With the polls indicating a National-NZ First government is looking more likely, we’re resurfacing this piece by Tim Murphy for another look at what National might have to give away

In the 1990s, Christians in the United States started wearing bracelets and sporting bumper stickers with the letters WWJD – What Would Jesus Do? 

They were their reminders to act in the way of their saviour.

Don’t be surprised if the National Party starts looking for its own WWJD – What Would John Do? Key, that is. The arch-pragmatist, the three time winner, who surely would have known what to do about this Jacinda phenomenon. Ardern, that is. 

Key was legendary for following a Whatever it Takes approach to campaigning, coalescing and winning. He threw National Party positions overboard, turned bottom lines into lifelines and promises into bargaining chips. Especially when the chips were down.

National has never been a sure thing in 2017, partly because it’s been in power for the normal lifespan of a government, partly because of the loss of Key and the trading down to Bill English, partly because of weakness among its support parties and partly because of New Zealand First staying stubbornly in play.

Now with the change of Labour leader from Andrew Little to Ardern, National faces unpredictabilities that will require some decisive Key-like tactical manoeuvring.

Short of paying Key a short-term consultancy fee at his new global rates, the party might have to rely this time on his scheming sidekick Steven Joyce, to come down from the mountain with the solutions. Joyce is the National Party campaign chair, its most acute and ruthless tactician. The real study in New Zealand politics right now should be What Will Steven Do?  

First, he’ll do what he’s done since the General Debate in Parliament on Wednesday and on RNZ’s Morning Report yesterday morning: no ad feminam attacks, no condescension or patronising of Ardern’s age, emphasis on National’s already challenging task to succeed, seeding a line about Ardern’s early priorities in education and R&D being Labour policy for campaigns on end, and a gentle back-handed compliment on her being as capable as “the others” National has faced since taking office.

But next, he’ll be looking to meet audacious with audacious. 

Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First could, on numbers alone, have already been poised to go into government after September 23, should they have chosen to. Even under Little. But there were two big caveats – would NZ First leader Winston Peters be able to treat Labour as a legitimate leading partner in such an arrangement if it was polling around 24 percent, and would the New Zealand public tolerate his party going with a party that would, at that level of support, have fallen so far short of the top polling party, National. The theory is that Kiwis would not countenance a ragtag of minor parties. One of them needs to be major.

As Claire Trevett wrote in the New Zealand Herald yesterday, Ardern needs only to get Labour’s share of the vote up enough to rebalance her side of the equation. Not to dream of snapping at National’s heels by taking too much of its vote. Just to rebalance its red share of that Labour-Green-New Zealand First bloc to reclaim legitimacy in the eyes of both Peters and the public. The Greens and NZ First could be victims of that, with Labour eating away at their totals, but that may be all to the good. A redistribution of the centre-left. Get Labour up and the rest will look after itself.

And that means National can no longer hope New Zealand First will have just one option – National – once the vote is in. It can no longer sit back and assume the Labour-Greens option is a write-off.

What Will Steven Do?

As so often in the past, Peters will be the focus group of one.

Joyce and National’s priority now, if Labour regains some polling legitimacy, is to more explicitly, rat-swallowingly, signal to Peters that they can offer as much or more than a recalibrated Labour-Green bloc.

There’s no need to change their own policies or make public concessions right now, just to drive the wedge in advance of the election. Once the coalition talks begin, if they have prepared well to take Peters out of play, the Jacinda revolution lasts 53 days.

So work could well be starting already for National to give way and:

– ditch its long-term plan to lift the age people receive superannuation from 65 to 67. NZ First says universal superannuation at 65 is a bottom line. This wouldn’t give National an advantage over Labour, which is also sticking with 65, but it neutralises a big Peters bugbear.

– agree to a binding referendum on the future of the Māori seats in Parliament. It used to be National policy to reconsider them. Its core supporters would have few qualms joining this Peters crusade. Its partner the Maori Party opposes it but that party is already flirting with Jacinda and might have to be sacrificed.

– agree to a review of sorts of the Reserve Bank Act and the factors the bank must take into account in conducting monetary policy. Peters has been on this for years. Surely there could be a way of amending the settings to address his concerns for a ‘flexible’ monetary policy and ‘sensible’ exchange rate regime.

– tighten its annual net migration targets from the 73,000 a year now to somewhere nearer Labour’s 40-50,000 – with an ‘elegant solution’ on the unskilled and foreign student categories long hated by Peters

– rule out more state asset sales. None are planned. But also tighten the sale of land to foreigners and give Peters his register of foreign-owned land.

– make Kiwisaver compulsory and agree to a state-backed fund – Kiwifund, in NZ First terminology.

– consider the lower tax rate (20 percent) NZ First proposes for exporter businesses

– indulge one of Peters’ vanity projects like his 10-point plan to boost the racing industry 

– sideline Judith Collins

There could be more. New Zealand First has many bottom lines. 

But what Jacinda Ardern’s elevation – and immediate media and public acclaim – has meant is that Labour is more likely to be able to engage with New Zealand First as a legitimate senior partner than before. 

Labour’s strategists will be anticipating National’s reputation for electoral rat-cunning and know that if Labour does indeed get stronger it will provoke a kitchen-sink response from Joyce. 

Peters is an old enough dog to see where National could come from. Despite the conventional wisdom his own party’s poll ratings may drift back a little now the Jacinda factor has become a reality. 

No one wants him but now he will have real options. Providing a plausible option on the right is National’s task now. If it will save the blue party into a fourth term, Steven will do it. 

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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