Sunday, September 24, 2017

History is on Labour's side in this election

(First published in The Dominion Post, September 22.)

Phew, what an election campaign. Voters’ heads must be spinning from the daily blizzard of policy announcements and extravagant promises, most of which involve spending large sums of our own money. Only the most nerdish political obsessives will have kept track of them all.

Another reason to be grateful when the campaign is over is that we’ll be spared those cringe-inducing nightly news reports in which the party leaders appear on camera flanked by the local candidates – or in Bill English’s case, cabinet ministers – slavishly nodding in agreement with whatever the boss says.

Presumably it doesn’t occur to them that they look mindlessly servile. This is one campaign ritual that the party image minders would be well advised to ditch.

The campaign has been intense, the more so because of the topsy-turvy polls, but it has remained generally good-natured. Jacinda Ardern’s relentlessly sunny disposition was put to the test as journalists started asking hard questions about Labour policies that hadn’t been satisfactorily explained, but we didn’t see her crack. It was an impressive feat of self-control for a leader who hasn’t previously experienced the white heat of the campaign trail.

Overall, she’s had a good campaign. But so has English, who has looked more relaxed than we’ve seen him before. Both leaders give the impression of having genuinely enjoyed themselves.

Taking his wife along wouldn’t have harmed English’s prospects. Mary English is personable, mixes easily, and being part-Samoan she’s an effective counter to the perception that National is the party of old, white New Zealand.

For her part, Ardern seems to have been accompanied everywhere on the campaign trail by Annette King – an unusual strategy, given that King’s stepping down, but a shrewd one. Of all Labour’s old hands, King is arguably the most universally liked and non-threatening. Her presence will have been reassuring to voters worried about the influence of radical ideologues in Labour’s ranks.

So, which way will the voters go?

History is on Labour’s side. Only one National government has won a fourth term – the one led by Keith Holyoake in 1969, which squeaked back into power by a very narrow majority. Labour leader Norman Kirk blamed his party’s defeat on the prolonged Wainui shipping dispute, which stoked public concerns about militant unionism and inevitably reflected unfavourably on Labour.

There are no such factors to help National this time. The party does, however, go into the election with a record of sound economic management. Few, if any, Western economies came through the global financial crisis in better shape.

Will that be enough to save National? It’s hard for a three-term government to look fresh and visionary, the more so when voters have seen the same ministerial faces defending the same policies for nine years. And it’s much tougher for a government to defend its record than it is for opposition parties to attack it.

As former National deputy leader Wyatt Creech has pointed out, when a party has been in power for nine years, niggles and annoyances build up. He calls it the death of a thousand cuts.

John Key no doubt saw this coming and with the same instinct and sense of timing that made him a masterful foreign exchange trader, got out while he was ahead.

The historical pattern is for National governments to serve three terms, gradually running out of puff as they go. The voters, observing the growing fatigue and complacency, then elect a Labour government fizzing with energy and reformist zeal.

Sometimes Labour crashes and burns, as in 1975 and 1990, but in the meantime the country’s political settings have undergone an irreversible reboot. Despite Wednesday night’s poll result, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this may be about to happen again.

English may come to regret not having been more adventurous in bringing new talent forward at the expense of his friends. His mate Nick Smith, for example, long ago ceased to sound convincing as Environment Minister and should have been dropped. Jonathan Coleman is similarly unpersuasive defending National’s health record. These are areas where National is vulnerable.

But all this may ultimately be neither here nor there. The election result may ultimately come down to something as basic and irrational as the natural human desire to try something new – and Ardern, with her relative youth and appealing personality, appears to be the right person to harness that mood.

Former National prime minister Jim Bolger pointed out this week that personality doesn’t pay the bills, or words to that effect. But Bolger, as a shrewd judge of politics, knows that personality can sway election results. We saw that with Key.

Bolger also stressed the importance of experience in government. Ardern has none – but neither did David Lange, and that didn’t stop the electorate from seeing him as a desirable alternative to Robert Muldoon.

Will the election come down to essentially a two-horse race, as English suggested this week? The polls certainly present a confusing picture on the state of the minor parties.

It’s possible that both New Zealand First and the Greens have duffed their chances. Winston Peters took a big punt with his refusal to take part in a TV debate with the other minor parties, and I hope it backfires. It was an act of supreme arrogance which suggested Peters thinks he’s above the drudgery of having to explain or defend his party’s policies.

For their part, the Greens don’t just have to recover from the Metiria Turei fiasco. Their core message of environmental health is one that resonates with many New Zealanders, even conservatives, but the Greens have muddied their brand by pushing “social justice” issues that are ideologically more contentious.

A final thought: if it’s a close result, as seems likely, how about a grand coalition between the two major parties?

National and Labour have at least as much in common with each other as they do with some of their idiosyncratic smaller potential coalition partners. They are both led by competent, likeable politicians who appear to respect each other.

It won’t happen of course. Old tribal enmities run too deep on both sides. But it’s a fascinating possibility to contemplate. 

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