The announcement in December of former Prime Minister John Key resigning was like a cold front arriving in the National Party. The warm breezes and clear skies had been replaced by a distinctly colder and more unsettled looking horizon. Three months later despite the assurances of Prime Minister Bill English, the cloud of worries, consistent with those that accompany a third term Government in terminal disarray, now looks more like a thunderstorm in the vicinity.
For National Party members on the right, perhaps tiring of Mr Key’s centrist politics and fearing a swing to the left if Labour and the Greens find a way of getting into office, Mr English comes as a welcome change. For them the accelerated deregulation of New Zealand, and an appetite for funding expenditure through asset sales appears considerably more enticing, as will a focus on traditional allies and a harder line on justice.
For centrist National members aware of how Mr Key unified a party that was seen as too rough around the edges for female and Maori voters in 2005, Mr English may be viewed as more of a caretaker Prime Minister to the election rather than a long term replacement who will give them a fourth term. These voters will be aware of the gains made with middle New Zealand when National under Mr Key did not change the superannuation age. They will have noted the absence of asset sales and how this deprived Labour and the Greens of a significant topic with which they could have caused damage.
For Labour and the Greens, there will be both optimism and fear. The optimism will stem from a Bill English led National Government with its support partners adopting a more conservative overtone with less emphasis on the issues that had enabled former Prime Minister John Key to win three consecutive terms in office. This in turn will It will stem from the pragmatism and the every man charisma that made him so popular and such a huge threat to the left wing of New Zealand politics, no longer being there.
And there will also be the fear. This fear will stem from Mr English being a staunch Catholic, whose views on abortion have ensured that there will not likely be any serious attempt to remove the criminality from abortion law in New Zealand. It will stem from his appointment of Steven Joyce to be Treasurer. This is an appointment that shows an increased eagerness for the traditional conservative fiscal diet of less spending on social welfare, health and education and a higher probability of tax cuts.
For me there is no doubt. Mr English is a swing to the right and this has been backed up by changes in policy that show a solid conservative streak emerging. Attacks on the Resource Management Act, a defunding of health, education, social welfare and the Police have created a cocktail of socio-economic problems that will only worsen if the current neo-conservative prescription of economic medicine is continued. To this end though, the appointment of Mr English as Prime Minister might be, after 8 long and at times ugly years, the break that the left so desperately need.
And even if Labour and the Greens do not gain from National having a swing to the right, and alienating its centrist supporters, there is one party that will:
New Zealand First.
If National want a fourth term in office, the biggest threat is not Andrew Little and Labour.
It is Winston Peters.
After all, those thunderstorm clouds look more black with flashes of white, than they do red or green.