Already it is shaping as the most challenging year for National since it lost the Treasury benches in 2017. For Simon Bridges, it’s make-or-break for his leadership.
Going head-to-head with the Jacinda phenomenon, he has little chance of monstering her in television broadcasts, and even if he did it could backfire on National.
Bridges’ task is more complex. He has to prove himself as the Prime Minister-in-waiting, clearly the underdog in a contest where he cannot be seen to be shouting down his opponent.
Yet he must win enough support to overwhelm Labour and its coalition allies combined – a feat which far more popular National leaders (John Key or Bill English) could not achieve.
He will need more than a cunning plan, or the social media wizardry of the Topham Guerin team (who were credited with a key role first in Scott Morrison’s surprise election success and then with Boris Johnson’s triumph in the UK.
So how could National frame an election-winning strategy?
Labour has given it stacks of ammunition with its failure to deliver what it promised in 2017 – the KiwiBuild debacle, for starters, where instead of creating affordable homes Labour’s action has led to absurd rents and mounting homelessness.
Then there is the increasing congestion on the roads, and the absence of a solution, as Labour proposed, through light rail.
And don’t forget child poverty.
As for the well-being budget, how much of the new money in the health sector got to the patients?
So the straightforward strategy for National might be to beat the drum on core National values in company with a catchy slogan or two (“ Let’s get NZ moving again”) .
It could selectively target specific segments in the voting population like those who feel shut out of the housing market, or those who believe Labour, by imposing new regulations on landlords, have forced up rents to unacceptable levels. .
Another easily absorbed strategy is to target one-time Labour strongholds where Labour’s “splash the cash” policies, in failing to achieve any visible social improvement, has created disillusion.
Many hard-working citizens who pay their taxes are angered by the perception of waste in the public sector and of politicians seeking to buy votes through the so-called provincial growth fund.
Labour pledged “transformative change”. Yet, as Professor Jonathan Boston wrote last month, the problems afflicting the welfare state are manifold:
“There are significant rates of material hardship and financial stress. Many children go to school hungry. There is an acute housing crisis, especially in Auckland, with unprecedented levels of homelessness.
“Begging is commonplace. Ethnic disparities and gender inequalities continue to run deep. Rates of mental ill-health and substance abuse have escalated. And both income and wealth inequality remain pronounced.
“For the most vulnerable the welfare state is not delivering an adequate income, accessible public services or even a place to sleep”.
Such an indictment from a left-leaning academic must leave voters puzzled why Labour ministers have danced around the problems, delivering so little of the transformation they pledged.
But it won’t do much to pave the way for a National victory if Bridges does no more than try to drive home to voters why so many Labour ministers turned out to be political blowhards in implementing the party’s election promises.
The challenge for National is to frame realistic policies which can tackle the problems Labour which failed to solve.
It won’t be easy to present, in terms the average voter can assimilate, a policy platform coherent, sensible and achievable.
But why should health services in Southland be so inferior to those in Wellington?
Surely, NZ is rich enough to rely more heavily on universally funded programmes in family assistance, childcare, and primary healthcare?
Boston points to the contributory principle (currently applied only to accident compensation) being extended to other forms of assistance , such as the funding of sickness and unemployment.
Bridges needs a comprehensive, but coherent, programme. He starts with an important advantage: National has a credible reputation for managing the economy. Audiences will respond when he lists the vast sums of government money which have gone down the drain without the “transformation” promised by Labour.
But he will also have to set out how a National government can fire up the economy again at the same time as it repairs the damage done by Labour.
For that, the party will have to devise a carefully structured policy platform which voters find believable , building on National values, but with the kind of innovative ideas that take NZ into a new age of prosperity, where it harnesses the full potential of NZ’s cutting-edge agriculture and technology, modernises the country’s infrastructure, and brings the health and welfare systems back up to be among the world leaders.
The National caucus when it gathers for a two-day meeting next month should put its best brains to work to come up with fresh ideas
In the process Bridges will be showing the country he is a politician with substance rather than one who in saying “Let’s do it” was blowing in the wind.