Vote rests on vision and identity
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.
Jacinda Ardern and volunteers reinstating a damaged National Party hoarding last week.