National and Labour made very big , but very different announcements this week. However the political thinking behind them both was almost identical and was all about eliminating the negative
For most people, the start of the year is about resolutions – all the good things they'll do this year and all the bad stuff they'll stop doing. What we've seen at the start of this politlcal year is half of that, as the major parties try to show the public that they can do better.
The big, good things they'll do differently have to be saved for later in the year, closer to the election. It'll be the second half – even the fourth quarter – of the year before we'll get the political equivalents of saving more money, going to the gym, giving more to charity and spending more time with the kids. But this week we've seen National and Labour at least promising to shed a few pounds and kick the ciggies; this week has been all about addressing their weaknesses and getting the bad stuff out of the way early.
National got things going with John Key's annual state of the nation address. As is Key's way, he said he's "re-energised", stressed that he didn't take public support for granted (last year it was New Zealanders' "trust" he didn't take for granted, this year it was New Zealanders' "votes"), pointed out the importance of stable government and added how the country's prospering under his stewardship. Those are his usual opening ploys.
But then he did something different. In 2011 he said "I want to concentrate solely on the economy" and in 2012 he listed National's four priorities that were all essentially economic in focus – responsibly managing government finances, a more competitive economy, better public services on a tight budget and the Christchurch rebuild. Last year, too, he said "the big focus for New Zealand remains the economy".
But not this year. In 2014, Key and his strategists opted to show their social policy side. National is confident on the economic front, what with global banks calling New Zealand a "rock star" economy. So instead Key went for education, for whanau, for the kids.
Presumably polling has showed National is weakest on that front – although it doesn't take a rocket (or political) scientist to see that Hekia Parata's woes as minister and our slide in the PISA rankings last year are a political problem for the government. So Key chose to buttress that weakness by putting it front and centre in his state of the nation speech. The plan is to help teachers teach better and pay them more, and it comes with the political bonus of putting his biggest critics, the education unions, on the back foot.
This is education reform most unlike the sort National governments usually introduce. So it confuses the enemy for a time, and more importantly, says to families and the women voters that Key has done so well with in recent elections, that his government is listening and knows that, like the apocryphal report card says, it 'must try harder'.
Strategically, National has recognised a weakness and sought to minimise it early and with minimal controversey (ie no performance pay and the like). What's interesting is that in the same week, Labour did exactly the same thing.
If National fears being typecast as weak on social issues, and education in particular, Labour's greatest risk is that voters feel unable to trust the party to run the economy. With Key ruthless in his efforts to paint the Greens as economic morons who will naively destroy the gains his party (and voters) has worked so hard to achieve, Labour's economic credibility is core to its hopes in this year's election. It can't afford to be seen as anti-job or anti-growth or even a little unorthodox. And it's that political reality that underpins its announcements this week.
Cunliffe announced that the Goff-era policies of taking the GST off fruit and vegetables and making the first $5000 of earnings tax-free were for the bin. In an effort not to undermine his former leader – or his own role as finance spokesman when these policies were designed – Cunliffe stressed they were still "worthwhile" ideas, but now his party had, er, some better ones.
At the same time, Cunliffe finally clarified Labour's position on oil and deep-sea drilling. It was OK with him, he said, so long as the environmental rules could be tightened and New Zealand's share of the profits increased.
What's the political strategy here? Well, it distances Labour from the Greens (which will be welcomed by some centrist voters) and says that Labour will pick growth and jobs over the downside of environmental risks. Again, it's all about economic cred.
So in a matter of a few days, both parties have sought to blunt weapons which their opponents were sure to use against them. They can now say to swing voters, 'see, we're not as bad as you feared'.
One other point you can take from these announcements this week – this is going to be an election where there's a big fight over small policy differences and even smaller voter margins. By trying to minimise their weaknesses before most voters are even paying attention to politics, they are showing just how risk adverse they will be this year.
What's more, the indications are that we won't be seeing a policy lolly scramble. As I've said, Labour can't afford to play into National's stereotype of them as a "borrow and spend" party, hence the cutting of $1.5 billion worth of policies before Cunliffe announces his new spending ideas next week.
So the big question for Labour's state of the nation spech next week is whether he will maintain that conservative, low-risk approach or dare to offer some (potentially expensive) new vision. He'll presumably need something that defines the Cunliffe era, but it'll have to be very carefully costed.
As for National, it's all about reaching a surplus and showing how careful it's been with taxpayer dollars. Key noted in his speech Thursday that "There might be some room for modest spending or revenue initiatives, but the top priority has to be getting our debt down".
So expect some new spending plans from National – and is that "revenue initiatives" phrase a hint at another tax cut? – but only on a very modest scale.
The lesson from this week's announcements is that this won't be an election of sweeping visions and revolutionary plans. It will be a battle of competence and, as always, trust. While we wait to see what Cunliffe has up his sleeve next week, the signs are that the big two are focussed on showing voters that this year they really mean it when they say they'll cut out all the stuff you don't like them doing. Really.
It'll be some time before we see bold resolutions and grand promises, if we see them at all.