There are moments when our assumptions about the left/right ideological spectrum get blurred or challenged. The most outstanding of these was the Rogernomics policies of the fourth Labour government that 'outflanked National on the right'. But the Clark government made similar (if less dramatic) moves by claiming authority over terms such as 'knowledge economy'.
Another such ideological switch has occurred with National's Budget 2015. While the left have reason to criticise National's policies as watered down and insufficient efforts to address social problems, the Key government has nonetheless staked out ideological territory normally free for maneuvering by its opponents. The obvious policies that illustrate this are the new capital gains tax test, the increases in child-related entitlements and the move to leverage Crown land in order to speed up house-building in Auckland. One might add to this list the much earlier pledge by Mr Key not to raise the age of entitlement to NZ Super.
On this latter problem, Andrew Little is wondering now whether to means-test Super. This is normally an idea that emerges from the right, and shows how desperate he is getting in seeking to differentiate himself from Key.
On the other hand, it would be a mistake to see National as getting 'soft' on welfare. Their 'investment approach' (a statistically sophisticated form of targetting), the requirement that single-parent beneficiaries be available for work once their youngest turns 3 (instead of 5), and the onerous administrative requirements on beneficiaries hardly make life cushy. Getting tough on benefit eligibility, while raising the income entitlements, is putting a bob each way politically.
National's ideological ambivalence will blunt Labour's (and the Greens') policy differentiation and political attacks as we roll inexorably on to the next election. Key will always be able to say his government is addressing the opposition's concerns, and most voters won't pick over the details. Labour's new leaders have some hard thinking to do if they want to avoid seeming petty and irrelevant in their efforts to hold government to account and to present themselves as a credible alternative.