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The Year In Politics

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

National and Labour fought their way through pitfalls and panics in 2008 with the prize of election victory never out of their sights. NZPA Political Editor PETER WILSON reports on the year that changed the face of Parliament.

Wellington, Dec 17 NZPA - With hindsight, a perspective which makes it much easier to write about politics, it should have been blindingly obvious at the beginning of the year that Labour didn't have a snowball's chance of winning a fourth term.

The opinion poll lead National had carried into 2008 hadn't evaporated in the summer sun, as Labour had so desperately hoped it would.

And throughout the next nine months nothing was going to turn it round or even close the gap to any significant extent.

Labour tried furiously hard but nothing worked because most voters had already made up their minds -- it was time for a change.

Ministers rolled out new policies, Labour's researchers trawled through John Key's life from the day he was born, assets were bought and claims were made that National would sell them.

Old MPs resigned and new ones were displayed on Labour's benches. See all these clever young things eager to take you into a better future.

Yeah right, the voters thought.

And National just kept rolling on, knowing it was onto a good thing and all it had to do was hang in there, be careful, and wait.

But there was a lot of devil in the detail of those months.

To have had any chance, Labour needed a flawlessly brilliant year and a lot of luck.

It didn't get either, but that's usually the way it goes for third term governments. Too much baggage, too many problems and not enough solutions.

By February National was steadily and shamelessly removing roadblocks on its road to power. Policies were dumped with remarkable ease. Out went market rents for state houses, KiwiSaver was accepted, opposition to interest-free student loans disappeared. Working for Families, which Mr Key once described as communism by stealth, wasn't a problem.

National's leader got away with this. He was changing the face of the National Party and nobody cared. His MPs adored him because they believed he was leading them to the Beehive.

He was, and in March National's poll rating soared to over 50 percent while labour slumped to the mid-30s and media muttering about replacing leader Helen Clark began. That was ludicrous, but the fact that it happened at all showed just how serious Labour's strife was.

It was during that month the Maori Party began agitating about the Maori seats in Parliament, warning National it was heading for trouble with its policy to eventually abolish them.

National wasn't worried because it knew it could get around that problem if it had to. It did, with a post-election agreement which buried it in "a wider review" of constitutional arrangements.

Labour launched its offensive over asset sales, provoked by the foreign bid for shares in Auckland International Airport which National wasn't opposing.

That didn't work any better than anything else and in April poll watchers knew something important. In April 2005, when the parties were gearing up for the election later that year, Labour held a 5 percent lead over National. It very nearly lost the election, so what chance could it possibly have when it was nearly 20 points behind? No chance.

But no one really knew that at the time. Don't polls always close during an election campaign? Yes they do, but not enough to bridge that chasm.

Labour wasn't the only party in trouble. ACT was flatlining at just over 1 percent and Sir Roger Douglas was resurrected in a nothing-to-lose makeover.

All that did was force Mr Key to say he would not, absolutely not, have Sir Roger in his cabinet. "I will lead a pragmatic, centre-right government," said Mr Key.

It became a familiar phrase as he sought to convince voters he wasn't going to hostage to the extreme right.

When April arrived so did the soaring cost of living and EPMU national secretary Andrew Little, a senior Labour Party office holder, warned ministers to listen to the cries for help. His plea coincided with a survey which voters thought National was a better economic manager, by 46 percent to 33 percent.

In May the economic situation was deteriorating and the Government was starting to carry the blame for rising petrol and food prices over which it had no control. Finance Minister Michael Cullen tried to explain that but the backlash sent Labour's stocks still lower. Retail sales started falling and mortgage rates were going up.

Politically, there was worse to come. In June the Owen Glenn donation scandal broke and Winston Peters had to account for the `NO' sign he held up in February, when he said he'd never got a donation from the rich businessman.

The New Zealand First leader was in a messy situation which he tried to get out of by fiercely attacking the media and refusing to talk about the Spencer Trust, which had accepted donations for the party. It was all going to come out eventually, but mid-year no one thought it would be so bad that the Serious Fraud Office, the Electoral Commission, the police and Parliament's Privileges Committee were going to get involved.

The scandal raged through August but during that month there was a diversion -- secretly-recorded conversations at National's annual conference came into TV3's hands.

Indiscretions included senior MP Lockwood Smith talking about National having to swallow dead fish -- accepting policies it didn't really like but which were popular with voters -- and deputy leader Bill English saying Kiwibank might eventually be sold.

Labour gratefully accepted this gift, ramping up its claims that National had a secret agenda, but it made no detectable difference to voter opinion.

It was still time for a change, it seemed, whatever National or Labour said or did.

While this was happening, the hole Mr Peters found himself in was getting deeper and he gave no indication he was going to stop digging.

It provoked a risky move by Mr Key. He announced National would have nothing to do with Mr Peters or his party after the election, an unprecedented position for a major party because neither had ever compromised their options in that way before.

It was a gamble and Mr Key had put his money on NZ First being booted out of Parliament. It was a bet he was going to win, and after the election he revealed he had decided that if Mr Peters had held the balance of power he would have called Miss Clark and conceded defeat.

But at the time, other problems were occupying party leaders' minds. The international financial crisis was sinking into chaos, commodity prices were slumping and it was clear that New Zealand was going to take some big hits.

Tax cuts, which for so long had been the holy grail, had to be transformed from a simple, blatant enticement into a way to help the economy recover from recession.

National and Labour were re-writing their election strategies. Costly policies were dumped, in their place were rescue packages for people who were going to feel the pain of redundancy, and stimulus packages to get the country through the crisis with minimal damage.

National released its tax cuts proposals in October, after trimming them in the face of forecasts that the Government was rapidly moving into the red.

The pre-election fiscal update confirmed that -- deficits for years to come, grim forecasts that unemployment was going to increase as productivity fell.

The campaign began with a Labour scoop as Miss Clark used her position to announce the Government's rescue package for victims of a recession.

She set the agenda for the early days and National had little to offer in response. It's "vote for a brighter future" billboards were a pale shadow of 2005's "iwi or kiwi" but they were what Key wanted -- trouble-free, non-controversial, voter-friendly just like his policies.

The opinion polls weren't changing.

Clark and Key faced off in the first televised leaders debate and the media expected her to trash him. She didn't, and because of that most observers considered Key had won it.

Labour came out with voter-friendly policies while Key tramped the country with voter-friendly smiles. Labour attacked him as untrustworthy and its president, Mike Williams, went to Melbourne in a bizarre bid to find evidence of involvement in a 1980s business scam. He didn't find anything and the mission backfired badly.

Mr Peters virtually gave up trying to win Tauranga. Although agencies investigating donations to his party found no breaches of the law, the scandal had taken a dreadful toll and NZ First's campaign was inadequate and ineffective.

Other minor parties had barely featured in the campaign but opinion polls consistently showed the Greens would do better this time.

Election night gave National 59 seats against Labour's 43, very close to NZPA's rolling poll prediction. Voters had decided it was time for a change.

ACT held five, the Greens improved to eight -- later gaining another on specials as National lost one -- and the Maori Party added one seat to the four it held in the previous Parliament.

United Future and the Progressive Party fared badly, returning one MP each and they held electorates. UF's Peter Dunne backed National and the Progressive's Jim Anderton formed a strange coalition in opposition with Labour.

When Mr Key said he would form a government within a week he seemed to have set himself an unlikely target, but he did it. Deals were swiftly signed with ACT and Mr Dunne, followed by the Maori Party. They were essentially agreements to work together in good faith, with the leaders of the support parties given ministerial portfolios.

Miss Clark had stepped down on election night, a deliberate tactic to quickly clear the way for new leadership of the Labour Party. A carefully managed process delivered Phil Goff and Annette King as the new leader and deputy leader. It was seamless, efficient and avoided any caucus rancour.

The new Parliament was opened on November 8, and 35 eager new MPs took their seats. Mr Key quickly brought in legislation under urgency and in the debates that followed Labour in opposition was fired up and ferocious.

The 49th Parliament promises to be a very good one. A strong government with a secure majority against a vigorous opposition with new leaders. There is fresh talent on both sides of the House, new MPs anxious to make their mark.

The year ahead will severely test Mr Key as he does his best to steer New Zealand through the international economic crisis. The way he does it will have a powerful impact on how long he keeps his job.

NZPA PAR pw kn

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