Reports have been circulating in Wellington of sampling by pollsters which show support for Labour climbing into the 49-51% range and for National slumping to the low 30’s.
To those enraptured by the “kindness” of the Prime Minister and impressed by the government’s performance during the Covid-19 pandemic, a result like that would be no surprise. Many New Zealanders rejoice in the plaudits which overseas media heap on Jacinda Ardern as a “world leader” who is outperforming her peers in other countries.
An influential American magazine, The Atlantic, described Ardern as maybe the most effective leader on the planet.
In contrast, there is consistent criticism of Opposition Leader Simon Bridges from some media figures. Left-wing blogs come alive with speculation of a coup any day within the National caucus.
So is the forthcoming election one that an Opposition party might want to lose?
If a global slump lies ahead and proves to be worse than the Great Depression nearly a century ago, NZ as a trading nation will be hit hard. The queues already visible outside charity foodbanks will stretch for kilometres.
Whether the halo effect cultivated around Labour’s leader can be sustained through to the election will be a test for those who have promoted it..
Should the effect persist, the impact might be more severe on NZ First and the Green Party than on National.
If the majority of New Zealanders agree the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has been so outstanding that Ardern and her henchman, Grant Robertson, deserve another term, their numbers would include many who previously voted for NZ First or the Greens. Both those minor parties have been virtually invisible during the Covid-19 crisis.
The Ardern lustre has left them very much in the shade and it may be difficult for them to get back into the political spotlight. They can hardly compete with Labour in the field of helicopter money. And who, apart from the most dedicated climate change warrior, will listen to the Greens proposing more ambitious emission targets when many New Zealanders are lining up for food parcels, or seeking a supplementary benefit to tide the family over to the arrival of the next payment?
It seems both NZ First and the Greens will be unable to out-shout Labour if and when NZ succeeds in moving back from the Covid-19 crisis to return to what most voters see as normality.
NZ First may well seek to re-ignite provincial enthusiasm for pet projects like shifting the port of Auckland to Northland, and the Greens to put new life into KiwiRail, but these may no longer excite their onetime supporters.
As the NZ Initiative’s Dr Oliver Hartwich told the Epidemic Response Committee this week, the formula being touted – requiring central banks to create unimaginable sums of money – can easily deliver the opposite of monetary stability.
“Especially in a crisis, the public must know it can trust the independence of the Reserve Bank and its commitment to long-term price stability. New Zealanders must be able to trust in the steadiness of economic policy…
“The last things we need are policy uncertainty, political surprises and monetary experiments.What we do need is a recovery based on sound economic principles”.
Assuming NZ can do what no other country has done in eliminating Covid-19, Labour strategists will pursue the presentation of Jacinda Ardern as a global leader who can articulate an economic programme and deliver on it.
Delivery? That may well trigger memories of 2019 and what Ardern said would be a “year of delivery” on issues like homelessness and child poverty.
There could be high risk in reminding voters of the KiwiBuild joke and the litany of other policies that went belly-up. And will David Clark still be there as living testament of an astute performer in the health portfolio?
More fundamentally, is it a winning narrative first to exaggerate the catastrophic number of deaths likely from the coronvirus, striking panic into the population, and then to claim “We saved you”?
That narrative will not resonate with small business owners whose dreams have been shattered by the way the government has operated in the Covid-19 lockdown. Already many are convinced the government’s lockdown rules have been far too stringent, an over-reaction to academic modelling that was wildly inaccurate.
They are asking why NZ didn’t follow Australia’s example in allowing small and medium businesses to continue operating .
Then there is the problem with the word “kindness”. It worked very well for the Prime Minister as she steered the country through the threatened crisis. But how will that go if unemployment reaches 10% or more of the workforce?
The danger for the PM and her ministers is that hundreds of thousands of voters may come to believe they were hoodwinked into being confined in their cells for the duration.
That belief, if mixed with socialist policy solutions for the blitz on the economy subsequent to the pandemic, could prove a fatal political cocktail. The record shows the Ardern coalition carries too much deadweight in Cabinet when it comes to framing and implementing policy.
Peter Dunne summed it up neatly:
“Critical to this whole process of crisis management is there being an actual crisis to manage. That has been clearly the case in places like the US, Britain, Italy and Spain, for example, as the numbers of cases and deaths have been spiralling out of control and the public reaction has been one of desperate panic.
“While the potential impact for NZ was just as serious, the perverse consequence of acting early to avert the extent of the crisis has been that the extremes seen overseas have been averted. But an inevitable consequence is that some now question whether there was ever a crisis here in the first place”
What won’t escape voters is that the billions of dollars being spent by the government as a result of its decision to fight the pandemic in the way it did will have to be repaid, not just by the current generation of taxpayers but by future generations — and the prosperity which New Zealanders were enjoying just a few months ago may not return any time soon.
So, as voters approach the ballot box to cast their votes, will phrases like “ Be kind” and “we are all in this together” still be ringing in their ears?