National's campaign strategy is starting to look shakey, and it's as much to do with the economy and discipline as Dirty Politics
John Key has been relying more than usual on the scripted spin when it comes to defending his administration after the revelations in Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics, one of his most popular being that Hager's claims were "dissolving before his eyes". But instead, the claims have stacked up and it's National's famed discipline that's fading.
A 3News-Reid Research poll tonight will start to give us a clearer idea about the impact of Hager's book on voters' trust in National. But while the news is very much of the moment, the impact on voters may be more slow-burning. The three specific points I've focussed on in previous posts (accessing Labour's computer, releasing Simon Pleasants' details and the SIS and other OIA requests being released for political ends) are reasons for serious concern, but I suspect the issue may end up being more a corrosive than explosive when it comes to voter support. Although how quickly the corrosion will set in it's impossible to say. That, in large part, will depend on surrounding factors.
The thing is, those surrounding factors aren't looking good for National this week.
It's easy to get caught up in the daily news cycle, but step back for a moment and look at what National's facing this week outside Dirty Politics. First, economists have said the economy has "peaked" and at a Queenstown debate last night English accepted that.
That doesn't mean we're in decline, but rather that growth is slowing. That, according to Shamubeel Eaqub, includes wage growth. And given just over half of New Zealanders got a pay rise in the past year, it's going to worry many that the fruits of recovery may have passed them by already.
On the same day John Key faced a protest from a group of people (almost) all New Zealanders ache for -- the families of those who died in the Pike River mine explosion. On its own, the government's failure to get into the mine might be considered understandable given the risks and the decisions being made by Solid Energy. But seeing the families' frustration and in the context of Cameron Slater's "feral" comments, it's bad optics for Key, as those in the spin business might say.
You've got National all over the place on tax cuts -- with English dampening expectations at every turn and Key insisting he does have a few lollies in his pockets if we just agree to go with him. It may be a hurriedly arranged distraction from the Hager claims, but it looks like the party's leaders can't make up their mind. And when you're basing your election campaign on a "don't change boats mid-stream" strategy it's rather off-message.
Then you've got the dark cloud of Judith Collins hanging over everything National does and another mistake from her in the past 12 hours, where she relied on "media reports" when she claimed to have been cleared by the Privacy Commissioner on the Pleasants matter, only to have to conceed that the Commissioner is simply refusing to investigate. Which isn't, obviously, the same as being cleared.
And while we're about it, English also said in Queenstown that he did not "condone" Jason Ede accessing Labour's website. That's directly at odds with Key's comment that it was "fair enough". That's something that could get a lot more play today.
Put all that together and frankly, it's a mess for National. On their own, such stories can be put down to the unavoidable rough and tumble of the campaign but the worry for the party's strategists will be if there's a cumulative impact.
If it was Labour we'd be saying 'here we go again'. National's track record of discipline means commentators are slower to point out the mess when it appears, assuming it's a blip rather than a trend.
But that's now for National to prove one way or another. Momentum heading into the final fortnight is crucial, and the fact is National doesn't have it. Is its campaign plan "dissolving" or can its leadership get back on track?