New Zealand’s 2020 general election, experts are telling us, will be like no other in history. And, if opinion polls are to be believed, Labour is so far ahead, its strategists only need to keep Jacinda Ardern front and centre of the campaign for the party to break out the champagne on the night of September 19.
Jack Vowles, a professor of political science at Wellington’s Victoria University, says the election comes in the wake of a remarkable government-led act of building collective solidarity that has sacrificed businesses and livelihoods in the cause of protecting those who would have been most vulnerable to Covid-19.
“By a combination of luck and good crisis management, the elimination policy has worked. NZ is among the first Covid-hit countries to return to near normality.In the process, the popularity of Jacinda Ardern and her government has soared. The initial response to a crisis of this magnitude tends to raise support for governments.
“But in NZ the increase has been stratospheric, raising Labour’s support to levels as high, if not higher, than for any party since the advent of the Mixed Member Proportional electoral system”.
Claire Trevett in the NZ Herald, declares the Jacinda Ardern v Todd Muller contest a mismatch:
“ … in terms of current profile it is akin to Phar Lap taking on the stable donkey”.
Professor Vowles argues the extraordinary events of the past few months have set the scene for another potential reward for exemplary leadership – an outcome deeply feared by Labour’s opponents.
“Potentially, it could lead to another long period of Labour-led governments and the crowning of Jacinda Ardern as one of NZ’s greatest prime ministers.
“Or not. If a week is a long time in politics, 100 days is an eternity”.
As Point of Order sees it, Ardern’s popularity could overwhelm not just National but NZ First as well—and possibly even the Greens.
NZ First leader Winston Peters has sensed an avalanche may be coming. But when he sought in recent days to carve out his own shield against it, by demanding an immediate move to level one and for trans-Tasman travel to begin, all he got was a cool stare from Ardern.
Even when NZ First kicks up really rough, as it is doing over one of Labour’s pet projects — Auckland light rail — it may not get much attention from voters.,
NZ , of course, now faces another challenge, as deep if not deeper than the pandemic which – in being successfully vanquished – has drawn global admiration.
The government believes it already has the answers to the economic fallout from the measures it had to take to protect the nation’s vulnerable. It will drive home the $50bn spending plans to try to stimulate the economy and shore up jobs and businesses.
It is using a familiar rubric, “Unite for Recovery” , with the kind of catchy lines that worked so well during the Covid-19 crisis. How long will phrases like “be agile“, “new normal“, “innovate”, “pivot”, “shovel ready”, “unprecedented” resonate?.
Whether those who lose their jobs and have nothing better to do than sit in front of the screen day after day will find any comfort from this podium language is less certain.
Where Ardern can again win adulation with her “captain’s calls” in the next phase hinges on just how competent her ministers prove to be when put to the test.
It’s a chance for those like Phil Twyford, Kelvin Davis, Iain Lees-Galloway, and David Clark , who have not exactly covered themselves in glory, to redeem themselves. But does anyone expect Twyford can do any better as Minister of Economic Development than he did with KiwiBuild or the Auckland light rail project?
So far there has been little evidence of Cabinet working as a team to formulate a coherent plan.
The OECD estimates that NZ’s GDP will fall by 8.9% this year, worse than the OECD average of 7.5%. It predicts the unemployment rate will rise by 3.8% compared with 2.2% in Australia.
National’s Paul Goldsmith says the OECD’s figures show NZ is likely to experience a bigger economic shock from Covid-19 than Australia and other OECD countries despite being in a better position than most to manage the crisis.
“NZ had huge advantages in terms of isolation, distance and small population, yet our extremely heavy lockdown has resulted in a worse economic outcome than most”.
Will this message resonate during the campaign? Ardern’s luck may hold and NZ will again out-shine others.
But doling out funds to keep the Waitomo Caves open or Whale Watch in Kaikoura operating won’t cut it.
The primary sector on whose exports the country is now even more heavily dependent is seeing its profit margins squeezed by a rising dollar. Where monetary policy should be deployed to drive it down from the 65USc level to – let’s say – 55USc, both the Reserve Bank and the Finance Minister Grant Robertson are sitting on their hands.
Perhaps Robertson has a mental block after chanting for the last 18 months that NZ’s economy is outperforming most OECD countries.
As an export-led economy the government is now telling its own people at every turn they should “Buy NZ Made”. Every advertisement seems to emphasis “buying local”, “team of 5 million”, “we can get through this together”.
David Parker’s trade recovery plan produced only hollow laughter from the country’s cowsheds.
The government even appears reluctant to take advantage of the country’s top-level health status and extract financial gains for the economy. Surely administrative controls are now strong enough for the borders to be opened, at least to countries where the pandemic is no longer a threat.
Those with business interests should be welcomed back to NZ with strict self-funded obligations – international students, America’s Cup sailors, specialist employees. Given a choice of studying at an American university or one in the UK at present, many international students might see NZ as a better option.
Debt management poses another problem for the government. The NZ Herald, in an editorial headed “Markets give ammo for higher taxes” , contends the obvious solutions of higher taxes on wealth, capital gains and even redistribution run counter to what economies need right now.
Unless the government can frame a comprehensive economic plan, which puts NZ back on the road to growth and prosperity, and offers hope to those who have lost their jobs, it may find the popularity it won in vanquishing Covid-19 evaporating as fast as it arrived.