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Three terms and a Hail Mary

COMMENT: Steven Joyce's big, premeditated exaggeration this week over Labour's future budgets is straight from the Third Term Government Playbook.

National is, and always was, fighting against the odds to return to power for a fourth term. It has only happened twice since 1946, the last time 48 years ago. In polls these past months, the combined grab bag of numbers for change have been greater than the numbers for continuation.

With Jacinda Ardern now leading a surge for Labour to near parity with National, Joyce and his team have consulted the Go Big or Go Home chapter of the Playbook and gone for tactic 4a - make a big, hairy, audacious accusation over financial incompetence and unspoken plans to tax or borrow.

On Monday, voila. Just before National leader Bill English confronted Ardern in the Newshub leaders debate, Joyce rolled out the accusation Labour had failed to account for its future spending in its fiscal policy and was $11.7 billion short over four years. To find the money that it would need for its own spending it would have to raise taxes or borrow or both.

The $11.7 billion figure was suitably large and specific to bamboozle many in a fiscal policy-averse public. The implication that Labour couldn't work out its sums and, worse, had deliberately duped the New Zealand electorate met all key playbook criteria.

As the astuter-than-he-looks Newshub political editor Patrick Gower told the AM Show yesterday, the subsequent debate about the numbers, about how many billions Labour might or might not be out, was irrelevant. Joyce knew what he was doing and it was attempting to derail a high-speed, red bullet train to government.

Economists have called Joyce out on his over-reach: there is no fiscal hole, Labour will have to reprioritise and tighten spending plans outside of health and education to keep to its Budget targets. He doesn't care, isn't resiling and will be able to go to his political grave crying "fiscal hole".

Late, unsubstantiated sensations leave doubt among voters but also breed cynicism and impatience.

There are three things to conclude from the play. First, National recognises that this is a change election. Second, it's making the public give serious thought to Labour being the party producing Budgets in 2019 and 2020. Third, it hasn't learned from its own tactics when it was going out of office in 1999 or from Labour's lamentable backfire late in the day before it expired in 2008.

The third term playbook sucks. Late, unsubstantiated sensations leave doubt among voters but also breed cynicism and impatience.

In 1999, Jenny Shipley's limping administration turned its playbook tactics on both the Green Party and then Labour. Nick Smith, yes him, went public with a link between the Greens website and another site displaying a manual promoting sabotage. The Green leader at the time, Rod Donald, wrote later in Left Turn, the NZ General Election of 1999, that the accusation completely upstaged the Greens economic policy launch but fizzled when co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons and MP Nandor Tanczos confronted Smith on the Holmes television show "and won hands down".

National went back for seconds, with a pamphlet distributed in the critical Greens Coromandel electorate worded: "The Greens: worrying facts and faces you need to know" with a cannabis leaf in the background and criticisms of Tanczos and Sue Bradford as dark forces to fear politically.

Also in 1999, National deployed late advertising to spook small businesses about Labour's workplace relations plans and its determination to renationalise accident compensation. (The industrial relations one is emerging this election, too, with English raising it in the first televised debate as a return to 1970s national awards and strikes.)

And National went on a 'tax attack' about Labour's plans to increase taxes on incomes over $60,000, comparing it to its modest tax cut plan.

Aptly, the definition for Go Big or Go Home on the Urban Dictionary has National Party advertising running alongside. Photo: Supplied

The playbook failed then, with Labour under Helen Clark assuming office with the Alliance with National recording just 30.8 percent of the vote.

Nine years on, a Labour government which knew for the best part of a year that John Key's National was ahead in public opinion and change was likely, still couldn't resist the manual.

First there was the constant attempt to paint Key as slippery and untrustworthy.

The culmination of that theme came when Labour's president Mike Williams, until then a wily winner, made a trip to Melbourne to hunt down court documents which Labour believed would show Key, as a financier in his past life, having been involved in a deal which was part of the big Elders IXL fraud in Australia. Williams and others believed this was the smoking gun which could take Key out before he reached election day.

The big play was to prove a document existed with Key's signature on it - related to the so-called H-fee - and release this sensation in the final stanza of the campaign.

Instead the New Zealand Herald beat Williams to it, reporter Eugene Bingham studied the court documents in Australia and established that the signature in question was not, and never had been, Key's.

Phut went that one. Grant Robertson, now Labour finance spokesperson but then an incoming Labour MP, wrote in Key to Victory,  the Victoria University Press record of the 2008 election edited by Stephen Levine and Nigel Roberts, that: "The H-Fee story was poorly handled and undoubtedly did us some damage in the final days of the campaign." Elsewhere in that book, the authors conclude: "Mike Williams' high profile dirt-digging trip to Melbourne backfired badly."

Labour duly exited stage left, Key formed a government and the playbook was left on the Beehive shelf until this week.

In that 2008 election review, the National chapter was written by none other than campaign chief Steven Joyce. He says: "It did help us that Labour went negative - far more negative than we had anticipated.

"They were a long-term government, and if I may say, they had an almost heroic belief in how bad National was and how the public could not possibly consider a change.

"And that became more shrill as the campaign went on."

Nine years on, shrill is as shrill does.

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