Getting The Visuals Right: John Key's decision to lend the National Party's support to the so-called "Anti-Smacking Bill" not only reassured his more moderate supporters that he was not beholden to the Far Right, but also allowed him to share the stage with Helen Clark on the six o'clock news. Here, it seemed to say, is a leader in waiting.
IT WAS A BOLD STRATEGIC DECISION which has since repaid the courage required to make it several times over. In the run-up to the 2008 General Election John Key could so easily have cemented-in the extreme Right to his electoral coalition by opposing the so-called “Anti-Smacking Bill”, but he did not. To the utter consternation and dismay of Family First’s, Bob McKroskie, and many other social conservatives, the Leader of the National Party Opposition did precisely the opposite.
Instead of fighting the measure, John Key offered Helen Clark the support of himself and his socially liberal National Party colleagues – thereby guaranteeing the passage of Sue Bradford’s Private Members Bill by a decisive majority. At a stroke all the bitter memories from 2005 and Don Brash’s secret alliance with the Exclusive Brethren Church were wiped away. Middle-class liberals could now vote for John Key’s National Party with a clear conscience.
Key’s decision also secured him some invaluable “visuals”. Voters watching the six o’clock news saw the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition striding in lock-step towards a pair of lecterns, from which, as equals, they delivered the good news about the proposed changes to Section 59 of the Crimes Act.
It was a major propaganda triumph for Key because until that moment the voters had not been sure that the new leader of the National Party was for real. Talk is cheap. But to cut adrift a potentially huge number of angry voters was potentially very costly.
For the first time New Zealanders had seen the former currency trader’s ruthless decision-making technique in action.
There was no disputing the fact that the forces of social conservatism were expecting National’s new leader to throw them a bone. But what would be the political benefit of doing so? The Far Right was desperate to be rid of Helen Clark’s government and the surest way of doing that was by giving National its Party Vote. That meant that its support was already safely banked in National’s account.
But what about the votes of those who saw themselves as occupying the centre of the political spectrum? If he threw the Far Right a bone how would they react? Centrists were nowhere near as hostile to Helen Clark as the social-conservatives. Should they become convinced that behind this new fellow’s pleasant smile and friendly wave there lurked a dangerous extremist they might conclude that it wasn’t time for a change after all.
In the end Key’s cost-benefit calculation was a simple one. The Centre was much more important to National’s election chances than the Far Right. Bob McKroskie and his ilk would just have to live with it.
And last Monday evening Key did it again.
This time the cost-benefit calculation involved the electoral utility of Colin Craig’s Conservative Party.
Were National to withdraw its candidate from East Coast Bays in expectation of Mr Craig taking the seat, then socially conservative voters would be reassured that thanks to MMP’s “coat-tail” provisions every vote cast for the Conservative Party would count. The resulting surge in their Party Vote would, post-election, assist National in mustering the numbers needed to govern. Wouldn’t that be a considerable benefit?
But at what cost? Among those crucially important centrist voters, the prospect of Colin Craig coming anywhere close to Government was deeply worrying. Not the least of their concerns was his policy of deciding highly complex and deeply emotive issues by referendum. How long would it be before capital punishment and abortion were placed on the ballot-paper? If John Key threw Colin Craig a bone of such dangerous dimensions, then they might just decide to hold their nose and cast their votes for David Cunliffe or Russel Norman.
It was 2008 all over again. Where was the benefit in taking on a swag of passengers from the starboard side of the good ship National, if the cost was to see an even larger number hurriedly disembarking to port?
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 August 2014.