This year it's now or never for the government. Will they become a comfy pair of everyday shoes, or will they start to pinch and wear?
Back before the 2008 election (I can't write 'last year's election' anymore!), I wrote that it was a 'change of shoes' election. The metaphor made the point that Labour wasn't hated by most and hadn't failed as such, it had simply gone out of fashion. Voters had become tired of its style and just wanted the feelgood factor you get some buying something new. (We are, after all, a nation of shoppers).
That was the mood for "change" that John Key latched on to; quite different from the disillusioned, 'my sense of what it means to be an American is at risk' cry for change that Barack Obama harnessed in America.
So what does that mean heading into 2010? First – and Key at least seems to recognise this even if some of his Cabinet do not – the government doesn't have a great mandate for reform. New Zealanders remain wary of 'big change' and so National's desired political reform has to be left undone, delayed until that mood has changed, limited to acceptable portfolios (prisons, social policy) or carefully disguised and spun (emissions trading, super fund contributions etc).
Public support for this government remains phenomenally high, but not very deep. People can go off a pair of shoes as quickly as they fall in love with them. That will constrain the government this year almost as much as its self-imposed spending cap of just over $1 billion.
It seems to me there's an element of acrobatics about this year. Perhaps that's so every year, but it seems pretty stark in this instance. At one end of the balancing pole is that tight budget and the less-than-passionate public support; at the other end is the fact that if National wants to make any big, tough decisions, it has to move this year.
National will have to pick its targets carefully, decide what it believes the country really needs and then figure out what it can sell at the next election. Does it tackle tax and our property market? Does it have a crack at welfare? More privatisation, via partial SOE sell-offs or PPPs or somesuch? Or, contrary to many suspicious minds, is it satisfied managing the reforms it's already enacted or announced, in health, the courts, prisons and so on? Will it, in fact, be a truly conservative governement and do bugger all?
I suspect a mix of all the above. Tax changes will come, capital markets will be over-hauled, and, if the polls hold up, then I'd give better than 50-50 odds on partial sell-offs of some state businesses. But I can't imagine a whirl of reforming zeal.
Political observers keep searching for the visionary, ardent prime minister in John Key (as with John Armstrong here). The left keeps waiting for the privatising demon to appear, the right for its free-market white knight. But maybe it's time to blow away the smoke, smash the mirrors and accept the evidence of our eyes that Key ain't any of these things. Perhaps Key is simply a smart, likeable guy of no particular ideology (except a gut instinct about personal freedoms and ambitions and the importance of financial security) who simply wants, in the manner of Sir Robert Muldoon, to leave the country a little better off than he found it. One way or the other, we'll find out this year. It's now or never.
Of course, even if the government takes the conservative path, that doesn't mean its proposed reforms won't bite it in the bum. Mining national parks, the search and surveillance bill, leaky homes, the foreshore and seabed... there's plenty already out there that could yet escape the leash and turn feral. And then there are the unknowable unknowns that will inevitably spring out of the long grass...
But, before I drown in a sea of metaphors, back to the shoes. This is the year when some of the wear and tear will become apparent, when the glamour will fade and they may begin to pinch a bit. Will that cause them to lose their appeal, or they become beloved, comfy, go-anywhere favourites despite their faults? Were they a good investment, or an impulse buy? Do they still fit the times, or have the gone quickly out of fashion?
Those are the questions voters will be mulling this year. We'll be analysing and debating all that and more here on Pundit again this year. Hope you stick with us. Thanks, in advance, and a happy new year to you all.