The summer surge of politics continued this week with more big calls being made, especially by National, Labour and the Maori Party. But what do they mean? And where do they lead?

Wise decisions are at the heart of good politics. Judgment is everything when it comes to choosing what's best for our country and anticipating how voters will respond, and this week some big – politically massive – judgment calls have been made.

I figured Friday was as good a day as any to look back and ponder just how wise and wily party leaders have been this week.

First up, John Key. Yes, the early announcement of an election date is unusual. No, it is not bold or brave. Yes, it is a welcome move and good for voters to know that they will have a few weeks after the Rugby World Cup to come up to speed on the issues (which is about all the time most folks give to their voting choice, anyway). But he had nothing to lose and everything to gain in doing so. Everyone in political and media circles had a red ring around November 26 anyway, as the RWC left little option.

In making the call he gets kudos and allows many voters to say, 'phew, I don't have to think about politics again until after the rugby's finished'. Call me cynical, but when you're well ahead in the polls, a switched-off electorate is to your advantage.

Key also announced National's intention not to enter any sort of coalition with Winston Peters, and thereby New Zealand First. As everyone and his dog have noted, this is smart because it makes it harder (though not impossible) for Peters to build up a head of steam and to make hay from his political flexibility (I'm reluctant to call Peters centrist, as so many do. I'm not sure his politics are worthy of that tag). It makes him more Sideshow Bob than Kingmaker Winnie.

However, the decision itself – which while not without risk, was utterly predictable – is less interesting than what it implies. National's greatest hope will be that New Zealand First, as in 2008, does well but not well enough. It's all good if Peters wastes some tens of thousands of anti-government votes. But that's not all

It suggests that National MPs may be getting seduced by the prospect of winning a majority on their own. The chance is there, like a golden ring... if they can just reach a little farther... That, as Helen Clark learnt to her strategic cost, is a risky strategy and doesn't always go down well with voters.

The other punt that Key is making is to lean heavily on ACT in particular, and the Maori Party. And that at a time when association with either risks tarnishing Key's golden image.

If Key is willing to bet against Peters, it says to me that he must have decided to bet on Rodney Hide and ACT. I can only presume after this week that National will not be standing a serious candidate in Epsom. It would be foolhardy for National to adopt a '50% or bust' strategy, and if it needs a coalition partner it doesn't want the Maori Party to be the only cab on the rank.

Therefore ACT, despite all its woes last year, has won a 'get out of jail free' card from Key. And I question how Key can justify that, while expressing such disdain for New Zealand First.

Why is it noble to rule out Peters, but fine to lean on Hide? We all know that Peters has been bad and mad, but Hide spent taxpayers' money on himself and his girlfriend, bullied his deputy and divided his party, and endorsed an MP who stole a baby's identity. How is Hide any more right and proper than Peters? (Answers below. I'm sure you'll have some!)

What about the response of Phil Goff and Peters, who say its undemocratic to rule out New Zealand First before voters have spoken? Well, that's nonsense. Frankly, it's Key's party to lead and he can do as he wishes. What's more, both of them have effectively ruled out working with ACT, so they're in no position to condemn.

But Peters should not be ruled out. I remain convinced that, however quiet they are at the moment, there is a constituency for his message. The only question is whether he can get the required attention and whether he can mobilise them against an incredibly popular PM.

And don't forget, Peters hasn't announced which seat he'll be standing in yet. The right choice (Epsom?) could really throw the cat amongst the pigeons.

Goff's big call of the week was his caucus reshuffle. He copped flak last year for not renewing enough – and his own wizened self, politically speaking, is a problem for his party – but this time he's taken a deep breath and backed his yoof. And it is a punt, you've got to say. ACC and education are both weaknesses for National, and the job of tackling those has been given to two 32 year-olds, Chris Hipkins and Darren Hughes, respectively.

I'm not sure it makes a fig of difference for voters directly, but it means journalists can't bang on about a 're-heated' Labour government, and so quite apart from the necessary rejuventation, it takes some of that sting out of the public conversation.

We all know that Grant Robertson is picked for big things, and Health should offer the spolight he needs to get ahead quickly. Shane Jones gets back near the top, but not so close as I would have expected. Still, it's probably enough for him to get the attention he needs, should he wish to challenge for the leadership within the next year or three. He remains a real asset for Labour, when it looks to white, middle-class and snobby.

Robertson's promotion puts him at the top of the new-ish boys list – ahead of Charles Chauvel, interestingly – and in a spot where, should he perform this year, he can be considered when people start musing about who might take over from Goff. Cunliffe and Jones are still on the front of the grid, but if the party wants to do a Miliband or Cameron and skip to a new generation, Robertson is now in a position to benefit.

Where Goff erred was in his musing about the future of Parekura Horomia. It's hardly 'mana enhanching' to have your career's end speculated on so openly by your leader.

And finally, Hone Harawira and the Maori Party. Neither the MP nor his party's officials look good when they talk about proper kaupapa and discretion on one hand, while leaking emails and tweeting their anger on the other. They look dishonest.

I'm still curious bout Te Ururoa Flavell's motivations for laying a formal complaint, rather than getting together with Harawira and having it out. Was the Sunday Star-Times column the final straw? Is he really concerned about his position as heir apparent in the party? Does he simply think Harawira's outbursts are bad politics or contrary to discussions held internally?

Whatever, if Harawira wants to stay in the party he has to discipline himself. He can't bitch and moan about internal matters one week and then, having made the debate all about him, rabbit on about the need to focus on unemployment, welfare and "the issues of the moment" the next.

The key political point here is that Harawira supposedly wants a more left-wing government after the election. We all know that's a long shot, but the only, only chance of that is if a) the left combined win enough votes for a coalition to be viable and b) if the Maori Party chooses Labour ahead of National.

If Harawira is sacked from the party, or his reputation with his colleagues sullied, then that latter path will be the road not taken.

He needs to think strategically: Maori Party voters also vote Labour. Flavell, Katene and even Sharples all have political views that tend more to the left than the right. The Maori Party did well out of National this term, but may do well to show its adaptability and independence by choosing Labour this year.

In other words, if he wants the sort of Maori Party and government he says he wants, he needs to pipe down and stay where he is, not force a confrontation.

And that is enough for a Friday. Happy Waitangi weekend everyone. Don't we live in a fantastic country?

Comments (14)

by Ewan Morris on February 04, 2011
Ewan Morris

Tim:

"I'm reluctant to call Peters centrist, as so many do. I'm not sure his politics are worthy of that tag."


I agree. The only terms that fit Peters and New Zealand First are "populist" and "nationalist". Oversimplifying slightly (but not much), they are somewhat to the left economically, and very much to the right on issues such as immigration and crime, and above all, as the party's name suggests, they are strongly nationalist in an old-fashioned, xenophobic sense. Which is why I also agree that:

"Peters should not be ruled out. I remain convinced that, however quiet they are at the moment, there is a constituency for his message."

There is simply no other party that occupies the same space in the political spectrum as New Zealand First. They are out of synch with most of the other parties on economics (perhaps ironically, in some ways they may overlap with the Greens more than anyone) and on immigration. There is a constituency out there for their messages, and even if NZ First were to disappear, another populist party would arise in time to take its place.

by Iain Butler on February 04, 2011
Iain Butler

Why is it noble to rule out Peters, but fine to lean on Hide?

I think one of the key reasons the PM ruled out Peters was his "habit of being sacked by Prime Ministers". That's less a comment on his moral fibre than an observation - entirely deserved - on his track record of maintaining amity with his coalition colleagues.

So, in true Key style, this is not a question of being noble, but one of being practicle.

by The Falcon on February 04, 2011
The Falcon

Why is it noble to rule out Peters, but fine to lean on Hide? We all know that Peters has been bad and mad, but Hide spent taxpayers' money on himself and his girlfriend, bullied his deputy and divided his party, and endorsed an MP who stole a baby's identity. How is Hide any more right and proper than Peters? (Answers below. I'm sure you'll have some!)

Guess it's my job to reply to this...

You shouldn't let your dislike of ACT cloud your judgement. Hide took money just like all the other MPs, the only problem was that he had a reputation for being a cut above the other MPs; taking the money lowered him to the level of the others. He then apologised and repaid the money. Peters is the only party not to have repaid public money used for electioneering - even Labour repaid eventually! He never apologised either. Then there's the whole Owen Glenn thing on top of that.

As for the David Garrett part, let me reiterate - beating people with baseball bats and hating white people = a lot worse than non-malicious identity theft. So perhaps you should have written "Why is it noble to rule out Peters, but fine to lean on the Maori Party?"

by Graeme Edgeler on February 04, 2011
Graeme Edgeler

Why is it noble to rule out Peters, but fine to lean on Hide?

DPF would argue that a PM can trust Hide, on a personal level, but not Peters. There may be something in that. There is also the fact that Hide has accepted responsibility: something Peters has not done. Past behaviour is likely a better predictor of future behaviour when there is no acknowledgment of error. If the past actions of Hide and Peters are something the PM does not want to occur in a Government he leads, who is he more confident will be least likely to offer a repeat perfomance? I say Hide.

And the political differences between National and ACT and National and NZF are less marked. John Key is likely to disagree with every one of Peters' campaign policies - with Hide, it's a matter of degree.

And finally, I think its democratic (in terms of mandate, and informed voters) to announce as many restrictions/conditions etc. on post-election coalitions as possible before the election. The simple reason that John Key didn't rule out Rodney Hide is that he is prepared to work with him. It's nice to know that, and it's something I can take into account when voting. How is one supposed to vote in the next election if you want Key gone, but don't want Winston back in power? etc. Because I don't rule out a lot of people having similar concerns in respect of all manner of party combinations.

by stuart munro on February 04, 2011
stuart munro

Wisdom - it's not something NZ politicians have in abundance. They might do well to read that line from Confucius - the nature of all virtue is restraint.  Assuming any of them can actually read.

Winston Peters's policy platform, insofar as he has one is less problematic than his narcissism. His stance on immigration is misguided - it should indeed be limited, and the system whereby immigration ministers fudged entry criteria from week to week to balance emigration sent the message that NZ has no standards at all. So did compulsory prepurchase of English credits as a fudge to IELTS testing. Where Peters slipped up is in his problems with Asians. The migrants most overrepresented in the NZ criminal justice system at present are from England. Former soviet and Somali migrants seem to settle less readily - they are in many cases a poor fit for our society. Afghans, especially the Tampa refugees, seem to do well.

I don't think we can attribute John Key's sudden enthusiasm for asset sales to wisdom. It is neither palatable to the electorate nor remotely in New Zealand's enlightened best interests. The SAS rollover in Afghanistan owes more to imperial folly than either NZ or Afghan interests - this problem is too big for us, and the US is determined not to commit the resources it would need to to secure a positive outcome. If we must contribute to international adventures to keep our forces operationally efficient, the SAS have earned a rest, and our navy should have a go at the Somali pirates - we could make a modest difference, and our navy doesn't get much practice.

As ever, the Greens are making the best show, in this case with the capital gains tax, which, if properly implemented should over several decades slowly correct the property bubble. The only party with anything that could be mistaken for a credible long-term policy they nevertheless have a long way to go before they can supplant Labour as the principal opposition, which given that they are writing most of the best policy, should be their aim. The Greens struggle with the need for an active expanding economy, and yet they are by far the best positioned to create a green technology or alternative industrial base. So too their housing policy - another facet of the property market debacle - the Greens are not yet sufficiently reconciled to city living to take the lead in something like state built apartments - a major social policy plank throughout Asia, which proves to be profitable or self-funding, and has something to do with their superior savings rates.

Labour's tax cut is at least progressive, unlike the GST hike, and it remains to be seen how much of a multiplying effect the extra money might have on the low end of the economy. It is however properly criticised as a tax and spend strategy, and popular appeal seems to have been a greater factor in its design than 'What is the best and most important strategy for reversing New Zealand's Rogergnomic based economic collapse'.

Hone and the Maori party - his criticisms are sound, and his alarm well-founded - maybe he had a Xenophon moment. Time he grew up anyway.

We look to ACT for self-interest, not wisdom, and it has been evident.

On the whole, we would not be much worse off if we replaced all our representatives with a troupe of drunken monkeys. They wouldn't steal public moneys, they wouldn't do a much worse job, and they would be infinitely more charismatic. It would also apprise the public of their chances of getting anything constructive out of Wellington.

Wisdom - NZ MPs wouldn't know it if it bit them.

by Iain Butler on February 04, 2011
Iain Butler

As for the David Garrett part, let me reiterate - beating people with baseball bats and hating white people = a lot worse than non-malicious identity theft.

I'm sure that is exactly what David Garrett was thinking when he had election posters made with "zero tolerance for crime" next to his face.

by Tim Watkin on February 04, 2011
Tim Watkin

Well, we've had that debate Falcon and I don't see Harawria's university stoush as cut and dried as you do. But given that you raise the question, let's talk about it.

My question – and it's an open one, I'm not sure if the critique stands up, but I'm curious – is that in a field of fallen candidates, why does Key get praise for ruling out one but ignoring the sins of others?

by Tim Watkin on February 04, 2011
Tim Watkin

Oh, and actually I think most people would consider the hurt caused to the dead baby's family is actually at the bad end of the scale, quite apart from the law breaking and hypocrisy.

by Andrew Geddis on February 04, 2011
Andrew Geddis

"My question – and it's an open one, I'm not sure if the critique stands up, but I'm curious – is that in a field of fallen candidates, why does Key get praise for ruling out one but ignoring the sins of others?"

Well, Key conclusively had ruled Peters out in 2008 (thus tying him and Labour firmly together during that campaign). So the obvious question Key would face in this campaign is "will you work with Peters post-2011?" And what possible reason could he give for saying "yes - I will consider it"? I mean, nothing has really changed between then and now, so to change his tune would be to open him to some pretty searching criticism. So his only real option, surely, was to rule Peters out this time too. And isn't it adventagous to do so as soon as possible, hoping that by making Peters a Labour-only option then any pro-National NZ-First folks might decide he isn't for them, thus keeping him below 5% ... but still eating up a couple of percent of otherwise left-swinging votes?

Point being, it's not necessarily a question of whether Peters is "worse" than Hide/Harawira/etc. It's simply that Peters is a convenient bogyman to stand up to. Or, to put it another way, they may all be sons-of-a-bitches, but Peters is Labour's, while the others are National's.

The question is, I guess, whether any of this "deserves praise". I suppose insofar as Key has made it clear that there is a cost he will not pay for power, then yes. But I don't think it was a particularly hard call to make ... in that not making it may have been riskier than doing so.

by Kyle Matthews on February 04, 2011
Kyle Matthews
I think Andrew has touched on much of the reason for this decision from Key - tying him to Labour. For two reasons - tagging them with him, if he think that will turn away undecided voters. And secondly, tagging him with Labour. If NZ First is going to get 3-4% of the vote and not make it into parliament, National wants most of that vote to be otherwise left-wing. If half of them are right wing votes he's come out even. If 3/4 of them are otherwise Labour/Green, he's picked up 2%. ACT he can't tie to anyone apart from National, so there's no similar advantage in going the other way.
by Graeme Edgeler on February 04, 2011
Graeme Edgeler

My question – and it's an open one, I'm not sure if the critique stands up, but I'm curious – is that in a field of fallen candidates, why does Key get praise for ruling out one but ignoring the sins of others?

He's getting praise for ruling one out. I'm pretty sure he's not getting praise for ignoring the sins of others. Indeed, he'd probably get more praise for ruling out the others too (although that might well be seen as much more arrogant).

Why is Key getting praise from me because he's taken this action? Because now I have more information on which to base my vote. Because I can look at the options and decide what sort of Government I'd like there to be and work out how to vote accordingly as best I can. Because if he was all "we're going to wait to see what the voters want" then no voter could actually vote in a manner knowing what they'd get.

by william blake on February 06, 2011
william blake

Its a curious anomaly that John Key not coalescing with Winston Peters is worthy of a press release because it isnt really; a vote for Labour is a vote for Peters, seems to be the strategy.

There seems to be no comparable game playing from Goff, “ I will not congeal with Rodney Hide and as such, a vote for National is a vote for ACT”.  As the posited asset sales point to, this is very much the case.

More worrying for me, is a vote for John Key is a vote for Tony Veitch.

by Bruce Thorpe on February 07, 2011
Bruce Thorpe

"a vote for John Key is a vote for Tony Veitch."

Exactly my thoughts.

 

by Tim Watkin on February 07, 2011
Tim Watkin

Andrew/Kyle: Your reasoning is strategic, but Key is offering the decision as a point of principle, and that's what I'm questioning him on. Or rather, Peters is too 'bad' to work with. My point is where you draw the line of bad vs good.

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