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Analysis by Dr Bryce Edwards.

Political Roundup: National can’t be allowed to sleepwalk to victory

Political scientist, Dr Bryce Edwards.

Christopher Luxon’s National Party are the odds-on favourites to win the general election this year. They have been consistently ahead of Labour in the polls in recent months, and have a firm coalition partner in Act, which is often polling about 10 per cent.

Betting agencies can’t take bets on politics in New Zealand, but in Australia the TAB is paying $1.60 on National becoming the government after the election – implying that National has a 63 per cent probability of winning. That seems to be in line with most political commentary, which sees this election as National’s to lose.

But broadcaster Duncan Garner reminds us this week that MMP mathematics are such that even a good showing doesn’t ensure victory. So, although National is sometimes polling around 40 per cent, it’s worth remembering that when Bill English lost power in 2017, his party had won 44 per cent of the vote. And in 2023, Garner says “National could get a whopping 52 seats and Act 7 and that doesn’t govern.”

National’s policy-lite election campaign

Duncan Garner’s analysis also looked at what he considers Luxon’s big weakness – being unwilling or unable to explain what his party would do in power. He says Luxon will “need to be more decisive and be clear about what National will prioritise and get done. I detect voters are unconvinced by Luxon and may even be suspicious – I’m mainly talking about swinging voters here. And I am still confused about what National’s key policies are, what it stands for, and what it will prioritise.”

Others on the political right are also sceptical about National coming up with a convincing alternative to the current Government. For example, Ben Thomas writes this month that National “will surely have to put up some sort of agenda of change. While some of its MPs have been tweeting change is on the way, National hardly has an agenda to get voters excited. Its platform so far is largely based on scrapping initiatives Labour already has underway.”

In this sense, National has become a good Opposition – adept at criticising the Government and pointing out its shortcomings – but poor at proposing alternatives. As Labour-aligned commentator Mike Munro pointed out late last year, “National appears stuck in ‘oppose’ gear. It’s unprecedented for a major opposition party to have such miserable policy offerings one year out from an election.”

It certainly is odd to go into an election year with the frontrunner offering very little idea of what they would do after the election. We know that National would repeal and reverse a number of Labour initiatives – for example, Three Waters – but we have no idea what they would replace them with.

On the economy, we are in the dark over what their tax cut package would entail, and how they would pay for it. Likewise, their priorities for infrastructure, levels of debt, or where National would make cuts are a mystery.

National’s deliberate “small target” strategy

National’s vagueness and lack of policy is not an oversight but a deliberate strategy. The party is following the maxim that “Oppositions don’t win elections; Governments lose them” – i.e. if there is a change of government this year it’s likely to have more to do with Labour’s failings than with National’s merits. National hopes to stand back and watch Labour lose the election, and be inoffensive enough to be the recipient of voters shifting away from Labour.

This strategy is explained this week by Gordon Campbell: “Ever since Christopher Luxon became leader, National has adopted a ‘small target’ strategy. This consists of offering nothing to distract the media from its focus on the government’s shortcomings and the public’s discontent with its performance. In particular, the strategy involves releasing no policy alternatives whose own failings might then be picked apart, and become the story.”

National’s strategy is much like Wayne Brown’s successful “Fix Auckland” mayoral campaign, which actually proposed very few policies, instead focusing the public’s attention on what was “broken” and needed fixing. Brown didn’t even bother trying to be particularly likeable – instead projecting a sense of “competence” and a drive to just get things done.

Further explanation of why National might want to emulate that relatively negative and policy-light campaign comes from Matthew Hooton, who helped Brown’s campaign and now works in the Mayoral office. Hooton recently revealed that the extensive market research Brown commissioned to help formulate his campaign strategy showed that “the electorate is incredibly angry” and sick of “smug PR messaging from Wellington”. They want less spin and more delivery.

Hooton says that market research showed that the public is fed up with politicians promising big but doing very little: “First by John Key and his substanceless promise of a Brighter Future and then by Jacinda Ardern’s promise of ‘this’ there is a strong sense the whole population has been continually grinf**ked since 2008. People are sick of visions – they were there by 2020 – but, in 2022, now even of plans. They wanted action – of any type”.

National has escaped scrutiny so far

If it is unprecedented that a party of Opposition has gone into election year with so little substantial policy to its name, this is largely because the media, the public, and National’s political opponents have allowed them to get away with this. There simply hasn’t been enough pressure on Luxon and his colleagues to specify exactly why their party should be elected to office in 2023.

This needs to change over the following month, and no doubt it will. National and Luxon must be put under intense scrutiny over what they would do with their power if successful later this year.

Democracy is too important to allow political parties to win elections by default without being subject to proper evaluation and testing. National might well want to avoid releasing too much policy so that it can’t be criticised, but that is unacceptable.

The result of parties keeping their real agenda secret until after the election is to further erode the public’s trust in politics. We saw this most acutely in the 1980s when the Fourth Labour Government kept its Rogernomics plans under wraps until after election day. Likewise, in 1990, Jim Bolger’s National Government came to power on platitudes instead of clarity, engendering a sense of betrayal when they implemented policies that shocked the electorate.

Even after 2020, some parts of the public have been highly aggrieved that programmes such as the Three Waters reforms were not sufficiently signposted before voting took place. Labour sleepwalked to victory that year, with very little scrutiny of what agendas it would pursue.

If National fails to fully telegraph its intentions prior to November this year, and wins, then it is likely to implement controversial programmes without a proper mandate. Alternatively, maybe National just hasn’t worked out what it wants to achieve, and plans to set up multiple working groups to work this out once they are in office – also hardly a satisfactory trend in governance.

None of this is acceptable. The public and media need to start demanding details now or express a lack of confidence in National’s readiness to govern.

Even on National’s flagship tax cuts, the party is saying that the full details won’t be released until about a month before the election. In general, we are told that the details of everything will come later.

Duncan Garner has suggested some appropriate questions for National: “What portfolio would Luxon like, aside from PM? Does he have an interest in anything in particular, a goal, or something he would like to see done by the time he leaves office? Then, of course, what will he dump and what does he want done in the first 100 days?”

Will National step up?

It’s on the economy that Luxon and his deputy Nicola Willis are most vague. It’s not at all clear that, beyond rhetoric, National has any substantial differences with Labour on the economy. There are very few litmus test differences – those sorts of binary policy contrasts that truly differentiate. Most Labour-National economic differences are mere matters of degree – such as levels of taxation, debt, spending, etc. Possibly the only clear litmus difference is on the Fair Pay Agreements, which National outright opposes.

However, National’s vagueness on economic policy is so far serving it well electorally. A survey out last week from Curia Research showed that “45% of New Zealanders put Luxon/Willis as the most trusted economic team compared with 39% for Ardern/Robertson.”

In contrast to National’s hope to sleepwalk to victory, the Act Party has been much more dynamic, showing up National for being middle-of-the-road and complacent. As BusinessDesk’s editor Pattrick Smellie says, “Compared to Act, which squirts out pithy statements on just about every subject and has a huge policy slate, National can often appear either sluggish or bereft of new ideas, and often both.”

Take for example the number of press statements published by the various parties over the summer period so far – according to the Spinoff’s Toby Manhire, “National knocked out two (on an expensive pedestrian crossing and the CO2 shortage)” while Act, “The fastest and most prolific press-release slingers of all the parties in parliament kept it up through the summer break, sending out a staggering 27 of the things”.

Stuff political editor Luke Malpass has written this month about National’s failure to deliver policy details: “While National has delivered broad brush strokes around directions and a few smaller policies – such as boot camps for young offenders, getting tough on young beneficiaries, tax indexation – it has not yet released big ideas about what it will do to turn New Zealand into the country it thinks it should be.”

Malpass pinpoints this as the big question for National – to what extent the party will be a “change agent” or just be concerned with managing the status quo as established by Labour. He wrote last year about how some inside the National caucus are concerned about this too: “what some see as a lack of principle from Luxon – in the sense that National seems to want to be in government but doesn’t actually have an awful lot planned that is different to Labour.”

Elections are supposed to be contests of ideas, in which alternative policy agendas are offered for the public to choose between. Unfortunately, the modern trend is to deemphasise policy, and put all the emphasis on personality and more superficial elements of politics. With National taking this trend to extremes, it risks creating a new level of emptiness in this year’s campaign.

Finally, it’s worth quoting National-aligned commentator Matthew Hooton, who last year bemoaned that National under Luxon looks to be a continuation of electoral cynicism that doesn’t serve the public well: “New Zealand has been governed for a full generation by the whims of the median voter. The results are in on everything from productivity, infrastructure and climate change, to literacy and numeracy, mental health, housing, poverty, inequality, and law and order. From Helen Clark, to Key, to Ardern, each government has been less ambitious, more poll-driven, lazier and more cynical than the one before. So far, Luxon gives little reason to think he would reverse that trend.”

Other items of interest and importance today

PARLIAMENT AND GOVERNMENT
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): National raises ‘unprecedented’ $2.3m war chest from richlist donors before election year
Richard Harman (Politik): Dirty tricks in National Party candidate selection (paywalled)
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Napier hosts caucus retreats for both Labour, National as political year kicks off
Chris Trotter: Is The Prime Minister “Evil”?
Damien Venuto (Herald): Previewing the year in politics – and the election battles ahead
Toby Manhire (Spinoff): Here comes the first really big day of the political year
Aaron Hendry (Stuff): The left has to stop throwing stones at conservatives and learn to listen

ECONOMY, COST OF LIVING, BUSINESS
Rob Stock (Stuff): Some household budgets will be crushed by rising interest rates this year, Westpac says
RNZ: Households’ finances being ‘squeezed’ on several fronts – bank
Amy Williams (RNZ): Cost of living pressures dial up demand for food parcels
Hanna McCallum (Stuff): Concerns about ‘toughest year ahead’ as demand at food banks rise
Anna Sargent (RNZ): Animal shelters bulging at the seams due to cost of living
David Hargreaves (Interest): Sink or swim? How is it looking out there?
David Hargreaves (Interest): National says Govt needs to come back from holiday ‘with a real economic plan’
Felix Desmarais (1News): Business survey highlights ‘increased risk’ of recession
RNZ: Activity, profits dip as gloom continues to swirl within business sector

LOCAL GOVERNMENT
Steven Walton (Press): Councillors to debate whether to get paid for directorships or if money should go to city’s poor
Rayssa Almeida and Lucy Xia (RNZ): New Zealand’s new mayors on their first 100 days in office
Max Frethey (Local Democracy Reporting): 181-year-old Nelson street spelling mistake causing a stir
Nicholas Boyack (Stuff): Wellington continues to leak like a sieve with 2576 pipes on fix list

FREE DENTAL CARE
Josie Pagani (Today FM): Free dental care for everyone is not a pipe dream
Jo Moir (Newsroom): Free dental care a political dream and a financial nightmare
Grady Connell (Today FM): Free dental care ruled out by PM – Dental Association offers solution

HEALTH
Ian Powell and Heather Roy (Newsroom): How Te Whatu Ora can succeed: Overcome a structural weakness
RNZ: Risk of debilitating illness from long Covid could grow – epidemiologist Michael Baker
Georgina Campbell (Herald): Opinion: Hutt hospital, the earthquake risk – and three key problems (payalled)
Senior nurses appointed to Starship to address Māori health inequity

PRIMARY INDUSTRIES
RNZ: No need for inquiry into forestry practices following Cyclone Hale, minister says
RNZ: Cyclone Hale: Fund for Tairāwhiti farmers and growers announced

BUSINESS
RNZ: Insurance giant Cigna fined $3.5m over false claims to customers
RNZ: HelloFresh told to stop charging customers to return food they didn’t ask for
RNZ: ‘We’ll be completely out of beer’: Garage Project runs out of CO2 at one site
Rachel Moore (Stuff): Woman came to NZ expecting $15.50 an hour, but got $135 for a week’s work, jury hears

TRANSPORT
William Terite (Newshub): Government’s Clean Car Discount proves successful with record number of electric vehicles bought last month
Lauren Crimp (RNZ): Public transport headaches greet commuters returning to work
Anna Whyte (Stuff): Rise in thin asphalt means roads ‘aren’t built to last’ – ACT
Jonah Franke-Bowell (Stuff): ‘Another smack’ for Coromandel caused by SH25A closure leads to calls for action
RNZ: Transmission Gully: Long-term solution takes shape for cellphone black spots

ENVIRONMENT
Matthew Scott (Newsroom): Black sand highway: Sea life suffers as motorists hit the beach
Maia Ingoe (Spinoff): One million species face extinction, but saving the Māui dolphin still matters to me
Kate Green (RNZ): Kiwi scientists involved in drill to uncover secrets of Antarctica’s past

HOUSING
Dileepa Fonseka (Stuff): Waiting for the ‘golden escalator’ of ever-increasing house prices to come back
Herald Editorial: Nimbyism goes bananas as housing intensifies (paywalled)

OTHER
Oscar Francis (ODT): Kamikaze drones may soon be part of NZ’s arsenal
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): Google media deals: TVNZ joins the fold
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): Where US-China tensions may head in 2023
RNZ: No reason New Zealand can’t be part of Eurovision, EU ambassador says
Aimee Shaw (Stuff): ACT promises speeding ticket-like penalties for shoplifting

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