Why National is riding high in the polls

I guess if you want a man who'll resist temptation, a Catholic Southland farmer's as good a bet as any. And it's what Bill English hasn't done in the past five and a half years that has National in pole position for this year's election

If you're wondering, as so many are, how National has been able to maintain the stunning poll lead recorded in the two TV polls over the weekend, you only need to look around the world at the moment. Right-wing parties are looking to exploit short-term circumstances, while Key & English are playing the long game to great effect.

I wrote much of this blog the day after the Budget, but work, family and sickness have conspired to never let me finish. Yet I want to get this up today in some form as it's timely when you see the news from Australia, the US and Europe and then compare and contrast.

Before our Budget John Key was eager to make comparisons with the Liberals Budget across the ditch in Australia, and when you look at the slash and burn tactics employed across the ditch you can see why.

The fact is they are both budgets were as much about politics as economics.

In truth, the Australian economy isn't in the terrible shape that you might imagine from the hyperbole being used here and over there; that exaggeration is largely politically motivated. Tony Abbott & Co have taken a downturn and used it as a cynical justification to make radical changes to Australia.

Then look at the right in Europe, who have used the fear generated by austerity to ride an anti-immigrant mood to more seats in the European parliament. Again, a cynical use of tough times.

And then there's the US, where the Republicans have tried manfully to use the tough times there to also slash government spending and use fear to win political points. But by limiting his ambitions and governing more conservatively than promised, President Obama has stymied their success (and arguably laid the foundations for a reform platform for Hillary Clinton should she choose to use it). The Tea Party right, by contrast, are running out of steam and money, while the Republicans are finally being forced back to the centre.

All those tactics by right-wing politicians around the world stand in striking contrast to Bill English's management of our government books. English, despite some dubious choices over his six budgets, has resisted the temptation to use the global financial crisis and even the Christchurch earthquake as a reason to let ideology overcome sound management. And what we've seen this year is a Labour-lite budget with headline programmes such as free healthcare that come straight from the centre-left playbook.

Oh, there's plenty to be critical of in Bill's six budgets. Notably the use of tax cuts for the rich as his prime stimulus tool and his suspension of Super Fund contributions. He missed out on a period of super-low government borrowing rates when he could have invested in several generation-defining projects. To compound things, he's now broken his own promise (however well signalled) that he would resume contributions once the government was back in surplus.

Where he did spend – such as on Roads of National Significance and irrigation schemes – he sadly only reinforced our dependence on the status quo rather than envisioning a new, more prosperous path for New Zealand.

And his lack of action extends to intervention in the housing market and game-changing spending on child poverty. National broke a promise and made life harder for the poor by raising GST, part-sold some assets just to keep its base happy and threw favoured deals at the likes of Warner Bros and Rio Tinto. But crucially, English resisted going further.

Instead, he chose a slow and steady management approach. He has been, above else, an accountant. And this latest Budget is a case in point.

It was the end of a long fiscal journey for this government and English's shaping of it. Rather than use the two crises – the GFC and the Christchurch earthquake – to his ideological advantage, he has used them to his political advantage instead, creating a narrative of fiscal responsibility and building public trust in troubled times.

Where another finance minister might have been tempted to use a moment in history to make radical change, as Roger Douglas did in 1984, English chose as his central goal a simple, balanced budget. A surplus. A boring, accountant's surplus. And this central economic goal quickly became the government's central political plank.

National has convinced middle New Zealand it is a safe, reassuring pair of hands in troubled times. A little care and a little sacrifice and we can get through this together, English has always said. And like the Southland farmer he is at heart, he shepherded the economy along to the green, green paddock of surplus.

Where those to his right see a lack of courage and fume at the continuation of Working For Families and interest-free student loans, around half of New Zealanders see a stable, re-electable government which might otherwise have been dragged down by the tough times it was operating in, its indiscipline or some rather dodgy deals. That kind of sustained popularity has kept the zealots in and around National quiet, allowing English to slowly go about his business. Which, fundamentally, is about building a minimalist economic foundation that allows business to get on with doing theirs.

This is not a man with a Vogelesque vision and so he won't have a Vogelesque legacy. But then neither will he have a Richardsonesque legacy, which is something for which we can all be grateful.

English's legacy as Finance Minister, for good and ill, is not so much in what he's done, but rather in what he hasn't done. His most likely epitaph is that, to quote Muldoon, he left the country no worse off than he found it. And given the crises he's faced, history will most likely judge him kindly for that.

He's resisted the temptation to use crises as a justification for harsh cuts and radical ideological change a la Hockey and Osborne. He's largely refused to cut entitlements (the notable exceptions, such as night school, have been exceptions) and he only sold 49 percent of five state assets (rather than all 100% of those or any portion of Kiwibank, TVNZ or other assets that might have been supported by National's base but been costly politically).

As Torben Akel reported on The Nation this past weekend, the gap between rich and poor has hardly moved on his watch, at least by the standard measure (and the measure happily used by Labour when it was in government). While the fact remains that the property-owning classes are, well, distinct, wealthier classes again further removed from the poor, that's a trend that can spread its blame across several governments.

You only have to look at the Hockey Horror Show across the Tasman or the austerity cuts in  Britain to see how much farther the former Treasury staffer could have gone. You only have to consider what a Don Brash-led National government might have done to see the difference. And you only have to look to Europe this week to see how politicians can use crises to drum up popular support in the worst way.

But such tactics are short-termist. The tide has a habit of turning and crashing down on you. English and Key have largely resisted that temptation, opting instead for nips and tucks. And in doing so, they have put National in pole (poll?) position heading into election season.