(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, August 23.)
It’s hard to recall a more dramatic – you might even say enthralling – election campaign. And there’s still a month to go.
Last time around, there was the noise and smoke surrounding Kim Dotcom and Nicky Hager. But that was manufactured drama, and voters were unmoved. This election is different. The drama is real.
A former British prime minister, Harold Wilson, famously said that a week was a long time in politics. That may have been true in the 1960s, but time frames have been greatly compressed.
Media scrutiny of politics and monitoring by pollsters is now so merciless and unrelenting that the landscape can be transformed in hours.
Politicians have lost the ability to control events. Developments wash over them almost faster than they can react. Politics has turned manic.
Less than a month ago the election looked drearily predictable: a contest between two major parties led by worthy but unexciting middle-aged men.
National seemed to be cruising on auto-pilot toward a comfortable majority over Labour, so interest centred on what was happening on the political fringes.
Would Winston Peters end up in the driver’s seat again? Would the Greens finally get their feet under the Cabinet table? Would voters in Ohariu jettison the long-serving Peter Dunne? (He’s now taken that decision out of their hands.) Was the Maori Party in trouble? Would Gareth Morgan’s out-of-left-field initiative resonate with voters?
If there was going to be drama, it would come after the election when the political horse-trading started. Or so it seemed.
Then Andrew Little quit as Labour leader, his hand forced by dire opinion polls.
It was a huge risk. History suggests that changing leaders when an election is imminent is suicidal. It looks desperate.
But Jacinda Ardern’s bloodless accession to the Labour leadership had a galvanising effect that few people could have anticipated. Ardern’s relative lack of exposure to high-level politics could have been a handicap, but turned out to be an asset.
Critics could rightly point out that she didn’t have a lot to show for her years in politics and had never really been tested under pressure, but this also meant she came to the job untainted. And it seemed that the public was prepared to give her a go.
Her performance has been hard to fault. She’s relaxed and smiley, so people naturally warm to her. But she’s also composed and articulate when answering journalists’ questions, and she hits that sweet spot between confidence and arrogance.
She appeared to deal firmly with Labour MP Chris Hipkins over his ill-advised involvement in an Australian domestic political issue (is there a hint of Helen Clark steel under that sunny exterior?), and the outburst from Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who pompously said she couldn’t trust a New Zealand Labour government, will have done Ardern no harm at all.
In fact quite the contrary, since New Zealanders have had enough of Australian bullying and condescension.
Ardern’s succession also had the important effect of re-energising the Labour Party and restoring morale. But perhaps most important of all, she’s new, and there’s a sense that voters are ready for a fresh face.
In one respect, she has history on her side. If there’s a recurring pattern in New Zealand politics, it’s that National governments serve three terms before voters decide that the party is looking tired and complacent and it’s time to give someone else a shot.
It happened to the National governments of 1949-1957, 1975-1984 and 1990-1999. The exception was the Holyoake administration of the 1960s, which won four terms. Going by that precedent, National’s time is up.
Is Ardern up to the job of prime minister? We don’t know.
That’s something Labour is inviting the country to take a punt on. But given the international mood for political change, and an apparent willingness to leap into the unknown (Donald Trump, Brexit, Emmanuel Macron), voters may be willing to risk it.
The point is, National suddenly looks wobbly. Labour has come up with little that’s new in terms of policy, yet it has risen in the polls to the point where it’s looking like a serious contender, and Ardern is level-pegging with Bill English in the preferred prime minister stakes.
National has started scattering election lollies, which always looks a bit panicky, and some of its friends have turned against it. When centre-right commentator Matthew Hooton attacks National for being lazy and complacent, you know it’s in trouble.
We have a genuine election campaign on our hands. It’s striking evidence of the potential for a mere change of face to change the political dynamic.
And now Dunne, a key government support partner, has gone, which will give National even more reason to feel uneasy. You have to wonder, what next?
In the meantime, of course, there’s been even greater drama in the Greens. They have been damaged not only by Metiria Turei’s spectacular fall from grace, but also by vicious internal recriminations that revealed an ugly side of the party that the public hadn’t seen before.
I almost feel sorry for them. It’s not long since North and South magazine devoted its cover to a glossy, Vanity Fair-style photo featuring some of the party’s most attractive young candidates. It looked like a fashion shoot. No party has ever assembled a more photogenic slate.
The magazine’s website promoted the issue with the line: “The Greens as you’ve never seen them before”. With Turei’s undignified exit and the subsequent blood-letting, that line acquired a whole new meaning.