A year on from the election and we now see loud and clear what defines the John Key government - a willingness to bend to public opinion and give the people just enough of what they want

How deliciously fitting that National should celebrate the first birthday of its third term with the decision to turn down Shanghai Pengxin's bid to buy Lochinver Station from the Stevenson Group, even though the Overseas Investment Office had permitted the sale.

It is a brutally political decision. Brutal, that is, to the Stevenson Group, which must now turn the hypothetical New Zealand buyer into a reality and accept a price some millions less it could have got from the Chinese. While it knew the risks of investing in what is legally designated "sensitive land", it could never have anticipated the 13,800-hectare sheep and cattle station could become a political football. Especially one, lest we forget, kicked off by Colin Craig.

And in case you're wondering just how political a decision this is, consider this exchange between Steven Joyce and Grant Robertson on The Nation in last year's election campaign:

Lisa Owen: I want to start with you, Mr Joyce. Ownership of assets is what makes you wealthy. So what do you think of this 18,000 hectare Lochinver Station being sold to foreigners?

Steven Joyce: What I think it it’s election time because we’re getting a sale of land, and therefore a couple of people now – it used to be just Winston; now it’s Colin Craig as well – beating the anti-foreigners drum, and I suspect we’ll see a bit more of this between now and election day. But it’s as regular as every three years that this comes up.

Grant Robertson, it’s just electioneering?

Grant Roberston: Well, no. I mean, New Zealanders are actually sick of our assets being sold off, and it’s the same for farms as it is for Steven selling off energy companies. We want to see value held by New Zealanders. We don’t get this land back once it’s sold. It’s gone.

As the heated debate continued, Joyce went on to say:

"A little xenophobia from the Labour Party to start the day off."

A year later, and National is blocking the sale and Joyce is left to argue he was talking about Labour's stance on foreign ownership in general when he used the word "xenophobia", not Lochinver in particular.

Add in the fact that just 10 weeks ago Joyce was on the same programme explaining that increasing foreign investment was key to New Zealand's growth, especially in the regions and especially as the downturn hit:

We have to do more to encourage investment as a country, and one of the things I'm taking through Cabinet at the moment is a joined-up national investment attraction strategy which will have four or five big agencies that are involved in this phase working together under Peter Chrisp from NZTE, and their job will be to show a pipeline of private sector investment opportunities to international investors so that they can come in, invest particularly in our regions, and encourage opportunities to grow new industries and put more capital into existing industries across the regions.

The big lesson from this past year of politics is that National under John Key (and Joyce) is willing to turn on a dime and do as many u-turns as polling tells them are needed, to stay popular. More than ever in its third term, National will bend like a Len Lye sculpture to match public opinion, even if it makes them hypocrites.

The trend has been building all year. National said no new taxes, then introduced a "brightline test" (a non-tax tax) and a tourism "levy" tax. The party that has long-mocked benefit increases, well, they increased benefits. Refugee numbers? They went from no way to 600 more in less than a week.

And now Lochinver. The crown jewel of all u-turns. And here's the telling thing. The polls tell us that the public doesn't care.

Critics say it's not true leadership. That it's politics for the sake of politics, power for the sake of power. That is lacks a vision or a heart. But it's working.

What used to be called 'hypocrisy' and the preserve of 'poll-driven fruitcakes' is now called 'listening'. In this post-partisan political age, it seems that for all the talk of authenticity, New Zealanders - for now at least - are happy to go with the guy they think of as likeable and competent, so long as he keeps giving them what they want.

It doesn't have to be much; Key gives no more than he has to. But it's always enough to create the headline (more refugees, more for the poor, no to Chinese sale, tightening up on foreign buyers).

Where many third term governments get hidebound, Key's has gone the other way. While National is facing problems typical of a dose of third-termitis (sloppy ministers, no fresh ideas, political sideshows), its prescription is to simply go with the polls, even if it goes against the party grain and their own political integrity.

Perhaps voters' opinion of political integrity is so low, that doesn't need to be part of the calculations any more.

This uber-flexibility raises all kinds of questions. One, how long is the party prepared to wear this lack of ideology before someone revolts? Is winning enough for National, when it's brazenly stealing Labour policies and governing so far from its base? All the base is getting is the slow privatisation of social services. A huge change in itself, but thin gruel for red-blooded Nats.

But, more significantly, what does Labour or any opposition party do? This is crucial: When a government is prepared to change so much, how do you convince voters to change government? Most people don't like change much, and if swing voters are getting what they want from that same smiling, competent face, where's the need to vote them out?

 Andrew Little's response this morning was to say that people are tiring of poll-driven government and want "values-driven leadership". They want someone to stand for something, not just "transactional" government (interesting word). Perhaps that's his Corbyn lesson.

But it seems to be a statement of hope more than fact. For now at least. Little has to think there's a weakness somewhere in Key's shell. Labour tries arguing 'National hasn't got a plan'. But when the party admits openly it hasn't got a plan yet either because it's still fixing its internal issues and "listening to New Zealanders', that doesn't get you far. It - and New Zealand First - is trying through the provinces, thinking that could be a soft spot. Maybe.

But it seems Labour more than else wants to contrast Little as a moral man who stands for something, against slippery, flexibly Key.

It may yet work. Key's poll numbers better than Little's. Yet the fact is, other parties would give a limb for a problem like Key. And as long as he's prepared to shrug off the cries of 'hypocrite' and 'u-turn' and follow the polls, his close bond to middle New Zealand remains strong.

Comments (13)

by Frank Macskasy on September 21, 2015
Frank Macskasy

Hmmmmm... interesting analysis.

"Giving New Zealanders what they want".

Are we, as a nation, so shallow? I guess the answer lies in the material being broadcast by our free-to-air channels at prime time... Bread and circuses, 21st century style. Advisory: No Christians or lions were harmed in the making of this reality TV programme.





by Rich on September 21, 2015

Can't they just float in on the stock market and then foreigners can quietly acquire all the shares while the nominal company remains proudly keewee, like Telecom. They might need to earmark a mill or so to sponsor a sports team.

by Fentex on September 21, 2015

What's shallow about getting what you want? What is wrong with an elected government using polling to understand what is wanted of them such that it will get them re-elected?

Complaining about it seems to be a complaint that National is not a government people should want by arguing it's giving them what they want.

And the thin gruel it's party members must sup on? Well, drips and drops fill buckets and move tremendous weights eventually. Keep it up for a decade and you'll change a generation of people and a countries course. It is not something to pretend National is failing at. It's a success for their ideology and don't fool yourselves it isn't.

If Labour wants to be the government it has to convince people it can be and that means stop saying stupid things. National has better polling, better advice and sycophants all around who love to side with winners. Labour can't beat that by playing on the same ground.

It has to win cheap and that means from resources within it's own members. Discipline, concentration, careful reservation of munitions for when they would matter.

The constant attempt to throw muck and find something that sticks only means when there really is something to complain about Labours powder is expended (meaning it's credibility is shot).

National now is forced to adopt Labour policies because Labour won a lot of the policy argument last election. Where are those winning arguments now?

by onsos on September 22, 2015

You say the polls don't care, but support for the National-led government is slumping.

The Conservatives were polling at 3.5-4.0% (and scored above that in the election). Where have those voters gone? How has National's support not increased as the Conservatives have vanished?

Put this together with Labour's sustained and large increase in polling, and the upshot is clear: National is picking up the dregs of the Conservative support, while people who voted for National are moving on to Labour. 

Key--with his 'sophisticated polls'--knows this. That is why there are a whole series of u-turns: he is responding to the reality that National is bleeding votes to the centre.

It remains to be seen whether or not this is effective in the polls, but the evidence is not good for National so far.

by Tim Watkin on September 22, 2015
Tim Watkin

Onsos, that's a good point re the Conservatives. I'm going to write up our Poll of Polls asap and I'm going to discuss that point. I'm curious that vote doesn't seem to have gone to NZF.

Frank, you know I share concerns about the changes to news and evening viewing, but... at some point don't you have to wonder whether it's not just the media's fault that many middle voters aren't seeing what you're seeing. Perhaps they just see Key different or don't value what you value. You've got to be open to the fact that many people want what they're getting, even if you don't think they should.


by Tim Watkin on September 22, 2015
Tim Watkin

Fentex, you make some interesting points. Being poll-driven is interesting. It's long been dismissed as lacking a clear vision or having no backbone. It's meant taking a stance and then breaking a promise.

But National is selling its "flexibility" very well, without the public saying 'you said A and now you're doing B. Frank argues they get away with that because the media doesn't report it. But the fact is that it does, it's just not forcing voters to change their polling preferences.

But I'm not so sure about stopping throwing muck. Labour's hardly been mega-mucky. And anyway, to beat another party, you have to create some doubt in the public mind before anyone's even willing to listen to you. That's why I think the point that it's hard for Labour to convince people to change the govt when the govt is so willing to change itself is such a crucial point. But Labour does have to criticise (to some extent) to get people to listen.

by Fentex on September 22, 2015

It has to be the right muck so that your target is defensive, not the wrong muck they may throw back at you.

National has been vulnerable on charges of corrupt behaviours so throw that at them, but don't be silly over the flag thing, don't invite reflection on Labours hypocrisy.

It isn't fair that Nationals hypocrisy can be sold as listening, but that's a privilege being the government gives them - their reversing policy delivers to the public. When Labour reverses a position to attack National it is hypocrisy without the benefit of delivering any victory.

Because National so dominates the press the smallest error by Labour is magnified and that requires increased discipline to avoid giving ammunition to Labours enemies. Often being quiet let's sitting governments let out their own rope and I think Labour needs to be so more often.

by Lee Churchman on September 23, 2015
Lee Churchman

What's shallow about getting what you want? What is wrong with an elected government using polling to understand what is wanted of them such that it will get them re-elected?

The same thing that is wrong with marketers continually using the same means to formulate "new" products – in other words, being perpetually offered minor variations on the things you have purchased in the past. Thats why the idea of a "That 90s show" is absurd. It would just look and sound pretty much like now, but with crappier phones and computers. The fact that the Simpsons is still going shows that we've run out of ideas.

by Fentex on September 23, 2015

The fact that the Simpsons is still going shows that we've run out of ideas.

I think watching The Simpsons when Episodes, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Bluestone 42 and many other quality TV programs exist says more about the consumer than producers.

I don't like National and I don't point out them delivering what people ask for as a positive thing we should admire them for, but it is an effective thing that democracy delivers to the public rather than harsh unopposed authoritarian imposition of ideology.

And complaints that it's all a bit like marketers trying to find a popular niche don't seem like a rigorous objection to the institution of democracy limiting extremist governance.

If anything it seems a complaint that we are not ruled by iron fists by someone upset it isn't their fist doing the ruling.

If anything Labour ought be making hay out of National coming to their side of arguments - but they can't do that when everyone is distracted by silly arguments stirred every-time they reach for a contrary thing to say without apparent principle behind the complaint and keep on making it about their executive incompetence to govern.


by onsos on September 23, 2015

Where has the Conservatives vote gone? I gave a simplified response above. You’d need sophisticated polling to really find that out what has happened. There are a few major avenues:

  • They could have slipped out of the likely voter pool.
  • They could have gone to National
  • They could have gone to NZF

There’s a similar discussion with Labour’s increase in vote. Where has it come from?

  • It could represent people returning to the likely voter pool.
  • They could have come from National
  • They could have come from NZF
  • They could have come from the Greens.

The best guess is that all 7 of these things have happened. This would explain how the Conservatives vote has vanished, National and NZF have stayed stable, the Greens have lost support, and Labour has surged.

Weighting those factors with any quantitative accuracy is, I think, beyond even sophisticated polling. Getting sufficient sample sizes on shifting voters would be really difficult. But the focus group and interal polling that Curative does would probably give a good insight.  So the best insight you could get is by looking at how people  who have access to that are responding and acting.

The most astute politician who has access to that information is John Key. What is he doing? Interpret that, and you’ll get a lot closer to understanding what is happening in the electorate.

You could also look at the other operators with good information. Andrew Little appears to have a strategy, which is responding to the sophisticated polling that Rob Salmond has done. 

by Lee Churchman on September 23, 2015
Lee Churchman

I don't like National and I don't point out them delivering what people ask for as a positive thing we should admire them for, but it is an effective thing that democracy delivers to the public rather than harsh unopposed authoritarian imposition of ideology.

It's well known that will garner enough votes to win an election and what individual people actually want often aren't the same thing. For example. the Condorcet paradox.

by Fentex on September 24, 2015

Right now we can Labour doing exactly the sort of stupid thing that destroys the publics belief in their executive competence with their petulant attitude towards the Greens over the flag referendum.

The Greens do not owe fealty to Labour and the idiotic entitled attitude Labour takes towards is doing nothing but strewing caltrops over the path to government.

These children will again leave me without a party worth my vote at the next election, god damn their stupidity.

by Lee Churchman on September 26, 2015
Lee Churchman

These children will again leave me without a party worth my vote at the next election,

So don't vote. Democracy is largely BS anyway. 

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