Government insiders say that this year’s Budget is critical to National’s chances of doing well at the election.
By “doing well” they mean getting sufficient seats to be able to govern with their exisiting coalition partners thus leaving NZ First out in the cold.
Before the leadership spill last December some Ministers and certainly quite a few backbenchers were arguing that the Government needed a “big idea” to energise the electorate this election.
That was part of the call for “renewal” within the party which was promoted by the so-called “Four Amigos”.
Prime Minister Bill English is not quite so certain.
“I’d say it’s less about big ideas and more about a long-term view,” he told POLITIK
“We’ve signed up to some reasonably challenging stuff; the fresh water standards, predator-free New Zealand, social investment.
“That’s all about long term.
“I suppose that’s a big part of our pitch that we don’t believe that there are too many sugar shocks but if you support the growth in the economy, invest to make sure it can keep going, particularly around infrastructure and work on everyone sharing the benefits of it then we can make a lot of ground because we have all these positive choices out there.”
Sharing the benefits points straight at the Budget and what are now almost certainly going to be tax cuts.
For some time the Beehive has been careful to suggest that any cuts would tend to favour those at the bottom of the scale and might well be delivered through changes to Working for Families and the Accommodation Supplement.
But on Friday English seemed to suggest that there may also be more conventional cuts or changes in thresholds aimed at middle-income earners.
“We can pick and chose a bit because we have got the Government books in surplus to work out which incomes need to be lifted where and what’s the best way of doing it.”
So where will the focus in the Budget be?
“Across the range.
“It’s pretty important that your middle-income groups that are off the end of the targeted regimes and moving towards higher tax brackets that they can see some benefits; the same as it is for a household that’s on a lower income with the higher housing costs.”
This move back to cuts for middle-income earners may also reflect a worry within National that with the departure of Key, some of its middle-income support is at risk of going soft.
But Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett, is predictably somewhat more upbeat.
She has been assigned a special role by English to work with the backbenchers in Caucus on the development of policy for the election campaign.
“I’ve been changing the way we work with them.
“Most of it is about our policies, what we want to take to the election
“We never sit there and think, oh good; we’ve done this job.
“You will see a continuation of new policies coming out, but no-one believes that there is one big thing that is going to change everything.”
Bennett herself will have a new challenge this election being up against Jacinda Ardern, Labour’s new deputy leader, who she memorably advised to “zip it sweetie” in the House in 2012 during Question Time.
“She’ll find it really different.
“I found the deputy leadership role to be really different.
“A bit like her I wasn’t prepared for it; I didn’t know it was coming along that week, but you do have to be far more considered, you have to be far more strategic about what you are doing and the time that you are taking.
“You have to think a lot longer term; you have to get the best out of all of the people within your caucus and harnessing that and having a degree of respect that you can do it.
“I perhaps don’t get into the detail of it all but do the cross-agency stuff, and she will find it quite challenging to step into that without the level of credibility that Annette King did have.
“Your caucus really needs it and your party needs it.
“It’s a big hole for her to fill.”
Though managing National’s internal politics is clearly a much bigger job than it may appear, managing the externals is going to be an even bigger challenge, particularly in the period immediately after the election.
It is becoming clear that National is placing huge stock on the Maori Party’s electoral agreement with Hone Harawira and what it believes might be another two or even three seats for the Maori Party which might — National hopes — be enough to allow the formation of a Government without Winston Peters.
But English has previously warned that the Maori Party’s conditions for the formation of such a Government might be extremely ambitious.
At the heart of those ambitions will be a firm demand by the party for the Government to put the concept of “partnership” into practice across wide areas of both central and local Government.
English says it is a relationship of respect, not agreement.
“What we have found is that whatever has been achieved they are always reaching for the next set of issues.
“You can’t get complacent about it.”
English’s critics within the Caucus, possibly even within the Cabinet, might worry that what he said in this interview was the words of the cautious policy wonk of old. He is certainly not John Key with a quick phrase or a sudden idea designed to make a tabloid headline.
But maybe in an era made uncertain by the instability of the United States President and other external forces, a man of substance, might appeal to an electorate seeking security. That’s what English is gambling on.