The clock has started ticking on the final twelve months of the 51st New Zealand Parliament. By this time next year, the country will either have had the election or be in full blown election mode.
By this time in the Government of Prime Minister Helen Clark, there was a clearly obvious successor waiting on the other side of the debating chamber in the House of Representatives. The then Leader of the Opposition and now Prime Minister John Key had replaced Don Brash as Leader of the National Party. Whereas Mr Brash had won the support of the conservative wing of the National Party with his incendiary Orewa speech about Maoridom and the Treaty of Waitangi, at the same time he alienated Maori, women and minorities. His rhetoric and ideas swung many New Zealanders back towards National and gave Ms Clark her first serious challenge in Government, but were too divisive to get National into office.
Mr Key got into office for the following reasons:
- After nine years of Prime Minister Helen Clark, the general rule that Governments do not last more than three terms was applied by New Zealand voters – a general perception being that it is time to let another party run the country and make mistakes
- National had under Mr Key taken a centrist line that was decidedly more appealing to women, minorities and Maori, promising no asset sales in the first term, a focus on environment, education and the economy – according to the “Three E’s” speech of April 2007
- National had – and still has – a slickly run campaign team, backed by substantial financial resources
- Perhaps most important, National had a person in Mr Key who could associate with the common person in the street, had charisma and seemed friendly
So, nearly eight years after Mr Key got into power, where is the current Leader of the Opposition Andrew Little?
That is a really good question. Let us be honest. Mr Little is the surest leader Labour have had in the last eight years and he has definitely been the best performing leader of himself, Phil Goff, David Shearer and David Cunliffe. Lets also be honest that it wasn’t until the start of the seventh year in office that National had found a winning solution to replace Prime Minister Helen Clark. However, that is where the similarities end and the differences start. When Mr Brash made his Orewa speech, the polls within a matter of days afterwards showed a decisive swing towards National. Although Mr Brash’s popularity dropped away somewhat as women, minorities and Maori put off by his rhetoric moved towards Labour, it was enough to enable National to make up the substantial ground it lost in the disastrous 2002 election campaign where it was left with only 27 seats in Parliament.
By contrast Mr Little has had little success closing the gap on National through Labour Party policy or his own charisma. His party has not shown a clear change in course back towards its traditional voters. Nor has it announced much in the way of new policy. It has failed to answer significant questions about issues that other left-of-centre parties have quite strong policies on and Mr Little often comes across as angry in Parliament, earning him the nick name “Angry Andy”.
And the problems Labour faces are not just internal. Sitting next to it and its allies, the Greens, on the bench are New Zealand First. Outed in 2008 with the party suffering from internal disarray and dirty political machinations from the Opposition, New Zealand First came back into Parliament with a vengeance in 2008. Initially Prime Minister John Key wanted nothing to do with Winston Peters and the party he has led since its birth in 1993. Now it is possible for Mr Peters or one of his M.P.’s to announce a policy one day, and within 24 hours – if not 12 – National is announcing something similar, not because it agrees, but because Mr Peters is the most dangerous Opposition M.P. in the House.
Something Mr Little should be as scared of as Mr Key. Because if he isn’t and National do not get back into office, Mr Little could find himself playing second fiddle to Winston Peters.