The ODT is cautiously approving of the announcements from National’s annual conference, but is still looking for policy.
All political party election year conferences these days are less about making policy than they are about making friends.
Thus, the emphasis in such carefully stage-managed affairs is on, firstly, reassurance and motivation for members; and, secondly, the promotion of a successful party “brand” to a wider audience, along with sufficient policy to identify the “brand” as different from the others on offer.
In these respects National’s weekend annual conference will be judged by the party a success.
The motivation certainly worked on me.
A record number of delegates attended, indicating healthy branch membership; the party leader drew a great deal of media attention; better still, Labour’s leaders felt sufficiently unsettled to bid for the headlines the following day.
Mr Key’s 10 pledges which, in these uncertain MMP days, might come to pass in their entirety (and might not), helped identify National not quite as firmly right of centre as party conservatives might hope; in many respects the party under Mr Key is only marginally to the right and it certainly has the appearance of having removed itself from the 1990s.
That is the reality of MMP politics – you don’t win elections with major policy on the margins.
Most public attention will be focused, and rightly so, on the promised tax cuts which are now to be made during the next three years, including Labour’s October proposals.
How they are to be paid for remains a mystery and until more detail is disclosed in the election campaign, comment would be pointless.
In the meantime, Mr Key will just have to put up with Labour’s taunts that he will have to borrow to pay for them. As the song says, “It ain’t necessarily so.”
Labour managed years of healthy surpluses without giving tax cuts, so there is more than an element of farce in Michael Cullen and Helen Clark’s reproaches now.
They took more of our money than they needed, they have no grounds for complaining that National will let us keep a little more of what we earn.
Nor should National’s proposal to increase government debt by 10% by borrowing to fund infrastructure like roads and hospitals set off too many alarm bells. There is nothing wrong about a government borrowing for capital expenditure; it has been inherent in the New Zealand political system for a century or more.
The trouble arises when the funds are instead frittered away to meet expensive short-term promises or favours.
As Labour has done.
The old catch-cry of “borrow and hope” hardly applies at this stage when all of Mr Key’s policies have yet to be announced. The chief concern will be funding the loans at a time of local and possibly international recession, but even here, New Zealand is very well placed.
Providing our traders can continue to sell our produce at good prices to a world demanding more and more food production, there should be no real cause for alarm.
Another reminder of the importance of agriculture in our economy.
Others of Mr Key’s pledges are predictable – discipline in government spending, a limit on the numbers of bureaucrats, cracking down on gangs – and are of less interest than his indication that the private sector will run some government services, and national literacy standards will be set for primary schools.
These are positive policies likely to appeal to many voters who are concerned with the poor results and service in many government departments and an education system too little focused on usefully measurable results.
And we have a right to be cocncerned about these matters.
National’s promise to hold a referendum on MMP either before or at the time of the next election simply fulfils an expectation of the electorate denied to them by a Parliamentary select committee. Mr Key’s opinion, that people will probably vote for a form of proportional representation, is realistic for today but might not be by 2011.
But at least he’s not afraid to give voters a choice.
Mr Key set out only the bare bones of National’s agenda. The obviously long-planned strategy of releasing policy when it suits the party, and then only in the slimmest of detail, is designed to build expectations but not to unrealistic levels.
Judging by what has been announced so far it will be a much more attractive and thought-out package than National’s 2005 effort, and importantly will provide a clear enough distinction from Labour to give voters a plain choice.
But is it a responsible agenda? Miss Clark and Dr Cullen can claim the great advantage of having a proven record of sound economic management.
True, they have been lucky to have governed during good times, and the surpluses Dr Cullen has husbanded have been directed to policies and services that will do Labour no harm at all in the poll later this year.
Good luck with the income and bad handling of expenditure is not sound economic management.
Mr Key has no such record, and National has been out of office for so long that a whole new tranche of voters additionally will need to be convinced he and his colleagues can do as well or better.
Yet what he has announced so far cannot remotely be regarded as representing policies to promote what he has long believed is needed: productive growth. Mr Key needs to play that hand soon.
Cutting taxes, improving education and reining in spending will all promote growth and the election campaign will be soon enough for policy announcements.