By Alex Tarrant
Election 2017 is now a drag-race to the finish, Prime Minister Bill English says.
Addressing media after Peter Dunne announced he was quitting politics this election, English thanked the UnitedFuture leader for his service, but then launched into a critique of the campaign so far.
Profile-driven politics, a wayward alternative government and the risk of losing the prosperity built up under National’s nine years were all targets. English appealed to former National voters who might be leaning to New Zealand First or Labour to return home.
New Zealand First is still considered in the rag-tag bunch of opposition parties, with English saying National isn’t conceding anything to Winston Peters’ lot ahead of the election. Dunne’s decision, rather than being a roadblock for National to form the next government, was more a small blip. That mood for change Dunne was sensing? National had always been expecting this election to be tough.
On your marks…
“Looking ahead from here, it’s clearer with these developments and those that have occurred among the Opposition parties, that the election is a drag-race between those who support New Zealand going in the right direction and building on it, and the Opposition parties who represent a pretty ill-defined alternative,” English said in Parliament buildings Monday afternoon.
National would carry on trying to maximise the party vote, with the ructions of recent weeks hopefully boosting that now, he said. “There’ll now be a few more voters out there who understand that if they want to support the current direction and the success of New Zealand, then they’ll be more likely to vote for National than for the other smaller parties, if that was their intention.”
“On the Left, we’ve seen a lot of changes. Voters respond to what they think are going to maximise the chances of their party winning. And I think you’ll see the same thing here,” he said.
“People who may have been drifting off from National to New Zealand First or some of them drifting off to Labour because of the profile in the media, they’ll start thinking, ‘right, if it’s a bit harder for National to win, I want to support New Zealand going in the right direction then I better vote for them’.”
Was English worried about losing friends on the Right? “We have a lot of voters though. And that’s what makes a lot of difference. And on the Left, the parties who are meant to be partners seem to be cannibalising each other.”
What about Peters? Is it now time to concede that he isn’t just ‘one of those Opposition parties’ and might be key to English being able to form a government after 23 September? “No, we don’t concede that. We’re working hard to lift our party vote because we would want to form a strong government after September 23. And if we can successfully lift our vote then that is a real possibility.”
While Dunne may have picked up on some changing mood in Ohariu, English said National had always expected a tough fight in the party vote stakes: “We’ve always approached this election as a tough election to win. One where we have to go out there and earn the support. It’s been the case three or four weeks ago that if you added up the votes of the other parties, they could potentially change the government. So, in that sense our task hasn’t changed.”
Dunne’s decision was Dunne’s decision. National didn’t have a say in it, nor the timing. The UnitedFuture leader had rung English Monday morning to tell him the news. Would English had preferred the decision was made before he and Brett Hudson had sent out letters calling on Ohariu voters to vote for Dunne over Hudson?
“Well, you don’t get these choices, do you. But at least we don’t have to change every billboard in the country, as both the Greens and Labour have set out to do and haven’t yet managed,” he said.
“He’s decided to step down and that’s a matter for him. But look, that decision’s been made now. Our candidate will be up and running, he’ll be well organised and we welcome the campaign over the next four or five weeks in this, pretty well-defined race.
“New Zealand’s doing well, going in the right direction and people have the choice of voting to build on that, or some pretty ill-defined alternative. In that context, this is just one small change in the environment.”