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Dangerous Omens for NZ National in 2002

Paulo Politico

By Paulo Keating – non de plume extraordinaire

Dangerous omens for NZ National in 2002

Danger is on the horizon for National leader Bill English and his caucus as they march head-on into the forthcoming general election campaign.

The glittering prize that National strives of obtain is control of the treasury benches. A glittering prize but one that, for National, appears to be more remote in 2002 than it was it was in 1999.

The reasons for National’s deterioration are both numerous and complex. Its demise is due both to factors beyond its control and its own inability to manage the transition from government to opposition and then back into government again.

You can’t help but feel sorry for the National Party. The Labour-Alliance government has been a credible and stable coalition government.

Prime Minister Helen Clark has evolved to become an icon rather than a political leader. She is literally adored by thousands of voters who admire and respect her leadership and control of her administration. We are witnessing Helen Clark’s show.

The economy continues to bubble away despite the deterioration of overseas economies following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Here in New Zealand unemployment hovers just above 5 percent – below the comparative rates in the United States and Australia, as well as the OECD average.

Inflation and interest rates both hover at a low level. Paying off a mortgage is cheaper now under the Clark-led Labour-Alliance government. That’s an appealing proposition for thousands of young families living in the suburbs of Auckland – owning your own home sooner rather than later because of low interest rates.

Businesses too are now getting on with what they do best – business. Gone is the winter of discontent, in 2000, that threatened to undermine the government’s ambitions for re-election. The latest National Bank survey of business confidence shows that business confidence has rebounded sharply, a trend that is consistent with other confidence measures.

Helen Clark’s reputation as a Prime Minister continues to go from strength to strength. Her leadership in breaking the Tampa impasse has won her accolades both at home and overseas. She has also won respect for apologising to the descendants of early Chinese settlers who were subjected to anti-Chinese legislation in the 19th and early 20th century.

Helen Clark’s performance at the APEC meeting in Shanghai last year enhanced her standing as an important leader in the Asia-Pacific region. She is scheduled to visit the White House to meet with President George. W. Bush shortly – another coup for New Zealand’s first elected woman Prime Minister.

How does National compete against this? Coupled with the popularity of the current government, National is also suffering from a lingering resentment of its own term in office.

Anything that National says about superannuation is lost amidst a chorus of cynicism and chatter about National’s cuts to superannuation in the 1990s.

It’s a similar story in education. How can National win support for a tertiary education policy when students resent National’s broken promises?

Students (and their parents) remember that National was elected in 1990 on a promise to abolish tertiary fees. Yet during its nine-year term tenure, National cut the per-student subsidy and tertiary fees increased by 280 percent as a result.

National is not only competing against a very popular government led by a very popular Prime Minister. National is also fighting the demons of its broken promises and arrogance throughout the 1990s.

The whole thing must be a depressing scenario for National’s embattled leader Bill English. Even his response to National’s glaringly obvious lack of public support is desperately inadequate.

In response to a recent report that National was failing to get any electoral traction, English was reported on 3 News as saying “I'm feeling good. My caucus is feeling good. We've got a framework for the year. I'm feeling good about it. My caucus is feeling good. We've got a framework and we are going to be running hard. The caucus is happy, I'm feeling good about the year and we are going to have a real scrap”.

It’s painful to read isn’t it?

Winning an election under MMP requires a party to win as many party votes as possible. So far Labour has achieved this whilst National has not.

But a party’s ability to win party votes is greatly enhanced by the ability of electorate MPs to fly the flag for their respective party in their local community. Once again Labour is winning hands down.

Throughout the country Labour MPs are working tirelessly in their own electorates. David Cunliffe and Chris Carter are applying a vice-like grip to their Titirangi and Te Atatu seats respectively. Both men have racked up huge majorities and are turning west Auckland into a Labour fortress.

Ann Hartley and Helen Duncan continue to make inroads into Auckland’s North Shore. These two MPs operate like a kind of Cagney & Lacey duo, fastidiously networking with voters who previously tended to vote National. Now many of those voters are likely to cast their vote for Labour and Ann Hartley looks set to win Northcote by a healthy margin.

The scene is depressingly similar for National throughout the country. Labour MPs – such as Martin Gallagher (Hamilton West), Harry Duynhoven (New Plymouth), Jill Pettis (Whanganui), Ruth Dyson (Banks Peninsula), and David Benson-Pope (Dunedin South) – continue to give Labour the presence and credibility.

The talk in the staff rooms, rest homes, libraries, supermarket checkout lanes and coffee shops is the re-election of Labour and Helen Clark.

Starved of policy, credible leadership, and a local presence, National is on the wrong end of a huge gap in the public opinion polls. It’s not looking good for the center-right.

Labour has all but written the script for re-election in 2002. But beyond this election the scene is set for Labour’s re-election again in 2005 and well beyond.

National does not have an easy job this year. But its attempts to kick start that ailing party has been pathetic and wholly unsuccessful.

Bill English might say he’s “feeling good” but I’m not sure that he actually means it. However if he is feeling good at the moment then I have no doubt that those words are music to Helen Clark’s ears.

© Scoop Media

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