If it’s true that Labour’s great run is now ending, Opposition parties should be vibrating with new-found confidence.
This may be the case with ACT, but so far there has been little sign of it in National. In fact judging by the volume of speculation about National’s leadership among the political cognoscenti in the weekend media, the inner circle of the party is stressed out over its leadership.
A party on top of its game certainly would be scoring some big hits. On the other hand it may be argued that the preoccupation with Covid has stifled interest in other political issues.
Still, as economic uncertainty deepens, and managing the Covid Delta variant exposes the government’s vulnerability, the country is looking again for something different, if only to measure accurately how the government is performing.
Beyond the leadership issue, the problem for National is that it does not speak to all elements of its base. It appears singularly out of tune with the regions and particularly with farmers, who are facing vocal lobby groups campaigning against what they call “dirty dairying”— never mind it is dairy export earnings that are sustaining the country’s balance of payments.
When John Key and Bill English led National, the party exuded a broad appeal across the country, even including segments of Maoridom. That broad appeal has somehow slipped through the cracks.
With the farming regions enjoying high prices and Labour’s Damien O’Connor winning credit for securing a free trade deal with the UK, there is nevertheless plenty of scope for politicians to exploit in rising inflation and supply chain issues.
The government has been busy spraying money all over the place. Even now it is talking up its spending programme, though it has little to show for it in terms of solving the housing shortage, or improving the position of lower income groups.
Curiously the government has encouraged the Reserve Bank governor to move away from his primary goal of keeping inflation in check with a new mandate for employment. Moreover, RBNZ governor Adrian Orr has taken it upon himself to seek a leadership role on climate change.
The cumulative effect is now so powerful it is no wonder that house prices, for example, are not only a source of wonder for owners, but of anguish for first-home buyers. But inflation, if it continues to accelerate as it is showing every sign of doing, could soon be raging out of control.
Already houses have reached levels no-one could have guessed they would reach 12 months ago.
With Labour seemingly stalled, as one critic put it, “in an end-of- year fug”, the opportunity is opening up for Opposition parties to make themselves more visible even though the mainstream media are still heavily focused on Covid. But Covid has thrown into relief the failure of the government – for example – to make any headway on key issues particularly in transport. Congestion at the port of Auckland is a key problem.
Then there has been Labour’s bumbling over its light rail commitment in Auckland, with the latest idea coming at a cost of around $14bn.
Given Transport Minister Michael Wood’s fiasco on the $780m cycle bridge over the Waitemata, who believes that light rail estimate?
In the Wellington region, the government boasts of spending $600m upgrading the rail system, but fails to mention its neglect of one of the most dangerous stretches of State Highway One which was supposed to be fixed with extension for the motorway from Otaki to Levin. The motorway plan was cancelled by the then Transport Minister, Phil Twyford, and a substitute highway has yet to be put to contract.
Defence is another sector where Opposition parties should be scoring big hits. Labour, as it customarily does, goes for cuts in Defence spending and the public gets inquiries like the one into Operation Burnham followed by headlines such as “Review takes aim at SAS leaders”. Remember that our SAS leaders are rated among the finest soldiers in the world.
The most remarkable commentary on how Defence is regarded in the term of the Labour government came in the wake of the Aukus defence arrangement, in which Australia seeks to strengthen its security against the rising military threat of China. Yet when it was suggested NZ should seek membership the Ardern government blithely waved the idea away because Australia’s aim is to arm itself with nuclear submarines.
What no-one mentioned is that NZ will miss out on the latest advances in cyber and space defence measures.
Managing Covid-19’s Delta variant has proven an almost impossible task, and just as many in the team of five million have tired of the restrictions imposed for public health reasons, so too they may be losing their enthusiasm for a government that is failing to deliver on the commitments on which it entered office.