20 Mar 2015

Govt seems distracted and rattled

7:31 am on 20 March 2015

Powerplay with Brent Edwards

New Zealand Beehive; parliament

The current Government has a bee in its bonnet. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Something has got the Government rattled and it is not just Winston Peters, although he is playing his part.

It has become clearer over the past week that National has been spooked by Mr Peters' strong showing in the Northland by-election campaign.

Senior ministers are flocking to the electorate to support National's candidate Mark Osborne and Prime Minister John Key has acknowledged he has altered the itinerary of his trip to Korea and Japan next week to make sure he is back in the electorate on the Friday before voters go to the polls.

Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce has also got cranky as he has continued to talk up what National has done for Northland, while at the same time repeatedly attacking Mr Peters' credentials.

While the Government appears distracted by the by-election it has made uncharacteristic mistakes.

Pay setting process hiccoughs

Last week it introduced legislation to revoke the 3.56 percent pay rise MPs had been given by the Remuneration Authority.

But that had to be withdrawn after it became clear the complicated formula outlined in the legislation would have ended up giving MPs more money, not less.

So this week a new piece of legislation was introduced, with a new algebraic formula setting out how MPs' pay increases should be calculated.

It has been passed under urgency with only the Green Party opposing it.

While Labour supported the legislation its MPs warned that rushed legislation risked being botched legislation.

Senior MP Grant Robertson said it was likely Parliament would have to fix it up some time in the future.

The Government was also criticised for not having acted earlier to fix the pay setting process so that MPs did not get increases seen as out of step with those given to ordinary workers in both the public and private sectors.

Mr Key had, after all, complained after previous determinations by the Remumeration Authority but done nothing.

The urgency this time appears to have been driven by likely polling showing the public had finally had enough.

As well, the Government wants to head off what it believes are exorbitant pay claims by teachers and nurses.

In the process, however, it botched the initial legislation and looked incompetent. It will look even worse if the Bill it passed into law this week subsequently needs to be fixed.

Slip-ups in Northland

Meanwhile, in Northland it has been telling voters they have done very well under National, with 7,500 jobs having been created there last year.

John Key

John Key Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

But those figures also include Whangarei, which is not in the Northland electorate, and, as Winston Peters points out, unemployment has only fallen marginally.

Mr Joyce says National was always clear it was talking about the region, not the electorate.

But in the context of the by-election campaign that was never clearly spelled out.

Other economic indicators for the region also confirm Northland has struggled during National's time in government, compared with most other regions.

The Government appears to have also done itself little favour in announcing the plan to turn ten one-lane bridges into two lanes.

It was unable to provide strong evidence for the decision, while many in Northland simply want the roads improved, including sealing unsealed roads.

In a further sign of panic National's Whangarei MP Shane Reti rang a group lobbying for sealed roads in the electorate, telling them to shut up until after the by-election.

It all added to the sense of confusion and disorganisation in National's ranks.

It seems remarkable that barely six months after National's comprehensive victory at the last election, in MMP terms at least, the Government is struggling.

The Prime Minister and his senior ministers appear unusually sensitive and brittle. A loss in Northland would be a blow to National, but it would not be terminal.

It would still govern with the same sorts of numbers it had between 2008 and 2014.

Yet already National seems to have hit third term blues, despite remaining hugely popular in nationwide polls.

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