Bill English and National kick off their fourth term election campaigning

Updated

National is pitching for an unprecedented fourth term in Government the MMP era. Newsroom's Co-Editor Tim Murphy reports from National's northern convention in Auckland on how Bill English, Steven Joyce and Paula Bennett are preparing their election pitches with 19 weeks to go.

"Let's go and talk them into it."

That was the final line in Prime Minister Bill English's keynote talk to his National Party northern convention on Sunday.

The 'them' was the public and the 'it' was giving National a historic fourth consecutive term to "continue government that is consistent, outward looking and seeking out a place in the world with pride".

While it was no Ted Talks oratorical flourish, it was Bill Talks practical.

A little bit unconvincing in that the public still needs to be 'talked into" something nine years on. And it did raise images of bossy people in National blue rosettes telling us all what is good for us. But perhaps that's every election campaign.

There are 19 weeks until the general election and this was the party's final regional gathering. English's speech was perhaps the first campaign event - there were blue and white balloons and each seat in the Waipuna Lodge conference theatre had a blue cardboard 'National' sign which delegates held aloft, gingerly, with all the enthusiasm of Blues supporters at Eden Park.

His ending might have been a bit prosaic, the speech a bit low-key, but he's been doing these conventions for 30 years so knows what the volunteer corps of National need to hear. They stood in ovation at the end, as expected.

It was a convention, and a speech, to offer reassurance the government has something left in the tank.

National wheeled out young ministers, including the pair English called the 'third formers' Mark Mitchell and Alfred Ngaro, one of whom did well, and one who mis-spoke to the point of having to apologise to his boss. See more in Newsroom's piece from Sunday.

Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett was prominent, the star of an Australian current affairs video on National's social investment approach shown at the opening of the convention. She was the ranking member of the government present throughout most proceedings, playing up the Westie schtick.

She gave English a florid introduction: "He knows who he is, what he stands for and what he believes in and alongside it is this big brain. He is just so well-read, he's got this depth to him. I obviously admire him, It's a privilege to work with him, I respect him, I like him, he's my Prime Minister and yours, he's a great man who is taking this country to great places, the Right Honourable Bill English. Woohoo."

English responded: "You are pretty good." He then praised her relentless energy, world-leading welfare reforms and her campaigning experience.

Finance minister Steven Joyce got some of the love too. "He's doing a much better job than I did. I know from the officials who now have to get up early, stay up late to answer all the questions."

The message from English was that National in government had taken on big, complex problems which when it came to office had seemed intractable.

On infrastructure "it is now conceivable that you will have four lanes from Whangarei to Matamata. For a growing economy we are going to need it".

On education, it had 'increased NCEA level 2' rates. "All of the kids we used to think can't do it are now doing it."

In health, "we used to think Maori kids could not be immunised at anywhere near the rate of Pakeha kids, now they get immunised at exactly the same rate."

The social investment approach

English had heard when arriving at the conference from one delegate that on his prized social investment policy "your ministers sound like they believe it."

"Yes, they believe it, " he beamed. "The purpose is to improve lives and they think we have the practical tools to achieve that."

It was vital to know what benefit would come from any extra spending. "We have found in trying to solve some of these issues that money sometimes gets in the way; what matters is finding some person who can change things in a home or a community."

He said on the big social policy: "In an area where we are not regarded as strong we have a determination to achieve things that just a few years ago we thought were not possible."

Earlier, delegates had heard of polling showing which parties voters thought of on a range of subjects: environment was the Greens, immigration was NZ First, 'caring' was Labour and the economy was National.

Several speakers over the day and a half blanched at National being seen as not caring. English said the changes the government had made in social policies, delivered by a growing economy, had meant 40,000 fewer children were in benefit housing than when it took over.

'Signs of success'

National had overseen growth in employment of 10,000 extra jobs a month for the past 18 months.

It had created an economy attracting Kiwis home. In 2008 National ran an ad with John Key in an empty Cake Tin stadium in Wellington to show the number of New Zealanders who were abandoning New Zealand each year.

He said the government had achieved now what it had hoped for back then. "Kiwis are staying home. If they had all left, yes you would have a few more empty houses, there would be a few less cars on the road, there would be a few less kids showing up unexpected at schools.

"But why is Kiwis staying at home a bad thing. It is a success."

Declaring his government open to trade, investment, people, opportunity and growth, he said the country had to be open to the challenges that came with being an open, stronger economy.

"The Opposition have a different view. They think that success is all a bit too hard."

Acknowledging the "Message Master" Steven Joyce, English promised to "keep a relentless focus on the things that matter."

Joyce's speech also emphasised the success of New Zealand's economy and employment statistics relative to Australia. "We have the highest rate of employment in the adult population ever - 67.1 percent of everyone aged 15 to 115 is now employed, compared to Australia where that is now 61 percent.

"If you look at fulltime employment - here 78.9 percent of people in work are in full-time jobs compared to 68.3 percent in Australia.

"The statistics do tell a story of why we have got more people wanting to come from Australia to live here."