Vote rests on vi­sion and iden­tity

Herald on Sunday - - BUSINESS - Liam Dann Her­ald busi­ness edi­tor-at-large

This elec­tion now looks like be­ing a close run thing. Even a week ago I’d have put the odds firmly with Na­tional, al­beit re­ly­ing on a deal with NZ First.

Now I think it’s too close to call. Clearly Jacinda Ardern’s charisma has been the cat­a­lyst for the change in Labour’s for­tunes. We all knew she was nice, but in a short space of time she has also man­aged to stamp strength and author­ity on Labour’s cam­paign in a way that has re­as­sured about her lead­er­ship.

Be­cause her es­tab­lished im­age leans to the softer, more per­son­able side of pol­i­tics, she is able to make tough, po­ten­tially un­pop­u­lar de­ci­sions (she calls them cap­tain’s calls) — trust­ing her gut in­stincts.

Look how quickly she killed tax hikes for the high­est earn­ers, leav­ing no time for the party’s hard Left to join the dis­cus­sion. It gives Labour a re­ac­tion speed that it has been lack­ing for years.

Bill English, mean­while, is hav­ing to work over­time to present his more per­son­able side. It doesn’t come nat­u­rally — but is, to be fair, al­ways lurk­ing be­low the sur­face. Face to face, English is a like­able guy with a sharp sense of hu­mour.

De­spite the fo­cus on num­bers af­ter the Trea­sury re­leased up­dated Crown ac­counts this week, I don’t think the econ­omy will de­cide it.

It seems ev­i­dent now the elec­torate’s tra­di­tional three-term ap­petite for change was there all along, swamped be­neath a view Andrew Lit­tle’s Labour couldn’t win.

But with the econ­omy per­form­ing well and so­cial pol­icy plans afoot, Na­tional sup­port­ers feel like they have a just cause for a rare fourth term.

Their nar­ra­tive is sim­ple: we did the hard yards through the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis, Christchurch quakes and a com­mod­ity slump of his­toric pro­por­tions.

All three could have thrown New Zealand into re­ces­sion, but didn’t.

Sound eco­nomic man­age­ment has got us to a point where ev­ery party is talk­ing about so­cial in­vest­ment and in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment.

But English risks hav­ing left his spendup too late. It would be galling for him to see the op­po­si­tion spend his hard-won sur­pluses. Yet his tim­ing puts Na­tional and Labour on a level play­ing field of un­re­alised prom­ises.

English may end up a vic­tim of his suc­cess. He has delivered the kind of eco­nomic se­cu­rity that makes cen­trist vot­ers — and busi­ness lead­ers — think we can af­ford a Labour Gov­ern­ment.

Labour’s fi­nance spokesman, Grant Robert­son, hates that logic. He be­lieves it’s based on un­fair stereo­types about Labour’s track record on eco­nomic man­age­ment. He might be right. Michael Cullen was a savvy fi­nance min­is­ter.

Nev­er­the­less, it is when Labour re­as­sures cen­trist vot­ers it won’t wreck the econ­omy the path to power opens.

De­spite the grim pic­ture painted by NZ First and the harder Left, life for most New Zealan­ders is too good for rev­o­lu­tions.

It looks like is­sues of so­cial vi­sion and na­tional iden­tity will de­cide this elec­tion.

We all knew Jacinda was nice, but she has also man­aged to stamp strength and author­ity on Labour’s cam­paign.

Ki­wis don’t want to see the past 30 years of so­cial and eco­nomic change up­ended. They want peo­ple off the streets, kids in warm, safe homes and a sense of fair­ness re­turned to a sys­tem that has un­doubt­edly favoured as­set price growth over wage growth since the GFC.

Robert­son is a smart eco­nomic ob­server. He has cor­rectly iden­ti­fied low pro­duc­tiv­ity growth and lack of wage in­fla­tion as key tar­gets for his eco­nomic cam­paign. He’s also an evo­lu­tion, not rev­o­lu­tion, kind of re­former.

He will give Re­serve Bank and Trea­sury of­fi­cials a fair hear­ing.

His ac­cu­sa­tions that the econ­omy is tread­ing wa­ter un­der Na­tional are backed by many economists and mar­ket com­men­ta­tors. But they de­lib­er­ately miss the point that, as the rest of the world has been sink­ing in debt, zero in­ter­est rates and low growth, English has bought time for clear think­ing about the way for­ward.

We can be the first coun­try off the start­ing line in the next eco­nomic cy­cle. So who best to wear the black sin­glet? No eco­nomic poli­cies at this elec­tion rep­re­sent a eu­reka mo­ment for the world’s struc­tural eco­nomic prob­lems.

Both ma­jor par­ties have con­ceded we need to sub­sidise the wages of the work­ing poor.

Both par­ties want a fo­cus on ter­tiary skills to equip young New Zealan­ders for a fast chang­ing, tech­no­log­i­cally driven world.

Both ar­gue we need free trade and ac­cess to new mar­kets (de­spite Ardern cling­ing to a pop­ulist anti-TPP stance).

Both par­ties plan to build houses (Who can re­mem­ber the num­bers? It’s heaps ver­sus heaps and heaps — so many it is doubt­ful we’ll have the con­struc­tion ca­pac­ity for ei­ther to party to hit tar­gets). Where does that leave us? Per­haps it leaves us with an elec­tion that will be fought on style rather than sub­stance.

I don’t mean that in the shal­low, frivolous sense.

But the num­bers in the Trea­sury books point to a straight shoot­ing match on the econ­omy.

This elec­tion looks like it will be de­cided on is­sues of so­cial vi­sion and na­tional iden­tity. And it could go ei­ther way.

I’m okay with that.

Ja­son Ox­en­ham

Jacinda Ardern and vol­un­teers re­in­stat­ing a dam­aged Na­tional Party hoard­ing last week.

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