Kicking tyres all the way to the top

Obama photo-ops, David Letterman and 'kicking tyres' have taken John Key and his government to giddy heights in the latest Pundit poll of polls. But will ACC and the foreshore taint his gloss?

It seems like the old tactics still work. If your leadership looks to be sagging, head overseas to mix with the good and the great(ly famous). This year, it was John Key travelling to New York and Pundit's poll of polls shows a definite Letterman bump.

Or maybe it was the 'I shook hands with Barack Obama twice' bounce. Or the way the government is constantly "kicking tyres" to avoid looking too radical.

Whatever the reason, National will be fizzing on the back of its polling through September and early October. Where the party had looked to be losing its lustre through a winter of rising unemployment and soggy business confidence, it's shine is back.

The party climbed nearly two points to 56.2 percent and claimed to more seats, according to the Pundit Poll of Polls. With Labour clinging on to just 30 percent support, National's support is almost double that of the Opposition.

Key got great media coverage from his New York trip, with columnists praising his focus on getting closer to America and his networking efforts. He ran through a series of meetings with the leaders of Israel, Turkey, Rwanda and Chile, amongst others, but they got little coverage. It was his brief encounters with President Obama, his speech to the United Nations General Assembly – the first prime minister to speak there since Jim Bolger – and most of all his spot on David Letterman's The Late Show that got attention. You can only assume that New Zealanders still like a bloke who doesn't take himself too seriously and a steady-as-she-goes government.

Of course the government's been boosted by other good news in the past month, most notably the end of the recession, with a slim slice of growth recorded. The national feeling is that the worst is over and the government has seen us through.

Key is untouchable at the moment, but seems to remain cautious and careful to avoid too much public debate. Potential speculation about tax changes have been hurriedly shut down – Key would need a lot of convincing to support a capital gains tax, a flat tax is ruled out, and Bill English doesn't like the look of a GST increase.

Even though he has the political capital to spend, Key has been inclined to keep his Cabinet on a tight leash that doesn't over-reach his mandate from November. His first priority is that second term.

National's policy movements are being tentatively aired via reviews and discussion papers, rather than just announced (consider the health reforms, proposed changes to road rules and mining in national parks). The phrase being used is "kicking the tyres". It's a way to hold your wet finger up in the air to see which way the wind is blowing before actually committing to anything.

When they're ready to act, National is rushing legislation through select committees (as with the ETS law last week) and passing a whopping amount of it under urgency. It seems to be an effective, if cynical, mix of tactics.

On the other side of the House, Phil Goff must be sweating. He's certain National's "gloss" will wear off, and of course it will. But will voters see him as an alternative when it does?

While Goff will be worried by poll averages around 30 percent, there are other falling numbers that will worry him. The Greens have slid a point, leaving the Left looking terribly lean. Even more important, New Zealand First, after a brief flurry of support when Winston Peters announced he would be back for the 2011 election, is on a mere 1.6 percent.

Wise old political heads I've spoken to in recent weeks still give Labour a 50-50 chance of winning in two years. But the uncomfortable truth for Labour is that its success – and Phil Goff's one chance at leading this country – depends on New Zealand First getting back into parliament. It's uncomfortable, even ugly, because Labour will be leaning on Peters' xenophobic impulses.

Goff's hope – and National's risk – over the next few weeks is that the reforms to ACC, its partial privatisation and increased levies will anger a decent chunk of middle-class Kiwis. Perhaps the fact that ACC is in fact world class, financially stable, and out-performs the state schemes in Australia on just about every measure that counts will hit home; maybe New Zealanders will see through the beat-up. But I'm not holding my breath.

The other opportunity for the Opposition is the imminent repeal of the Foreshore and Seabed Act, expected to be announced in early November. Peters will be primed and ready. And once the Maori Party has won its major prize, it will be freer to throw its weight around and the tensions existing between the two parties could inch higher.

Which means John Key must be delighted to look in his diary and see another overseas trip planned. He's off to APEC at the end of the week, where he will catch-up again with his old chum, Barack. More front-page photos guaranteed just when he needs them. Phew, what a relief.