Hooton on de-risking to win MMP elections

Matthew Hooton explains the risk averse nature of MMP politics.

All MMP elections have been horrendously close.

Just tens of thousands of votes stood in the way of prime ministers Phil Goff and David Cunliffe being real possibilities, and David Shearer would almost certainly have become prime minister in 2014 had the unions and the Labour left allowed him to lead the party to the election.

In 2005, the numbers existed for Don Brash to form a National-Act-United Future-New Zealand First-Maori Party hybrid. Even in 2002 a National-Act-United Future-New Zealand First government under Bill English was just four seats short of being a possibility.

Today, according to John Key?s pollster David Farrar?s weighted average of polls, the Labour-Green axis is just 1.6% behind National, with Winston Peters clearly the kingmaker. This is why the union bosses and far-left activists who surround Andrew Little remain relatively chipper, even as Labour?s more mainstream staff continue to walk out the door. With any deterioration in National?s support, they are confident they will be able to manoeuvre either their man into the prime minister?s office or Mr Peters on their behalf.

The electoral maths is also why Mr Key?s government appears so lazy and visionless as we enter what is best seen as the 18th year of the Helen Clark regime. Nevertheless, until a future Labour leader recognises that the easiest way to beat Mr Key is by outbidding him on economic ambition rather than playing to the gallery of left-wing Wellington social justice warriors, Mr Key?s lot is as good as it gets.

What?s more, right now Mr Key?s government is perfectly adequate as reasonable growth, low inflation, rising wages, low unemployment and improving surpluses suggest. All things considered, its default do-nothing political strategy targeted at the median voter makes sense.

Moreover, a few of the things it actually is doing at the edges ? such as Mr English?s social investment strategy, Anne Tolley?s complete reform of Child, Youth and Family and Simon Bridges? policy work on Auckland congestion pricing ? are even worthwhile. While she will ultimately be forced to back down, Hekia Parata?s attempts to improve the school funding system are also commendable.

Steady as she goes is National’s mantra. With the economy still doing well voters see little merit in changing sides.

Hooton sees National’s three main problems as?housing, immigration and poverty, and as a result, they are clearing the decks of contentious legislation.

This clearing of the decks before the election extends beyond the three main vulnerabilities. Contentious local government legislation has been dropped. We are also unlikely to hear any more of Nick Smith?s failed attempts to reform the Resource Management Act or his failed Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary. In climate change, Paula Bennett has announced the likelihood of more direct interventions to promote afforestation given the failure of Dr Smith?s emissions trading scheme to promote planting.

Mr Key has also confirmed at least ?one or two? ministers would ?resign? in the new year, presumably referring not just to Dr Smith but also to Foreign Minister Murray McCully.

Combined, such de-risking should avoid a fall in National?s support in election year.

There should be a few more knifings as well. Then there is a warning…one I have been preparing for:

One wildcard remains. National would be wise to assume that the criminal elements who have previously supplied the likes of Nicky Hager with material are already hacking into servers, searching through rubbish bins or even breaking into offices or homes for information.

As we are seeing in the US, such criminal tactics, to some extent pioneered in contemporary times in New Zealand, are now mainstream with the emergence of Julian Assange, Edward Snowdon and the sinister Anonymous group.

What?s more, with Labour?s shift further left, National should assume closer connections than ever between criminal political networks and Labour?s strategy. Stolen material that is embarrassing, particularly when presented devoid of context, will almost certainly emerge, perhaps in a book or via anonymous twitter accounts.

Having been tripped up in 2014, Mr Key needs to ensure his prime ministerial staff are not doing things like passing SIS material to his political team. And he needs to be thinking now about how he will respond better than he did in 2014 to the inevitable 2017 episode of hack-and-smear politics from the far political left.

John Key made several mistakes in his response. He listened to the Twitter social justice bullies who sought to shut down who he speaks to and gets advice from. Coupled with that is he shafted and sidelined his most effective campaigners and messengers. Those people won’t be rushing to help him come next year. In fact, many of them have moved on to advise other parties and candidates. It was John Key’s failing and National’s as well. Labour’s and the left’s criminal activities actually worked in some respects in that John Key?distanced himself from those who actually won the election for him.

As we saw from the result Key’s responses to the opposition’s criminal conspiracy were unnecessary. He still won as voters rejected the criminal machinations that tried to subvert an election and recently pervert the course of justice in the Colin Craig defamation trial.