A cud­dle-free elec­tion cam­paign

Waikato Times - - COMMENT&OPINION -

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 1700 shares and at­tracted 4700 likes.

One Na­tional politi­cian con­fessed last week he wor­ried the elec­tion was cleav­ing a line through the two New Zealands – ru­ral ver­sus ur­ban, older baby-boomers 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 till 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 so-called ‘‘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 far reach­ing 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 her fi­nance spokesman, Grant 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.


It’s all smiles in this pic­ture, but out there on the cam­paign trial things aren’t so cud­dly.

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