Party time for National – but not all is tip-top

John Key will be celebrated this coming weekend. The National party owes him. In the corners and corridors of its conference, though, there will be some pondering. Things are not humming so well now.

This is not a curtain call. The party still rides high in polls and Key’s personal rating, though down a bit, multiples that of his rivals in other parties.

The combined poll average figures for Labour and the Greens up to Sunday were still short of National’s. New Zealand First had not turned its Northland by-election bounce into a higher national rating.

Two years out from the next election, the conference’s well-fed delegates might therefore allow themselves hope for a fourth term in office for Key and the party in 2017.

A post-2017 government might be shorn of Peter Dunne and have only one each from ACT and the Maori party so it might need Winston Peters. But there are ways to sort that.

Throw in Bill English’s diversification of how the state does its business, which gives National more of a look than Labour as the party generating modern policy in a changing world. Delegates can celebrate the smaller state they yearn for and moralise about and also feel the cabinet has innovative energy.

Moreover, the conference will have in its midst a swag of new MPs under 45 who will freshen its image for 2017 and beyond. Membership is firm and finances are strong.

So there will be cause for partying as well as conferencing. No need for public debate of contentious remits.

But there is also cause for sober reflection.

First, Northland, lost to Peters in a bumbling campaign of Bridges-for-bridges, threats to dusty road campaigners, all-too-visible panic and a gumboot candidate. That loss exposed a regional disparity that threatens social cohesion within less-well-off provincial regions and between Auckland-Wellington-Christchurch and the rest.

Provincial mayors, most of them National types, talk of a sense in their districts that ministers are fixated on the big places and short-changing the provinces.

Steven Joyce’s job is “economic development” and he tours the provinces hunting good news stories to get in behind. Strategies are being worked up but will enough actual gains be registered to dissolve the us-and-them mood?

Some mayors think New Zealand First might parlay provincial disaffection into votes, as Social Credit did in the 1960s and 1970s to National’s cost.

Second, inequality of wealth and income. Ministers produce numbers showing it hasn’t got worse since the mid-1990s. But embedded inequalities are more of a risk to social cohesion than initial or transitory inequalities. Social disunity is a potential electoral threat.

Joyce and Paula Bennett have been touring South Auckland, the country’s inequality showcase and worst-off region. There is a lot of human waste there. If Labour and the Greens can construct a believable alternative government for 2017, a revived South Auckland vote could be decisive.

Third, Auckland houses. Prices continue to soar and mainland Chinese are part of that, as in Vancouver and other attractive places.

Fourth, ministers making mistakes. The list is now getting long, from the Prime Minister’s ponying around through Nick Smith’s excited brainstorms to Nathan Guy’s recent initial waving away of irregularities in kauri log exports.

The mistakes are coming because the potholes in the political roadway are proliferating, as is usual in a third term. Some potholes may deepen too far to fill with shovelfuls of quick-setting policy or reversals like Guy’s. One is hospital finances.

Fifth, some dicky business. Murray McCully tops the list with his Saudi payoff. Simon Bridges’ dubious use of public servants for his Northland by-election bridges promise is at the other end of the scale.

Sixth, the economy. The dairy bubble is flat. The Christchurch rebuild looks to be topping out. Farm and business confidence are off their highs.

More to the electoral point, consumer confidence is down, too – significantly.

Household finances are usually the No 1 election issue. If confidence stays soggy, Labour’s and the Greens’ lift in the Morgan and TV1 polls this month might develop longer-run traction.

Seventh, out of voters’ sight but visible to beltway insiders, is an edginess between ministers. There is also some jostling, most notably by Bennett who thinks she can succeed Key and by Judith Collins who thinks she deserves a cabinet seat despite last year’s Whale Oil and Oravida shenanigans.

Tim Groser is itching to get out of politics and off to Washington, perhaps next month after the go-or-stall crunch session in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

Whether Key restores Collins then will be a test of prime ministerial mettle.

So far Key’s falters have not really cost him or National. Adulation this weekend is justified. But he is such a big part of National appeal that if he does slip, so will it.

No cause for conference panic. But fodder for corridor frowns.


Colin James’ Otago Daily Times

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Colin James is the country's most experienced political commentator.