If we're starting to talk about Waitangi Day, the end of the year has arrived. So what will John Key and Phil Goff be reflecting on as they tuck into their Christmas pudding?
When the English flag – the cross of St George - flies next to the Union Jack on Windsor Castle, does that shake the foundations of Westminster democracy? Likewise the Scottish flag of St Andrew ‘s cross flying over the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, or the Welsh dragon flying on official buildings in Wales?
Winston Peters’ claims of constitutional outrage over the decision to fly the tino rangatiratanga flag next to the New Zealand flag on Waitangi Day are as accurate as usual. He just forgot to tell us what part of our unwritten and organic constitution is being usurped. Other countries have the maturity to recognise the duality of emblems, the bi-cultural nature of their communities, without the sky falling in.
There is some truth in Shane Jone’s grizzling that the tino rangatiratanga flag has been adopted by the Maori Party. Nonetheless, it has been the de facto Maori flag for many years, well prior to the emergence of the Maori Party. The party (cleverly) chose that symbol precisely because of its resonance and dominance as a symbol of Maori aspiration.
But while some grizzle, one can only applaud John Key for taking the decision he has. Most Labour supporters will feel a strong sense of pride from seeing the two flags flying together. If there’s any sadness, it will be that the decision – emblematic that it is - was made by a National government and not their own. It is a progressive decision – not a conservative one. After a couple of years, people will wonder what all the fuss was about.
The move highlights Labour’s continued problem with the Maori Party-National nexus. Labour needs to drive a wedge between National and the Maori Party, rather than try to destroy the Maori Party. Hone Harawira might be Labour’s biggest target at the moment, but he is also an opportunity. Hot-blooded as he is, he represents the Maori Party wing that is enduring extreme discomfort at the coalition arrangements with National.
Meanwhile, National heads to Christmas in high spirits. John Key, undoubtedly, will enjoy his Fleetwood Mac downloads at his Omaha bach (no Billy Bragg or Clash will play there), basking in a year of record poll ratings. English has put the mini-scandals behind him and, along with Joyce, is the main grunt in the government’s front row. Power and Brownlee, the other two making up the tight five, have also enjoyed good years.
There is a prospect that next year will be much more difficult for National. As English makes abundantly clear (he’s relentlessly on message), there is no money to spend. For a myriad of government programmes, funding pressures - currently building - will hit bursting point. Already the pips are being squeezed in ACC and adult community education. By the last quarter of next year, assuming a tight budget, interest and lobby groups will be screaming very loudly in many, many more areas.
It is that prospect which Labour needs to be focusing on now. Spokespersons need to be building those relationships with the key figures in their portfolios, looking for the areas which will be most sensitive, and preparing the groundwork for the unrest which is likely to occur.
Phil Goff, meanwhile, is finding out just how wretched leading from opposition can be. Commentators (like John Armstrong) have been trenchant, unfairly so, in their recent criticism of Labour’s performance in opposition. Nothing he does seems to have any impact. Whether he makes a decent speech, or skilfully challenges the government in the house, not long after a poll comes out with National on fifty-something and Labour in the 30s.
There is no challenge to Goff from within the caucus or party. Party members can pick the public sentiment as much as anyone. They might not like it, but they know that whatever Phil does or says, the public is not particularly interested, just now. But they also know he’s a politician of real substance, like his predecessor. Leadership spills, moreover, tend to prolong – not curtail – periods of opposition purgatory.
The main issue for Labour is to focus on being a very good opposition party, prepared to take full advantage when the mood does start to change. When that will be is anyone’s guess - dispiriting as that prospect is, it’s difficult to change the zeitgeist. But they can’t shut up shop and leave the government to it. They need to just plough on. Next year, after another ugly budget, they might just have ample material to talk about.