Comment: Tucking himself into bed on Tuesday night, Bill English would have been looking forward to discussing a topic dear to his heart — numbers, in all their manifest glory.
English’s State of the Nation speech was a chance for the National leader to outline the strong economy he believes the Labour-led coalition has inherited, touting rises in average wages and job growth numbers while expressing the fear it could all be put at risk.
Yet instead of debating the Government’s decision to scrap Better Public Services targets, most people were focused on a BPS measure of a different kind — Bill’s Political Survival.
That was thanks to what can only have been a deliberately-timed leak to media hours before his speech, suggesting English’s potential successors were beginning to do the numbers ahead of a caucus retreat in Tauranga.
While there was no suggestion of an imminent threat to his leadership, the rumours were nonetheless destabilising, as was a claim that his deputy Paula Bennett was in the firing line after an uninspiring campaign performance.
Yet English did his best to appear unaffected, dismissing the talk as “a bit of gossip” and saying he was in the black where it mattered.
"In the end it’s about numbers and we’ve got some pretty good numbers — 44 percent of the public voted for us in the election, we’ve got 56 seats in the Parliament, we remain larger than Labour and New Zealand First put together and we have every intention of maintaining those numbers."
Those numbers make a compelling case, and explain why the talk of a spill was holding no water with many senior National MPs.
Poll provides stability
Newshub’s latest poll has provided some ballast, with National holding steady at 44.5 percent and a majority of Kiwis approving of English’s performance as opposition leader.
It’s not clear whether any of the party’s current crop would actually outperform English as leader, and there is still a great deal of respect within the caucus for his years of service as Finance Minister and Prime Minister.
The speculation about Bennett’s position is more plausible, after a shaky 12 months as a minister and on the campaign trail.
Yet with English standing firmly behind his deputy, it may make more sense to wait for a full refresh if and when Jacinda Ardern’s honeymoon period wears off.
The task of trying to contend with that post-election glow around the Prime Minister was evident in English’s speech, which balanced attacks on the Government with attempts to radiate positivity.
The intentions of Ardern and her team were both admirable and agreeable, he said — the real problem was that “New Zealand’s future isn’t written in good intentions”.
It was a less patronising re-run of his dismissal of Ardern’s “stardust”, saying hope and change without substance could not match the cold hard figures from National’s time in charge.
Focusing on the economy, a strength of English’s, is a logical approach and has been a strategic target for National when facing many iterations of Labour.
Yet it is predicated on an assumption that a drop in business confidence will be followed by a drop in economic performance — something that is no given, as Stuff’s Hamish Rutherford has noted.
English’s speech concluded with an exhortation for businesses to “get your voices heard”. He could be forgiven for wanting to silence the voices within his caucus first.
The speech contained two concrete commitments: a pledge to collect official data to measure the Government’s performance against the scrapped BPS targets, and the launch of a Protect New Zealand Jobs campaign to protest proposed industrial relations changes.
The former is unsurprising, given English’s staunch advocacy for the targets. Yet it seems to ignore the fact that any government should be entitled to set its own targets, and be held to account against them rather than its predecessor’s.
The push on industrial relations is unsurprising, given it is an area where National believes it can put the heat on the Government.
The last Labour government faced a “winter of discontent” from employers afraid of dramatic changes to employment law (which in the end did not occur).
English clearly hopes to cultivate a similar mood from businesses, warning the Government’s Fair Pay Agreements and other changes will slow economic growth and cost jobs.
Yet a number of those from the business community appear cautiously optimistic, or at least willing to hear the Government out and see what it produces.
English’s speech concluded with an exhortation for businesses to “get your voices heard”.
He could be forgiven for wanting to silence the voices within his caucus first.