Analysis by Dr Bryce Edwards.
Does National have any chance of winning the election in September? It’s looking very unlikely, especially after National’s change of leadership hasn’t exactly produced Mullermania in the first two weeks. Quite the opposite, in fact, as I summarised in Tuesday’s Political Roundup column: Todd Muller’s torrid start as National leader.
Even the National Party’s pollster, David Farrar, has blogged today on his Patreon page to say that, compared to Australia, Canada, US and the UK, the New Zealand Government’s re-election chances are the highest – see Which Governments are on track for re-election (paywalled).
Here’s Farrar’s main summary: “They have a huge lead in the polls and are forecast to win 59% of the seats in Parliament, despite using proportional representation. Ardern has stratospheric approval ratings and support for the country going in the right direction has never been higher in the back of the eradication of Covid-19. They are at 88% to win in the betting markets. The only indicator slightly less supportive is the unemployment rate.”
The bad reviews of Muller’s performance keep coming. Writing for the NBR, Richard Prebble says today, “I think National is heading for a catastrophic defeat” and “It is hard to imagine how Muller can recover from such a disastrous week” – see: Grasping defeat from the jaws of victory (paywalled).
Prebble’s critique of Muller’s performance covers his “audition to be PM… He blew it”, “the ridiculous ‘cash for jobs’ policy”, and allowing NZ First to be revived by uncertainly about ruling them out.
John Armstrong also wrote yesterday about how Muller had allowed trivial distractions to colour voters’ first impressions of him – especially the “Maga saga” and badly handled reshuffle, making him seem like “a fish very much out of water” – see: Todd Muller needs to learn that the impression he gives matters.
Armstrong sums up the problem: “It all also brings to mind the old, but still pertinent, adage that asks how can you expect voters to have confidence in your competence to run the country when there are questions about your competence in running your own political party. Above all, however, National simply cannot afford to fall victim to self-inflicted distractions which block and blot out the messages it is trying to convey to voters.”
Reasons for National Party optimism
Despite the flurry of bad reviews there is still some cause for optimism in the party. I wrote for the Guardian late last week that, although Muller had a torrid first week and looked uninspiring, all is not yet lost for National – see: Muller’s beige persona might not be a bad thing in the battle against Jacinda Ardern.
Even the embarrassing culture war issues such as the Maga hat and white frontbench are ultimately unlikely to be a problem for National, if Muller is able to reposition the party in the centre of the political spectrum with a credible economic programme during a major recession: “As the economic impact of Covid-19 bites hard, these early setbacks are likely to be forgotten by a public more concerned with the recession than interview techniques, frontbench personnel, and hats.”
The fact that Muller is rather dull might also not be a problem, given New Zealanders generally don’t like their leaders to be too colourful, ideological or intellectual. Neither Helen Clark, John Key, or even Ardern have been particularly exciting or bold in their political work. As conservative political commentator Liam Hehir argued last week, the success of rather bland political leaders in New Zealand “might be taken as a real indication that New Zealanders prefer reassuring and benign leaders to exciting and colourful ones.” He argues that “our preference for vagueness” is a consequence of the fact that our “political system is stable and there is a high degree of trust in it” – see: Rise of the blank slate political leader.
It’s the economy, stupid
The idea that Muller’s National Party can be written off is challenged strongly by Stuff journalist Andrea Vance, who questions whether the “Wellington commentariat” truly understand the importance of the looming economic recession in determining the way the election will play out. Vance asserts that “the subjective judgements of a handful of Beehive pundits on perceived performance flaws, are now more insignificant than ever” – see: Could middle-of-the road Muller come out a winner?
She suggests that, in the context of mass economic dislocation, the debate about hats and the frontbench identities will become less important: “An economic shock has ricocheted around the world. Voters are consumed with worry about their jobs, mortgages and how to pay their bills. In a political environment where most people would struggle to name the Cabinet, it’s hard to see people getting too exercised about the make-up of the Opposition’s front bench, or which keepsakes a leader displays on his shelf.”
Vance elaborates: “In the face of soaring unemployment and plummeting house prices, middle voters may pause for thought. People who care passionately about inequality, over-tourism and climate change in the good times, tend to be less progressive when their personal economic circumstances are shaken. If National can play on that doubt: and convince centre voters they must make a choice between which priority they value the most, then middle-of-the road Muller may just come out a winner.”
Similarly, journalist Martin van Beynen thinks that although Muller and his leadership team have made some terrible gaffes, the ill-effects for National’s popularity are being inflated by out-of-touch commentators. In fact, he says the condemnation might actually help National: “the clamour over the two issues within the echo chamber of the Wellington political scene and generously reflected by the media was distracting but not the disaster some claim. The silent majority, National’s main hunting ground, won’t see the so-called blunders in the same light as its natural foes. The controversy over the cap in Muller’s office will be seen by the silent majority as a silly media-generated fuss over nothing. They will feel Muller has been unjustly pilloried and accept his souvenir story as genuine” – see: Todd Muller’s first week not a complete disaster.
According to van Beynen, National’s current orientation and apparent gaffes are simply not the big mistakes they are assumed to be: “Muller’s front bench selection is not going to win any points among the urban liberal class but grassroots New Zealand won’t necessarily see it the same way. And that is where the votes are. Māori are firmly in Labour’s camp and urban liberals will go with Ardern as well.”
He does warn, however, that Muller could take this fledgling populist approach too far: “Muller is trying to reach the real people, not the Reserve Bank board or Treasury officials, political commentators or the readers of the lefty Spinoff website. If Muller takes his appeal to the silent majority too far, he will start to sound like the sort of populist most New Zealanders distrust. He could also commit the most heinous of political sins, a lack of empathy.”
TVNZ’s Jack Tame also believes the negative focus on the Maga hat, or Muller’s stumbling TV interviews will not ultimately matter that much: “Personally I’m much more concerned with the fact we’re staring down mass unemployment and a generation-defining economic crisis than the fact Todd Muller has a Trump hat. And honestly, I think most New Zealanders are with me” – see: Todd Muller’s MAGA hat exposes our selective outrage.
Like others, Tame believes that severe economic downturn will overshadow the last week of problems for Muller: “Todd Muller had a poor few days. I was surprised at just how disorganised he and his team appeared to be. I’m sure they learnt some valuable lessons. But in two months, will any of this matter? Will we be discussing a few difficult moments on live TV or who does and doesn’t own a MAGA hat? Just wait. If there are a few hundred thousand newly unemployed Kiwis, the issues that really matter will come sharply into focus.”
Libertarian commentator Damien Grant is no fan of the new National leader and says he’d like to be able “to write Muller off” – but he agrees that the new economic context, together with the departure of Simon Bridges, gives National a chance of winning the upcoming election: “each day that passes more bad economic news will land and the unemployment rolls will creep up. This government is far more vulnerable than its supporters suppose. Labour had two positives; the unpopularity of Bridges and the perception of a successful response to Covid-19. Neither of these will matter in September. The electorate will be looking to the opposition for evidence that they have the ability to manage what is going to be a dire economic situation” – see: Todd Muller confirms himself as a middle manager promoted several rungs above his level of competence.
Things can change quickly, Grant points out: “Muller has four months to get his act together and remember it took Don Brash a single afternoon in Orewa to turn his fortunes around and come within a percentage point of power.”
Muller’s new strategy of targeting the performance of the “17 empty seats in Cabinet” is also a powerful one, and nicely avoids a losing a battle trying to criticise Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern or even Grant Robertson.
This “17 empty seats” line is nicely explained by Fran O’Sullivan, who says the arrival of Muller “puts the September 19 election back into play” – see: Todd Muller makes it all about the teams (paywalled).
Here’s the key point about Muller’s new strategy: “his decision to make the election contest between the “National team’s” capacity to drive the economic recovery, versus, that of Ardern with her ‘two or three strong performers’… and… ’17 empty seats in Cabinet’ is the correct one. Muller’s was a cleverly constructed dog whistle — even if a tad unfair — as there are at least half a dozen obviously highly competent Labour ministers… Dig beneath Ardern’s towering persona and that of the highly competent and affable Finance Minister Grant Robertson — and others like David Parker, Andrew Little and Megan Woods — and it is obvious the talent pool starts to get shallower.”
The criticism also fits with disappointments with the Labour-led Government that was building up prior to the Coronavirus crisis: “the Muller line does underscore the genuine concerns many — not just from business — have about the Ardern administration’s capacity to execute. Not just the major policy planks from Labour’s 2017 election campaign such as the hopeless KiwiBuild initiative, light rail for Auckland and eradicating homelessness and child poverty”. Therefore, “when it comes to the Herculean task of rebuilding New Zealand’s economic recovery”, National’s criticisms might start to resonate.
Although National’s most recent polling – 29% in the 1News Colmar Brunton poll – makes the idea of the September election look like a looming disaster for the party, there is still a chance it will recover and even get into Government. After all, although Simon Bridges was too unpopular to continue as leader, and Muller might not do much better in the popularity stakes, National has shown that it can pull in the popular vote. As recently as February, the Colmar Brunton poll put its support as the highest of all parties, at 46%, and suggested it could form a government. National will be hoping that such numbers can return once Labour’s handling of the Coronavirus crisis is overshadowed by the economic crisis.
What’s more, under Muller’s leadership there are some signs of a thawing relationship with potential coalition partner New Zealand First. Antagonisms between these two had previously made a 2020 coalition government between them highly unlikely, whereas now it could be back on the cards.
Finally, for humour about National’s new leader, see my blog post, Cartoons about National Party leader Todd Muller.