When the time comes to hand out the annual award for the silliest things politicians have said or done during the year, Andrew Little should be on the short-list.

National MP Nuk Korako and his ridiculous private member’s bill on the advertising of lost luggage at airports will he hard to beat.

But the Labour leader’s dismissal of Helen Clark’s view that parties on the left must “command the centre ground” to win elections as “a pretty hollow view” comes close to edging out the National backbencher for this unwanted award.

Just what possessed Little to pour cold water on Clark’s supposition heaven only knows.

Sure, he may not like living in the shadow of a predecessor in Labour’s top job, especially the kind of lengths cast by Clark.

If he disagreed with Clark’s view, he would have been best advised to keep his mouth shut.

Clark fought five general elections as her party’s leader, winning three of them and losing two.

She knows from experience — especially the bitter kind —what she is talking about.

But it is a party on the right which has rammed her message home in no uncertain fashion, such that it should give Little considerable pause for thought.

There is the old cliche about a week being a long time in politics. But it took National just three days to show that nothing is off its agenda when it comes to ensuring it has an unshakable hold on the centre-ground of domestic politics.

It was cynical. It was nakedly expedient. It demonstrated both the arrogance and desperation of a party which has long been in power.

It involved U-turns and flip-flops which left you wondering whether National really believes in anything beyond power for power’s sake.

But it will probably be darned effective. Labour likes to believe that voters will punish governments which shift tack and look very messy in the process.

It seems to be more the case that voters want policy solutions that show the Government is listening to them. They are not too bothered how that is done.

John Key understands this — as does Bill English even though he is motivated by ideology.

Together the pair have unchallenged power to do things their way.
National has emerged from what has been the party’s roughest patch during its current time in power refocused, though not necessarily re-energized.

Labour never saw it coming. It all began last Tuesday with English causing surprise by indicating that the Government would become a player in the private housing construction sector.

That was an admission or defeat, but it was a victory for realism.

The Government has sought all year to find remedies to alleviate its biggest political headache — the Auckland housing shortage which has become ever more complex in its various, but interlocking manifestation.

Up till now, National has tackled this crisis which it has refused to acknowledge is a crisis with all the co-ordination and aplomb of a headless chicken.

English flagged that over the next ten years, the Government would be a provider of a “significant” number of medium-density, medium-priced housing in the Auckland market.

There was no detail as to how National was going to go about doing this. Having repeatedly ridiculed Labour’s promise to do much the same thing, National is definitely putting a low price on consistency.

It is instead making a priority of neutralizing one of the few matters where Labour has secured a distinct advantage, namely its promise to build 100,000 new and affordable homes over a ten-year period.

Almost in his next breath, the Finance minister was re-iterating the Government’s intention to accelerate the building of new state houses — something he has argued previously as being pointless.

Drawing far more attention, however, was that day’s announcement of changes to immigration settings which will make it a lot harder for families resident in New Zealand to secure entry for close relatives still living in their home countries.

But the other part of the package, which covers skilled migrants, is likely to result in only a very modest cut in the numbers being granted residency.

Along with New Zealand First, Labour dismissed the package as window-dressing driven by National’s panic at being on the wrong side of the immigration debate.

The two Opposition parties were right. National wants to appear to be doing something without actually doing something. Whatever National came up with would never be enough to silence Winston Peters. But may be enough to quieten Labour which seems to be far less inclined to make swinging cuts to current migrant levels.

The Beehive would have been delighted that evening’s One News headlined its coverage with the word “crackdown”. It was nothing of the sort. Not being willing to bother themselves with the technical detail of immigration policy, that was the word that many wanted to hear, however.

But National wasn’t finished. Little had planned a major policy announcement for Thursday covering law and order. Given he was speaking at the Police Association’s conference that day, you didn’t have to be a genius to predict what it would be about.
Little had anyway given the game away on radio on Monday.

Labour’s promise of an extra 1000 police in its first term was the perfect example of the kind of policies that Helen Clark’s doctrine demands.

But National had plenty of time to respond, with Police Minister Judith Collins saying the Government was also looking at a “substantial” boost in numbers.

It can be presumed that National is not going to allow Labour to outflank it on an issue which the centre-right sees as being very much its territory.

There is one policy area where Labour will not be endeavouring to outflank National — tax cuts. English sounded unusually bullish about the possibility of an announcement of such cuts in next year’s Budget following the release of latest set of the Government’s accounts during the week.

Should the Budget be in surplus while it is in power, Labour will use the extra money on meeting social needs.

Labour is punting that the media reports over the past six months or so revealing the high degrees of homelessness and other forms of social deprivation have shocked many New Zealanders.

National’s willingness to talk of pushing through yet another round of tax cuts suggests it does not believe there is any such seed-change in the air. At least, not yet.

That may be partly because the media have exhausted all the obvious angles that are available in stories covering poverty.

The ruling party will anyway argue that any tax cuts will be targeted at helping the poor.

So far the opinion polls have yet to register any significant shift in party support to give pause to National to worry that it will suffer a political backlash as a result of the inexcusable failure of government agencies to foresee that those at the bottom of the socio-economic heap would end up suffering inordinately from the chronic shortage of residential properties in Auckland.

Much, if not all, of National’s hectic activity last week was not solely driven by the party’s need to shore up its defenses in critical areas and realign itself with majority public opinion.

The timing was also crucial .

We are now 12 months or less away from the next election.
The Christmas-New Year break is less than two months away. John Key does not want to find himself watching a resurgent Labour Party in positive mood going into election year.

Whether that happens or not largely hinges on the coming byelection in Mt Roskill.

National is trying to strait-jacket Little so that there are few if any issues which he can exploit because the point of difference between the two parties is in Labour’s favour.

The obvious example is housing. National’s abject handling of the whole caboodle meant one thing: if Labour could not get the better of National on that question, it could not get the better of National on anything.

Labour has unquestionably got the better of National on housing, largely thanks to the untiring work done by Phil Twyford, Labour’s sharp-minded housing spokesman.

But his and others’ efforts have yet to pay any dividend in political terms.

The byelection result will be better measure than the polls of whether Labour is gaining any ground in Auckland or just standing still.

In 2014, Phil Goff held the seat for the party with an 8000-plus majority. But National won the party vote in the electorate, securing just over 42 per cent of that vote as against the nearly 36 per cent recorded by Labour.

Despite that, the chances of National capturing the seat are remote.

In Labour-held seats where the party vote has has gone National’s. wayin the general elections both before and after a byelection, voters have stayed loyal to the Labour candidate in that byelection in sufficient number to get him or her into Parliament.

The Greens’ decision not to stand a candidate will help Labour, but likely only marginally if the result follows the 2014 pattern which saw the Green candidate pick up a mere 5 per cent of the constituency vote in 2014.

When it comes to door-knocking in the electorate and getting people out to vote on byelection day, Labour’s Auckland political machine will be of huge help through being able to pool Labour’s city-wide contingent of volunteers.

They will be able to focus solely on one seat, rather than having to spread resources across a multitude of electorates demanding attention as is the case in general elections,

The Labour camp is making the obigatory noises about “not being able to take anything for granted” in order to hose down any expectations that the party will win and win big.

But with Labour’s support in opinion polls still struggling to get above 33 per cent on a consistent basis, Little really does need a big win in Mt Roskill.

Defeat would be an absolute catastrophe. A narrow victory would be little better. Even a comfortable, but not crushing victory would not do much to change the current status quo in national politics.

Labour would start 2017 where it left off in 2016 — stuck in the doldrums with National pilfering its policies.

Perhaps that was why Little was so acerbic when asked about the truth and value of the Clark Doctrine.

When he does make a grab for the centre-ground, he finds Key is in his face. Another 1,000 police officers is a big deal. It is fair guess that the policy won’t have the backing of everyone in the party. There  will those who will be thinking the money to implement the policy could be better utilized elsewhere.

The police policy, however, is exactly the kind of policy which Clark would advocate under her doctrine. But Little has to watch his back.

Key does not have to worry about operating outside his party’s ideological parameters. There are two reasons for that in addition to him being a conservative pragmatist by instinct. First, in the early days of MMP, the pundits said National did not have any friends on the right to enable it to rule without having to be party to a an antagonistic and unstable coalition government with all that entails by way of concessions and compromise.

Key has made a mockery of the Jeremlahs’ predictions not once but three times, and possibly may even do so a fourth time next year.

While some policy areas remain out of bounds, MMP has not been a major handicap for Key And therein lies the second  reason. His administration has been able to run a centre-right reform agenda which is just tough enough to satisfy those on National’s  right without offending those all important voters who sit in mass in the Centre.

The end result?  Labour puts out policy. If Key  can spot even a hint of blue in it, he pilfers it.

Little may have convinced himself that he could make a lot more progress when it comes to lifting Labour’s parlous share of the vote by heading leftwards with policy promises that not even Key could dare to match.

But that did not work for Goff orDavid Cunliffe when they did likewise when they led the party.

Such a strategy requires that the wider electorate is also moving in the same direction at the same speed.

In that vein, Clark enjoyed a huge advantage which will almost certainly be denied to Little.

Clark surged to power in the 1999 election because her adversary was a tired National Government which did highly unpopular things which it persuaded itself were necessary for the voters’ own good.

It displayed a high degree of machismo to give the impression of strength which everyone knew it lacked. That was because it was a minority Government hostage to a rabble of waka-jumping MPs who remained in Parliament after the collapse of the National-New Zealand First coalition government.

In marked contrast to then, there is still no discernible mood for change despite National being in its eighth year in power.

It is highly unlikely that the Mt Roskill byelection will provide the kind of stunning victory for Labour which would change those dynamics.

Unless things go horribly wrong, the byelection is not quite make or break for Little. But everyone will be judging whether his performance bodes well for him really footing it with Key on the 2017campaign trail.

Little cannot afford to leave the task of winning the byelection to Labour’s candidate Michael Wood.

Little needs that platform. He needs it to lift his current basement-level profile.

it is time for him to make the step up.

 

 

 

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