By Peter Dunne*
We are only a few days into the election campaign second time around, but already some things have become clear about the campaigns likely to be waged by the various parties.
For Labour, the plan is straightforward and basic. As the lead party of the incumbent government, its campaign is based very much around business as usual and making sure nothing goes wrong over the next five weeks until election day. Covid-19 will continue to be an influence, both in terms of the government’s day to day management of the lingering and recurring outbreaks, and also the reminder of how well things went during the full-scale lockdowns a little earlier in the year. Not unreasonably, Labour will seek to bask in the reflected glory of that and the Prime Minister’s popularity for as long as possible.
That will be a gentle and soft image, almost impossible for the National Party to try to campaign against without looking snarly or churlish. Such policy announcements as Labour makes between now and the election will attempt to replicate that wholesome flavour. So, this week we have seen a promise to extend loans to small businesses affected by Covid-19 for a further three years (two of which will be interest-free); a new public holiday to mark Matariki, and an increase in the top tax rate for those earning over $180,000.
Indeed, the tax rate increase underpins Labour’s determination to appear as nice and innocuous as possible. Why else announce a tax policy which in their own words will not affect 98% of taxpayers, and will raise only $550 million a year when the estimated cost of the Covid-19-induced recession is likely to be in the range of $140 billion over coming decades? The tax hike will hardly have any impact on Covid-19 recession recovery. Instead, it is but the merest of drops in the tax bucket more designed to virtue signal Labour’s concern about the gap between the rich and the poor, without otherwise upsetting the apple cart too much.
And that looks being Labour’s policy pattern for the rest of the campaign. At a time when people are still scared about Covid-19 and are seeking comfort and reassurance, such a softly-softly approach may well be all it will take to secure Labour the outright majority no party has achieved since the advent of MMP.
National, on the other hand, seems to have opted for a more policy-based campaign. Where they see Labour as deliberately fluffy and vague, National sees itself providing the contrast by promoting real policies to solve real problems. To that end, there have been big policy announcements this week about a renewed methamphetamine treatment and rehabilitation strategy; a major roading reconstruction programme and the upgrading of Hawkes Bay Hospital. All are substantial, but each has the air about it of being the type of announcement a government already in office might make, rather than a party seeking to win office.
In contrast to Labour, National is clearly aiming to present itself as the party that understands the process of government, and how to meet critical needs. Hence its emphasis so far on solid, achievable projects and programmes over what it characterises as Labour’s more superficial approach. However, it has all the early signs of simply being the wrong campaign for the country’s current situation. While the needs National is identifying are undoubtedly important and deserving of attention, they miss the boat in terms of where the public is right now. With people still seeming frightened by the Covid-19 experience, Labour’s metaphorical offer of a warm cuddle and some soothing words looks more appealing and credible, given the Prime Minister’s approach, than National’s more business-like, no-nonsense back-to-normal approach.
The Greens’ campaign has been seriously derailed by the Taranaki Green School funding row. Just like 2017 when revelations about then co-leader Metiria Turei’s less than fulsome benefit declarations very nearly tipped the party out of Parliament altogether, the Greens have again been left reeling, this time as a consequence of current co-leader James Shaw’s decision to fund a private Green School in Taranaki to the tune of $11 million, contrary to both the party’s and it now the appears the government’s policies on support for private schools.
Not only do the Greens now look once again to be struggling to keep their heads above water, they have been left completely on their own by their major partner in government. Aside from one or two perfunctory niceties uttered by the Prime Minister, Labour has offered little support for the beleaguered Greens as Labour clearly realises the prospect of its being able to govern on its own, without the need for the Greens is growing ever stronger. As in 2017, this campaign for the Greens has now become one of just survival, rather than an occasion to try to increase their Parliamentary strength.
Meanwhile, New Zealand First’s early 1980s style provincial road trip continues. Whistle stop visits and specific local promises designed to address local concerns seem the order of the day, but the overall appearance is that everyone from the politicians, to the accompanying media and the small groups turning out to meet the visitors as they rush through is just going through the motions. There seems none of the enthusiasm and energy that has characterised previous New Zealand First campaigns. Rather, there looks to be a pervasive sense of grim foreboding and pulling up the drawbridges as Winston Peters’ train-wreck interview with Q&A’s Jack Tame so amply demonstrated.
That leaves ACT, which at this stage looks like being the only small party assured of a return to Parliament. While ACT’s resurgence is a justified tribute to the determination and performance of David Seymour, the question remains to what end. With National unlikely to get the numbers this time to form a government, ACT will be a small Opposition group, with many of its likely half dozen or so new MPs ever mindful that they are only there because of the temporarily-parked votes of currently disgruntled and disillusioned National voters, likely to return home once National gets its act together again.
Overall, at this early stage, the Prime Minister and ACT’s David Seymour have been the leading performers. Whereas the Prime Minister has succeeded to date by cleverly staying largely above the fray, while sounding unfailingly positive, leaving all the tough questions to her Ministers to answer, Seymour, not Judith Collins, has emerged as her likely foil, far more willing to take her on directly on matters of policy she might otherwise prefer to avoid.
That having been said, there are just on five weeks of campaigning to go. While some things will not change, with the die looking already solidly cast, there remains the capacity for the coming television debates to throw up surprises, or Covid-19 to do more of its dirty work, or other surprises, all of which could influence the final result. So, what has been a pretty boring and pedestrian campaign to date could yet show some life. However, it would not be wise to count on that.
*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.