By Chris Trotter*
When the right sneered that Todd Muller’s favourite band must be “Wet Wet Wet”, I didn’t think they were serious. But, in a well-crafted, mission-defining speech to a home-town Te Puna audience on Sunday (14/6/20) Muller not only made it clear that “Wet Wet Wet” is his favourite band, but that their massive hit, “Love Is All Around” is his favourite song. Labour’s leader may be promising the electorate kindness, but only National’s is offering it unconditional Christian love.
Oh, and just the right amount of spine-chilling fear.
That the onrushing tidal waves of redundancies and lay-offs is allowed to set the scene for, but not dominate, Muller’s speech, is a measure of its quality. In a way that so many of Labour’s ministers show far too few signs of appreciating, Muller and his team “get” the gut-clenching fear and anxiety inspired by both the anticipation and experience of joblessness. As the unemployment numbers rise to levels not seen in 90 years, the voters will want to know three things: Will the Government help me? Can the Government help me? How will the Government help me?
Muller’s speech answers all three of these questions. First, by acknowledging up front that the Jacinda Ardern-led Government will certainly want to help New Zealanders. But then, this election is not going to be about a government that won’t help, it’s going to be about a government that can’t help. A government that has already demonstrated, in the most damning fashion, that it doesn’t know how to help. By contrast, the alternative government Muller is offering not only can and will help, but it also knows how to do it.
Clearly, Muller’s focus groups have made it crystal clear that Jacinda simply cannot be attacked. New Zealanders (or, at least, two-thirds of them) have lifted her up beyond the status of a mere party leader; beyond even the lustre of prime minister; to that exalted realm where “saviours of the nation” dwell. Perhaps only one person, Mickey Savage, has inhabited this blessed kingdom before her, and he, too, was a Labour leader. One does not win office by assailing saints.
Those same National Party focus-groups have, however, thrown up something equally as clear as Jacinda’s unassailable popularity: her government’s almost unbelievable incapacity to translate the Prime Minister’s promises of “kindness” and “transformation” into tangible policy achievements on the ground. This incapacity, Labour’s Achilles’ Heel, is acknowledged (often with bursts of laughter) the moment anyone pronounces the single word: “KiwiBuild”. Small wonder, then, that Muller used the word no less than nine times in his Te Puna speech.
So, the voters are far from convinced that those around Jacinda are up to the job of producing meaningful and effective deeds out of her kind words. But, to transform their doubt into support for National, Muller has to do one more thing: he has to convince them that his party is no longer the flinty-faced defender of market forces which New Zealanders have encountered during past economic crises. After all, the last time the country was beset by an unemployment rate in double-figures, National’s response was Ruth Richardson’s “Mother of All Budgets”. Labour may not be the most competent of economic managers, but at least they draw the line at socio-economic sadism!
Hence the strains of Wet Wet Wet’s “Love Is All Around” that were playing in the back of my mind as I read Muller’s speech. Hardly surprising, since Muller held nothing back in his assessment of both Labour’s and National’s policy-management during the 1980s and 90s:
“I joined the National Party, rather than the Labour Party, when I became active in politics in 1988. No one can deny that is partly because of my background. And, by then, National had come to accept the new open economy that I support. But I also chose National because I did not agree with the speed and indifference with which Labour had gone about the economic reforms.
“I was in for a bit of a shock when my own party took over in 1990 and moved even faster, allowing unemployment to reach 11% in 1992 – the worst since the Great Depression, but a record that will probably be broken over the next year. I think both Labour and National could have done those economic reforms more gently, more caringly and with a greater sense of love for our fellow Kiwis.
“If we look across the Tasman to our sibling rivals in Australia, it pains me to say that Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard managed the reform process better than David Lange, or my friend and mentor Jim Bolger. I believe the speed and sequencing of the economic reforms did terrible harm to the institutions of our communities, and to far too many of our families.”
Now it’s pretty easy to predict how National’s only coalition partner, Act, will respond to this sort of heresy. A more pertinent question, perhaps, is how Paul Goldsmith will react. Bluntly, there is very little to choose between Grant Robertson’s repudiation of the implementation of Rogernomics in his Budget Speech, and Muller’s repudiation of the implementation of Ruthanasia at Te Puna. That signal phrase, “a greater sense of love”, represents a mighty step away from the punitive rhetoric all-too-often directed at “their fellow Kiwis” by Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett.
But, if enough of the voters who migrated to Labour during the Covid-19 Lockdown are to be lured back to National, restoring its electoral competitiveness, then Muller had no choice but to distance himself from his predecessors. In the poker game that is electoral politics, Muller has just told Jacinda: “I’ll see your kindness and raise you unconditional Christian love.”
Will the “punters out in punterland” (as Don Brash liked to call the electorate) buy Muller’s bid to convince them that, all this time, National has been a sheep in wolf’s clothing? National’s strategists are betting that they will – if only because their rising fear of unemployment and financial ruin will make them desperate to accept Muller as a safer (and equally kind) pair of hands than Jacinda and her non-performing Cabinet.
There is, of course, a great deal that could go wrong with the strategy. Not the least of which is the rather strong possibility that National’s more conservative MPs and party members will draw the line at Wet Wet Wet. Can Muller persuade colleagues like Chris Penk and Michael Woodhouse to set aside the vitriol for the next 100 days and feel the love instead? Certainly, the strategy won’t work if people keep coming out with suggestions that New Zealanders have fallen victim to the “Stockholm Syndrome” – presumably by falling in love with the Prime Minister who took them hostage!
Nor Will Muller succeed if Jacinda and her colleagues actually manage to construct an economic recovery programme that looks like it just might work. All the love in the world will not be enough to save National from a sudden display of competence from the Coalition Government. Even so, it’s a tough call as to which is the more likely proposition: National as the party of unconditional Christian love? Or, Labour as the party of effective economic management?
Mind you, looking around the world, we could be facing worse choices.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. His work may be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com. He writes a fortnightly column for interest.co.nz.