Sunday, June 19, 2005

Where to now for the Government?

I haven't been blogging on the latest scandals to afflict the government - the billion dollar Kyoto kyok-up and Graeme Kelly's indelicate remarks about Maori delicacies - for one simple reason: the obvious things to say have already been said by other bloggers. Given Helen's high tolerance of incompetence among her colleagues, no heads will be rolling over these scandals. However the net effect is to further erode the government's public image to the extent that it's now running neck and neck in the polls with National and will, if an election was held tomorrow, have to make a deal with Winston First in order to retain power.

But the election won't be held tomorrow and Helen appears to intent on soldiering on until the end of the term in September. Her re-election strategy seems to have two tactics; first, a quiet scandal-free period during which the government's image and polling will benefit and secondly, the realization that the government could lose the election will provide a much-needed shock to the Labour activists to motivate them to get out there and motivate the masses. I don't have see either tactic succeeding while any opportunity to use a third - campaigning as a popular and competent government - has vanished with the Budget.

The quiet free period is unlikely to succeed because the opposition is carefully co-ordinating its attacks. A good example is the Graeme Kelly furore which occurred two months ago but became news last week because of a newsletter by Murray McCully. If the scandal had become public shortly after it happened then it would have clashed with the Doonegate scandal and the Government could have earned much-needed popularity in the Maori seats by recalling Graeme Kelly. But because the opposition kept quiet, the government thought it had contained the scandal and hence was content with Kelly's secret apology. By revealing the story now, the government looks bad on a week that it might have hoped for peace and quiet and worse still, looks bad in the Maori seats because it can't recall Graeme Kelly because it accepted his apology two months ago! Even worse for the government is the number of unresolved scandals that can flare back into life in the next three months. The Waipareira trust scandal has just shown new signs of life that could yet consume John Tamihere's political career, the police still have to report back on whether there is a prima facie case that David Benson-Pope criminally assaulted students and the Doonegate scandal is still unresolved.

A variation on the quiet-free period is for Helen to look good on the international stage by meeting and greeting lots of foreign dignitaries (such as the President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, who was visiting last week). The only trouble is that Jenny Shipley tried the same trick in 1999 (with the APEC conference and the follow-up visits of Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin) and it didn't work then.

The second tactic, to energize the party into getting out the vote, suffers from two flaws. Firstly the opposition is now well-motivated and well-organized (as opposed to the previous election in which National bungled its campaigning), which will cancel out any hoped-for impetus. Secondly the fear of losing the election was the same strategy that Labour used in the 1990 election and it failed them then. All this tactic will do is make Labour's core support more fearful about the outcome of the election but the energy will be wasted because Labour's core support will be voting for them anyway.

So my belief is that the government will continue to see a slow decline in its support. I don't expect any radical leadership changes before the election as that didn't work for Labour in 1990 (which Helen being deputy PM at the time must remember) but even if Labour does retain power, there will be some long overdue shake-ups within the caucus.