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National out of policy vacuum (finally!)

As the election draws nearer, National—as it promised—has begun to release policies.  It must be concerning, then, that National’s poll ratings have dropped again, just as sceptics are forced to reconsider their impressions of a no-policy party.

This isn’t the first time National’s policy announcements have preceded poll stumbles.  When, in September last year, National announced its policy of removing caps on GP fees, and of partial (not full) sale of state-owned assets, they suffered a similar poll backlash.  One wonders if it might be that National’s real policies are unpopular policies.

National seemed to have learnt that, though of course they knew they couldn’t survive on nothing, and released the odd “we agree with Labour” and, to their credit, an ambitious broadband policy.  John Key’s conference speech last month might not have been brimming with policy, but it must have ended the vacuum.  Labour seems to have noticed—their attacks on National have been refocused on how silly (and contradictory) they see National’s policies to be.

The election billboards so far appeal to real issues New Zealanders can feel, and will give the impression of a party in touch with its electorate.  As we have seen, though, the devil is in the detail.  Getting tough on crime is all very well, but a $50 levy to compensate victims was hardly moving.  Recognising student debt was great, but a $500 bonus to voluntary repayments was of little real value.  Their promise to reform the Resource Management Act would have intrigued many, but until they explain exactly what problems they want to solve, it can be of little impact.  Spending $1.5 billion on broadband is great, but so are the risks, and they need to explain how it won’t revert the market to a monopoly.

National has set up its image, and successfully: no ideological shift, just a pragmatic centre-right approach by pinpointing key barriers to quality of life and economic growth and rectifying them.  As the real election campaign begins, they will need to show us that their policies are credible and thoughtful enough to actually work, and that they’re not just tinkering around the edges of the status quo.

And they will need to do that without suffering poll slips like they have every other time.  Otherwise, if they announce enough policies, they might just do enough to allow Labour to take the lead.

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