Nice people, so why has it all turned so nasty?
Bill English and Jacinda Ardern are probably two of the nicest people you will meet in politics. They are both super-smart, genuinely care and have empathy and emotional intelligence in spades.
Even their finance people, Labour’s Grant Robertson and National’s Steven Joyce, are pretty likeable – they’re just as smart as their leaders, and witty and driven.
Remarkably, both pairs even seem to get on.
During the leaders’ debates, Ardern and English have enjoyed the odd chat. After the Stuff finance debate, Joyce and Robertson joked they’d seen so much of each other on the campaign trail they should have each other for dinner.
So how did this campaign get so nasty?
When Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump’s supporters ‘‘deplorable’’, it gave rise to a whole line of merchandise that was popular – not with Clinton’s supporters but with Trump’s mob. The Deplorables label united them and turned them into a band of brothers.
So when Jacinda Ardern labelled National ‘‘desperate liars’’ it was never going to be long before someone in National spotted the potential for a similar meme. The one doing the rounds on Facebook asks people to share if they don’t like being called ‘‘desperate liars’’. So far it has had 1.7k shares and attracted 4.7k likes.
One National politician confessed this week he worried the election was cleaving a line through the two New Zealands – rural versus urban, older babyboomers versus younger New Zealanders.
If so, that’s nothing new. New Zealand was polarised over Don Brash’s divisive Orewa speech on race relations. The electorate was similarly polarised by the end of Labour’s three terms in government – think back to Helengrad, the nanny state, and the foreshore and seabed.
This campaign is yet to match either for the visceral and tribal nature of party politics during those times (so long as you avoid the dark and murky world of the internet troll). But there is no doubting it has turned negative.
Maybe that was inevitable with a campaign that has gone on much longer than is traditional – by the time we get to election night the campaign would be into its seventh week, compared to the usual four.
Or maybe it’s because the stakes seem so much higher because the choices are so stark. Both parties are chucking money at this election like we haven’t seen for a decade.
Labour’s pledges are about turning out the vote: three years’ free education for tertiary students; $60 a week per child for low and middle-income workers, including beneficiaries, a group that is traditionally hard to get to the ballot box.
Its Working For Families payments are also pitched at mid to lower-income workers, and green policies – like Ardern’s pledge on climate change – are about ringing the generational changes.
National’s pitch is its bread and butter – roads, law and order, a crackdown on beneficiaries – but it’s also gone for the hip pocket with a $2 billion package of family support and tax cuts, with the promise of more.
On a more subliminal level its campaign theme – ’’don’t put it all at risk’’ – is also an appeal to people’s hip pockets. The underlying plank of National’s campaign is that a Labour government is a risk to people’s financial future and wellbeing.
National’s attack ads on Labour’s tax plans feed into that theme. Baby-boomer nest eggs have helped fuel the investment property market after all. Which is why Jacinda Ardern’s ‘‘captain’s call’’ on tax backfired so badly.
Labour’s plan to kick the can down the road on a capital gains tax until after the election looked like an attempt to sneak a tax in through the back door without having to deal with the pain of explaining it to voters. It came across as cavalier and uncaring about the uncertainty it created among people whose financial future was tied up in property.
That’s why Ardern should never have opened the door to implementing such a tax without first seeking a mandate.
A capital gains tax has always been fraught electorally because of the Kiwi love affair with property. In fact, there is already a capital gains tax on investment properties sold within two years – the socalled ‘‘bright line’’ test introduced by National when property prices were looking increasingly out of control. Actually that change has not made much difference to a rampant property market so far; the Reserve Bank’s loan to value ratios have been far more effective.
Labour’s problem is that the talk about setting up a tax working group to investigate capital gains tax got conflated with a whole lot of other taxes, including income taxes – fuelled by an aggressive advertising campaign by National claiming Labour intended raising them. But Labour gave National that opening by talking about giving itself the right to make farreaching tax changes without seeking a fresh mandate.
New Zealand politicians learned the hard way in the 1980s and 1990s that voters will eventually punish any government that tries to impose too much change too fast. John Key is one of National’s most successful prime ministers because he never let ideology get too far ahead of public opinion. Ardern and Robertson forgot that golden rule.
Their belated acknowledgement of that fact may allow Labour to get its campaign on track. But having opened the door to National to go negative, it’s unlikely National will wind its attack ads back. So don’t expect things to get any friendlier out there on the campaign trail.