National and the art of managing expectations

Pundit's latest poll of polls shows National cruising on a flat sea of likeability, overseas issues and carefully crafted PR. Even the 'dissent' is perfectly scripted

The political polls in the past few weeks have told a consistent story. That is, the story of National's smooth consistency during their first five months in power.

I hope you'll excuse the fact that the Pundit poll of polls hasn't always been instantly updated in the past few weeks. You know, newborn babies, new jobs and all that. But it's up to date now (complete with our graphs) and you'll see that National holds a whopping 23 point lead over Labour and is sitting comfortable above the 50% mark.

Chris Trotter reckons the Left has to resign itself to the fact that many former Labour voters are now convinced that the Right has more to offer them. Well, yes, the election said as much. For now. But I see no evidence of any profound disenchantment with left-wing politics or that the madding crowd are confused and simple.

Sure, John Key is likeable and likeable politicians have an edge everywhere in the democratic world. Always have. Look at Dick Seddon, Michael Joseph Savage and Keith Holyoake. But it was only minutes ago that commentators were remarking on Helen Clark's extended and extensive popularity, arguing that New Zealanders are suckers for tough, tell-us-what-to-do leaders. Look at Clark, Sir Robert Muldoon and Peter Fraser.

National got popular and Labour lost its common touch long before international recessions dominated our headlines. Roughly 15% of swing voters made that choice over the past couple of years for a number of reasons, including their desire to see some new faces and tell the old lot to butt out of their lives for a while. Oh, and Winston Peters.

But noting's forever in politics, even twenty-something percent poll leads. Especially twenty-something percent poll leads, actually. National's benefiting now from a period where people have made their political choice, see nothing to give them buyers remorse, and feel they don't need to engage much for a while. Anyway, they've got other things to worry about, like, oh I don't know... their jobs and savings.

You can add to that list the fact that the news is dominated by what you might call reactive issues. That is, the New Zealand government can hardly be blamed for the financial mess the world's in right now; it can only react. And Wall St bankers are beyond the reach of our fists. Best just to keep your head down and get on, really. (Of course, we could blame ourselves and our love of buying stuff we can't afford... But it seems we're not ready for that just yet. And we could yet turn on the government for mishandling this crisis. But the jury's still out on that one.)

As a very a-political friend of mine said at the weekend, "we have this lot for a bit, then we give the other lot a go". That's the Kiwi way.

But there's another reason for National's shiny Teflon exterior right now, and it's been on display this week. And that's some very smooth PR. They've done a superb job of what the marketers call "managing expectations".

The two real political points of knowable danger for the government over the next couple of months are the Budget and the Auckland city reforms.

Cutting the tax cuts and undermining our saving for our collective retirement are never going to be popular. By rights, they should be political poison. But National has purposefully raised the probability of a let down without actually confirming anything, giving people the chance to slowly adjust their expectations. Like the old frog in the pot of water as the heat is slowly turned up, most New Zealanders haven't even noticed a couple of pretty big election promises are being boiled.

No sooner had National ticked off its first 100 days in office, complete with a scorecard of achieved promises, than it started preparing to break a few. Towards the end of February, John Key refused to confirm the 2010 and 2011 tax cuts. There were accusations of "prevarication" in the press, but few column inches about betrayal in the afterglow of the election. No-one called their bluff.

Over the next few weeks Key and Bill English repeated to trick, making sure everybody heard them and letting it soak in. 'We want tax cuts, but...' was the on-message line. It pretty quickly became clear that this was the opposite of prevarication or any woolly-headedness. This was carefully planned.

It worked so well, National started using the same trick with the contributions to the Super Fund. Just yesterday English gave a speech saying, 'can't possibly comment on what's in the Budget, but if we cut contributions these would be our reasons'.

Of course the best thing about saving all these nasty 'surprises' until the Budget is that they'll get lost in the jumble, and because they will seem like old news, they will get less coverage than the carefully undiscussed 'good news', such as Big Infrastructure.

What about Auckland? This seemed to be genuinely mishandled at first. But the rally began this week with Paula Bennett's carefully scripted "dissent". The Waitakere MP took "the rare step of publicly voicing concern about the Government's plans for Auckland's Super City," the Herald reported. It looked like a little lack of discipline was creeping into the National Cabinet. Until, oh, the 9th paragraph.

A spokeswoman for Mr Key said he had known Ms Bennett would raise her concerns publicly.

Well done to the Herald's Claire Trevett for seeing the trap, although perhaps the point could have been made a little more clearly. I'd put good money on the PM not just knowing about the concerns, but ordering her to raise them.

National will have to battle through the flak around the Auckland reforms; there's no alternative. What they don't want to do is risk their prized new west Auckland electorate in the process. What better than to let their "westie chick" minister look like a maverick, willing to side with the people rather than her own colleagues?