Max Johns - Door-to-door salesman, Dunedin

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Stuck in the middle with you

So National are suddenly back. One speech suggesting that perhaps giving to the needy is a good idea and they've regained the centre. And this isn't some Tana Umaga reference that only you don't understand.

Firstly, The Centre is not real. It's even less real than The Left or The Right. Secondly, The Centre is political Nirvana. In The Centre, everyone agrees with you. In The Centre, everyone else is extremist. They're probably amoral as well. You can tell, because they're not in The Centre. Thirdly, The Centre contains the majority of voters. Or, at least, the largest bunch of people in favour of a single party. [We are majority-fearing people. In 2002 a majority threatened to simplify our Parliament by all voting Labour. When they found out each other's plans a sizeable number bailed out in such a hurry they accidentally granted eight seats to United Future. Even Peter Dunne had to check that his list went down that far. UF appealed greatly to its electors through its newly attractive quality of not being Labour. "Tactical voting" satisfied our majority-fear. "Tactical voting", incidentally, is another name for "doing that counter-intuitive thing that your overly serious, politically-minded friend tried to explain over dinner, because he made it sound like such a good idea".]

Labour won the Centre in 1999 and 2002. The Centre didn't move towards Labour; Labour moved towards it. You voters weren't fooled by any campaigning mumbo-jumbo, you just realised that Labour has decided to think what you think, and so you voted for them. Clever Labour; clever voters. Never mind that Labour had to move uncharacteristically (except for last time it was in Government) to The Right to get there…

But in today's polls National is suddenly leading, so they have the Centre. The laws of physics don't allow two political parties to occupy the same space at the same time, so National can’t have moved to Labour's Centre. What's happened? Political commentators sharpen up Occam's razor and declare that The Centre has moved. Just like that. Out of one neighbourhood and into another, slightly to The Right of the first. This time there was no clever Labour, just a lucky National. Very lucky, in fact: The Centre had apparently relocated to Orewa. National just hung around and waited, through a storm of mixed metaphors, for the mountain to come to Mohammed.

One party seeks The Centre and sits there for five years. Suddenly the other trips over it and can't get up to let it move again. How did Labour let this happen? Complacency set in, as it might after five years of getting your own way. Labour forgot that The Centre actually consists of people who, occasionally, think for themselves. Labour has paid the price for pushing things too far. An MP sitting illegally was dealt with through a bit of retrospective law-making. The foreshore and seabed debacle, which would in all likelihood have all gone away quietly if the original Marlborough case was simply left to run its course through the Maori Land Court (hindered by the High Court's prediction of failure), saw the Government jump in and stop the courts from doing their job in the unmolested way that they should. And it didn't even have a solution ready, just the half-baked concept of "public domain", dithering over various forms of title and other ad hoc musings seemingly designed to frustrate. Meanwhile, the Privy Council was being quietly abandoned and replaced with the Supreme Court. Just a small tweak of the already fragile constitution - nothing an over-confident Government can't get away with. And just in case that didn't affect the common garden New Zealander enough, let's tell them not to smoke in the pub and make them microchip their dogs. The Centre, which in 1999 found itself accommodating a Government too thankful to be there to try anything stupid, was in 2004 suddenly home to an unwelcome guest acting like she owned the place. No wonder it buggered off.

But where to go? In the middle of all the upheaval of Labour v5.2 was a quiet, satisfyingly unobtrusive man saying something quite simple and appealing. To do that in comparison to Labour was no real problem, but until Orewa the trouble had been making people listen. In fact, it was a message that the last National leader had also tried to put across to the public, but had failed to succeed with. Bill English suffered from terrible political timing. His leadership of National coincided with Labour and The Centre's cosiest coexistence. He was thus an outsider, and struggled to be listened to. But now that The Centre is shopping around for something new, Brash has gotten lucky once because his party isn't Labour and once because he's not Bill English. That's two more strokes of fortune than his predecessor. The challenge for him now is to keep that luck long enough for it to look natural to The Centre.