After three terms and minus the charisma of its previous leader, the National Party looks increasingly weighed down by jadedness wrought by the burden of incumbency as campaign ’17 approaches crescendo.
There is nothing new and novel in National’s bag of tricks. Whatever is being presented as new seems an afterthought – a bunch of hurriedly cobbled initiatives that are more reactive than proactive with a strong whiff of expedience, eyes firmly on the elections. Bill English’s surprise billion dollar child poverty announcement at the second televised leaders’ debate is a case in point.
Labour has exploited this to the hilt. In that debate on TV3, Jacinda Ardern repeatedly asked Bill English, “But why has it taken nine years?” and “Thank you. We have been pushing for this for nine years,” to peals of applause from the studio audience.
Clearly, National’s policy makers, like everyone else on the political firmament, have been caught unawares by the Jacinda juggernaut. And that has sent them scurrying back to the drawing board and to more rounds of number crunching, mostly in response to Labour’s policy pronouncements than coming up with something original.
Unfortunately for National, that number crunching has been flawed. Hurried, sloppy work has landed Steven Joyce in a spot of embarrassment having picked a non-existent $11 billion hole in Labour’s budgeting. None of the nation’s leading economists have been successful in finding that hole – on the contrary, many have actually lauded Labour for the transparency it has shown in its budget. Mr Joyce finds himself in splendid isolation, with a nary a voice of support even from his own party.
MsArdern and her finance spokesman Grant Robertson have asked Mr Joyce and National to apologise to Kiwis for what they see as an attempt to mislead them. National’s trepidation at Labour’s phoenix-like rise has seen Mr Joyce’s communications team go for the jugular on Labour’s policies. Almost every media release coming from his office has critiqued Labour’s policies rather than selling National’s own. While critiquing the opposition is a time-tested campaign strategy, solely concentrating on it is clearly a sign of nervousness.
Adding to National’s staid, unexciting policy making and lacklustre campaigning are the same old faces that seem unable to see the straws in the wind. National still seems reluctant to acknowledge the immensity and severity of the housing problem and Auckland region’s public transport issues.
In an age where voters around the world are rooting for leaders who take firm stands and not politically correct wishy-washy non-stances, National’s leadership seems content with doing exactly that. In the debates, it has shown ambivalence on a number of issues in contrast to Labour’s readiness to take a stand. Ms Ardern’s hardline retaliatory stand on Australia’s treatment of Kiwi students is a case in point. So are the ones on cannabis and abortion.
While National seems to have run out of ideas to renew itself, the Jacinda effect has hit the reset button for Labour. National is burdened by the weight of having to defend its rule of nine years and the growing perception that it could have done much more for the country.
Labour is selling the dream of the future – only a dream at this stage, nonetheless. Labour has a fresh, new, young face, just as in Canada, France and Ireland where voters have put their weight behind younger leaders.It is symptomatic of a voter tired of the status quo and more than willing to risk backing untested, inexperienced young leaders.
But can Labour continue its juggernaut into the Beehive merely on the basis of vision? It’s new leader is inexperienced, never having held a ministerial role or even being part of government. Youth is on her side. Something that will appeal to younger voters who increasingly find it difficult to relate to the old guard of the baby boomer era and therefore have tended to exclude themselves from the electoral process.
Labour’s promises on tertiary education and housing will also find favour with the young. And for the Doubting Thomas not easily swayed by campaign spin, the big tick that their budgeting has received from leading economists, especially in response to National’s criticism – now all but debunked as flawed if not mischievous – gives those promises much-needed credibility.
What this new young leadership does not have though is the heft of experience of National’s old guard and Mr English’s redoubtable reputation for navigating New Zealand through the doldrums of the global financial crisis. He is proven as a superb Man Friday. But his record as the leader has been less than flattering, having led National to its worst ever defeat in 2002.
That is the cross that Mr English and National will find increasingly heavy to bear as what more and more looks like a two-horse race reaches the finish line on September 23.