes you wealthy. So what do you think of this 18,000 hectare Lochinver Station being sold to foreigners?

Steven Joyce: What I think it it’s election time because we’re getting a sale of land, and therefore a couple of people now – it used to be just Winston; now it’s Colin Craig as well – beating the anti-foreigners drum, and I suspect we’ll see a bit more of this between now and election day. But it’s as regular as every three years that this comes up.

Grant Robertson, it’s just electioneering?

Grant Roberston: Well, no. I mean, New Zealanders are actually sick of our assets being sold off, and it’s the same for farms as it is for Steven selling off energy companies. We want to see value held by New Zealanders. We don’t get this land back once it’s sold. It’s gone.

As the heated debate continued, Joyce went on to say:

"A little xenophobia from the Labour Party to start the day off."

A year later, and National is blocking the sale and Joyce is left to argue he was talking about Labour's stance on foreign ownership in general when he used the word "xenophobia", not Lochinver in particular.

Add in the fact that just 10 weeks ago Joyce was on the same programme explaining that increasing foreign investment was key to New Zealand's growth, especially in the regions and especially as the downturn hit:

We have to do more to encourage investment as a country, and one of the things I'm taking through Cabinet at the moment is a joined-up national investment attraction strategy which will have four or five big agencies that are involved in this phase working together under Peter Chrisp from NZTE, and their job will be to show a pipeline of private sector investment opportunities to international investors so that they can come in, invest particularly in our regions, and encourage opportunities to grow new industries and put more capital into existing industries across the regions.

The big lesson from this past year of politics is that National under John Key (and Joyce) is willing to turn on a dime and do as many u-turns as polling tells them are needed, to stay popular. More than ever in its third term, National will bend like a Len Lye sculpture to match public opinion, even if it makes them hypocrites.

The trend has been building all year. National said no new taxes, then introduced a "brightline test" (a non-tax tax) and a tourism "levy" tax. The party that has long-mocked benefit increases, well, they increased benefits. Refugee numbers? They went from no way to 600 more in less than a week.

And now Lochinver. The crown jewel of all u-turns. And here's the telling thing. The polls tell us that the public doesn't care.

Critics say it's not true leadership. That it's politics for the sake of politics, power for the sake of power. That is lacks a vision or a heart. But it's working.

What used to be called 'hypocrisy' and the preserve of 'poll-driven fruitcakes' is now called 'listening'. In this post-partisan political age, it seems that for all the talk of authenticity, New Zealanders - for now at least - are happy to go with the guy they think of as likeable and competent, so long as he keeps giving them what they want.

It doesn't have to be much; Key gives no more than he has to. But it's always enough to create the headline (more refugees, more for the poor, no to Chinese sale, tightening up on foreign buyers).

Where many third term governments get hidebound, Key's has gone the other way. While National is facing problems typical of a dose of third-termitis (sloppy ministers, no fresh ideas, political sideshows), its prescription is to simply go with the polls, even if it goes against the party grain and their own political integrity.

Perhaps voters' opinion of political integrity is so low, that doesn't need to be part of the calculations any more.

This uber-flexibility raises all kinds of questions. One, how long is the party prepared to wear this lack of ideology before someone revolts? Is winning enough for National, when it's brazenly stealing Labour policies and governing so far from its base? All the base is getting is the slow privatisation of social services. A huge change in itself, but thin gruel for red-blooded Nats.

But, more significantly, what does Labour or any opposition party do? This is crucial: When a government is prepared to change so much, how do you convince voters to change government? Most people don't like change much, and if swing voters are getting what they want from that same smiling, competent face, where's the need to vote them out?

 Andrew Little's response this morning was to say that people are tiring of poll-driven government and want "values-driven leadership". They want someone to stand for something, not just "transactional" government (interesting word). Perhaps that's his Corbyn lesson.

But it seems to be a statement of hope more than fact. For now at least. Little has to think there's a weakness somewhere in Key's shell. Labour tries arguing 'National hasn't got a plan'. But when the party admits openly it hasn't got a plan yet either because it's still fixing its internal issues and "listening to New Zealanders', that doesn't get you far. It - and New Zealand First - is trying through the provinces, thinking that could be a soft spot. Maybe.

But it seems Labour more than else wants to contrast Little as a moral man who stands for something, against slippery, flexibly Key.

It may yet work. Key's poll numbers better than Little's. Yet the fact is, other parties would give a limb for a problem like Key. And as long as he's prepared to shrug off the cries of 'hypocrite' and 'u-turn' and follow the polls, his close bond to middle New Zealand remains strong.