The National Party has been looking increasingly awkward in recent weeks while the Labour-led Government has been rolling out major policy announcements.
Its criticisms seem to oscillate between attacking the proposals themselves, but then saying that they are either really a reiteration of National policies already underway, or things it was planning to do anyway. While there is some evidence these claims are valid (which, after all, should not be surprising, given that National has just finished nine years in office) the consequence is that they leave National's current criticisms looking a little hamstrung, and the Opposition appearing somewhat kneejerk in its response. None of which inspires confidence at this early stage in National's ability to lead a government in 2020, or whenever the next election occurs.
Of, course it is not quite as simple as that and it would be foolishly premature to start making election predictions at this early stage when there are yet almost two and a half years to run before the next scheduled election. (The last election alone showed that predictions made just six weeks before election day can be blown away by changing circumstances!) Nevertheless, the suspicion is strong that Labour will not be too unhappy at National's present approach. After all, it is getting to implement its policies, and the lament "we were already doing that, or were planning to do it anyway" is neither telling nor withering. It might have more impact if it were being pointed out by the media, as would be appropriate, but, overall, most of the media is still too much in the Prime Minister's thrall for that to be happening yet.
So the challenge for National is to work out what to do. On the positive side is the polling position - still heavily in National's favour. Following the general assumption that Governments lose support from the day they take office, it is likely that Labour will never be more popular than it is today - several percentage points behind National. While a good morale booster for National, there is still the daunting reality that National lacks reliable support partners, and that New Zealand First and the Greens are keeping Labour's head just above the water at this stage, and could do so again after 2020, even if Labour falls. That probably means National's best shot at governing, in the absence of a new partner emerging, will be as a single party majority Government, something that has not happened thus far under MMP. In turn, that means ensuring that neither New Zealand First nor the Greens make it to the next Parliament, which also means alienating any potential support from those parties in the meantime.
All this is a very tall order, and will not become even a possibility, given the way National is operating presently. So, what to do?
Well, under this scenario, the flagship policies of the support partners become the real targets, and the day-to-day policies of the Labour Party less important. As befits its historic rural and provincial base, National needs to reclaim its brand as the party of the regions. That will require a full-frontal attack on New Zealand First and the Provincial Growth Fund, not so much the Fund itself, because the idea of a dedicated Provincial Growth Fund is popular in rural and provincial quarters, but more because of the cavalier, overbearing, overly partisan, pork-barrelling way it is being driven by Minister Shane Jones. There is already plenty of scope there, with Minister Jones' enormous, cocky self-belief certainly likely to add to that dramatically before the term is out!
The second area of opportunity for National is environmental policy. There is a strong blue-green element in National, predominantly urban and young, and there are many opportunities for National to appear as the responsible Greens in this regard. However, for some of its MPs, a tectonic plate like shift in attitude will be required. For example, for many urban voters, in Auckland particularly, the promise of light rail as one of our transport solutions has appeal. Dismissing it the way some National MPs seem routinely to do as just "trams" simply brands them as backward looking and ignorant. But, with the Prime Minister seemingly bent on yielding to all of the Greens' environmental wish lists, even at the expense of some of her own key policies like cutting the cost of a visit to the doctor by $10, the likelihood of the Government going too far, too fast is high, further enhancing the opportunity for a more considered blue-green approach from National.
To be successful, National needs to become a nimble and strategic Opposition, spelling out a clear alternative message to voters. Although change will not happen overnight, it will not happen at all if it lapses into Opposition for the sake of it, as looks the case at present.