By Peter Dunne*
Cynical and disconcerting as his comments may appear to be, Labour and advertising guru Sir Bob Harvey is probably correct when he says that Labour does not need to campaign to win this year’s election.
By taking the position that managing the Covid-19 response is more pressing than the looming election, the Prime Minister has in reality turned the election into a referendum on the government’s handling of the pandemic, rather than a genuine contest of ideas between competing political parties. And in view of the high levels of support for that being recorded by the opinion polls that is likely to be a winning strategy.
It is often said that the power of incumbency hands a huge advantage to governing parties come election time. They are, after all, the ones in power with the resources at their disposal to make things happen, whereas the Opposition parties, no matter how well organised, presented or resourced, are just another group of politicians craving political office and making dramatic promises accordingly.
An incumbent, presenting a “business as usual” approach, always looks in control and on top of things, and therefore comes across as more reassuring to the public, than an ambitious, pestering Opposition, desperate for office. So, as Sir Bob observes, if a government is in that position it makes absolute sense for it to play the continuity and business as usual cards as boldly as they can.
So far all the big promises this election cycle have come from the National Party. Some of its infrastructure promises are bold and uncosted aspirations rather than likely realities at this stage. That is what could normally be expected, but in the current environment there is a risk of their looking too grandiose and dramatic, compared to the government’s so far more pared back Covid-19-centric approach. While New Zealanders should properly be concerned about what is on offer for the future of the country, it appears the country is still too seared by the Covid-19 experience of recent months to want to take big visions seriously.
This caution is reinforced by the situation in Victoria, and now statements from the Director-General of Health and the public health eminences that there will be a recurrence of community transmission in New Zealand at some stage. Once again, the cautious “better the devil you know” motto seems to be the one finding favour with the public, to the government’s advantage, but so long as nothing goes wrong.
With just over six weeks to the election, and Parliament about to be dissolved, the government’s focus, as its first priority, will be managing the situation till then. And they would be mad not to be so focussed – after all governments want to be re-elected.
The Prime Minister and her senior Ministers have developed prudent Covid-19 control personas over the last few months, leaving them looking focused and assured (and in some cases, more than a little relieved to have this as their priority ahead of things like Kiwibuild, and Auckland light rail, where their record has been much less spectacular). To paraphrase the Prime Minister’s own 2017 slogan, they know they can do this.
In the circumstances, aided and abetted by its own dramas, the National Party looks leaden and flat footed by comparison. Its policy announcements so far look contrived and a little hard to believe. It is a soul-destroying position to be in, but the Leader of the Opposition has no alternative but to soldier on and hope to build on the positive personal progress she has been making in the opinion polls.
The biggest risk to Labour’s re-coronation cruise comes not from other political parties, but from external circumstances.
Just as a virus that came from nowhere has proved to be an unexpected boon for a previously struggling Labour Party, fresh unforeseen events could yet disrupt the electoral cycle in a more unpredictable way.
The government will be keenly aware of these risks, both to the country as a whole, and its reputation in particular if anything goes awry in the next few weeks. That is why there will be no movement before the election on matters such as freeing up borders with either the Cook Islands or any other Covid-19 free Pacific state before the election. Nor will there be any movement on letting in foreign students, or any reduction in current border control and quarantine rules.
The last thing the government wants before the election is community transmission of Covid-19 occurring here, let alone any suggestions that specific government actions have been the reason for that occurring. Even worse, would be a situation requiring a return to some form of lockdown. The political consequences of such an outcome would be most uncertain, as would the far more serious consequences of Covid-19 becoming established in the community.
So, while Sir Bob’s shrewd assessment should be respected and cannot be dismissed, there are risks involved in not having some new policies to unveil at election time, especially if the Covid-19 focus somehow gets derailed. Therefore, it might just pay for Labour to have a couple of policy aces up its sleeve, nevertheless, just in case.
*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.