Don’t Rock the Boat: Key’s Election Year Strategy

Prime Minister John Key is stepping into this election year with a massive advantage – the economy is doing well. Extremely well in fact. Recent projections put the rate of economic growth at 3.3%, against the 2.3% OECD average (figures sourced here). If the Clintonian motto, “It’s the economy, stupid” still has currency (and I believe it does) then it is clear that the National-led government has a good chance of keeping the government benches. His strategy is simple, focus on the economy and don’t rock the boat.

The well worn approach of “trust me, I’m John Key”, remains the government’s most effective weapon, however it is subject to diminishing returns. For an increasing number of people the Prime Minister’s grinning, dismissive nature has become condescending, and patronizing. While that number is no where near critical mass, these people are voters who occupy the centre ground. If he steps too far and fans that particular flame, the resulting burn will be fatal. Even so, what is a small minority this year will be crucial body in 2017. As governments age their opponents increase in number and the public forgives less easily. And Cunliffe is the most formidable opponent Key has faced since Helen Clark. The Labour leader will not make it an easy competition, and I wouldn’t bet against him just yet.

Who moved my mic?

So John Key’s first task is to shore up his leadership credentials – more vital now than in 2011, with a resurgent opposition and effective Labour leader. To this end he has started extremely well with scoring a golfing photo op with President Obama while they holidayed in Hawaii. A perfect opening for an election year, putting Key at the forefront of the charge – so much more necessary now since the rising stars of Judith Collins and Stephen Joyce have attracted media interest in their leadership potential. It is also a photo op that David Cunliffe simply cannot compete with.

Bored John? The things you have to do to win a third term…

Key’s cunning in securing a royal visit from the Duke and Dutchess of Cambridge in April, deserves a round of applause. It is a chance (like golf with Obama) to re-emphasize his own leadership, but more than that it damages the republican movement – which is largely a Labour/Green bloc. Monarchist sympathy exploded when Prince William last visited, the smart money is on that sympathy reaching titanic proportions when the Duchess and baby-Prince come to. Like the doomed liner the monarchist feeling will be short lived, as it is based on surface level events, not convincing argument, but it will certainly have an impact on election results.

The 2014 budget is also going to be a formidable tool for the governments electoral success. Their plan for insulating the economy against future shocks by 2016/17 by further restraining public sector spending so they can pay down debt, is only convincing in isolation. They will try to shout down opposition criticism, and if that fails (as it conceivably will considering the skills of David Cunliffe, David Parker, and Russell Norman) they will revert to “trust me” politics.

Don’t rock the boat! We can see this in Murray McCully’s impotent statements that although whaling is completely indefensible, New Zealand has no jurisdiction over the actions of the Japanese whaling fleet inside the southern ocean whale sanctuary. It would be a risk (politically as well as physically) to send the HMNZS Otago to monitor the fleet, but it would set a precedent. He won’t though, the government sold their international courage along with other assets.

McCully’s election year pose

Support party survival is the government’s Achilles heel, but it is likely that Colin Craig will manage to scrape through. If this is the case then the fifth National Government (a technically incorrect but convenient name) will continue in the 51st New Zealand Parliament. Key just has to not rock the boat.

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