Labour’s surge makes a change of government a very serious possibility. History offers some interesting lessons, writes former National cabinet minister Wayne Mapp
Only once in the last 75 years has a government won four terms. That is the size of the hurdle facing National. It had been easy to forget that, with successive male Labour leaders driving the party’s support down into the low 20s. Even Andrew Little could see that it was not credible to form a government off the back of 23% support in the polls.
But that is no longer the case. In a rather dramatic fashion, normal political service has resumed. The Colmar Brunton poll published on Thursday made that unmistakably clear.
What has caused changes of government in the past? In 1949 the public had grown tired of Labour’s controls. They voted National to regain freedom, at least in a relative sense. Eight years later Labour scraped in with a one-seat majority. They mishandled the economy so badly they were decisively tossed out just three years later.
The electorate will punish a badly performing government no matter how recently they came to power. It had happened to Bill Rowling in 1975. Norman Kirk, still beloved by the left, had won a huge majority just three years earlier. But a global economic crisis, coupled with appalling economic mismanagement, meant the Labour government was decisively rejected by the electorate out just one term in.
The latter point about economic mismanagement matters. Almost no government in the western world coped with the global financial crisis as well as New Zealand’sJohn Key led government. Almost all did much worse. Much of the sure-footed decision making between 2008 and 2011 was driven by Bill English. To date it has been his great service to New Zealand.
Economic mismanagement also put paid to Robert Muldoon. By 1984 it was blindingly obvious that he had to go. Similarly the chaos of the Lange government between 1987 and 1990 resulted in a huge Labour defeat.
Changes of government in more recent times appear to be different.
Both the National led government of 1999 and the Labour led government of 2008 seemed to have come to the end of their natural life. While both were still economically credible, the public patience with them had worn thin. In neither case were the public looking for a revolution, but they did want change for the better. And by and large they got it. So each government got three terms, though the last one in each case looked pretty messy.
So what might be the lesson for this election? Is this 1969, when Holyoake managed to get a fourth term, or is it 1999 or 2008 when the public voted for change?
Of course nothing repeats exactly. But patterns can be discerned. Norman Kirk lost two elections before he won his historic 1972 victory. One of the reasons he lost in 1969 is that he just did not look ready. The Holyoake government also still looked like it had energy. A vigorous new finance minister, Robert Muldoon, helped that perception.
And that is perhaps the key opportunity for National. Bill English is clearly hugely competent when it comes to economics. Even his opponents concede that. The Labour/Green Budget Responsibility Rules are an implicit recognition of the basic expectations around the economy. When Jacinda Ardern ruled out income tax increases following the PREFU, this was indicated an acceptance of fundamental economic norms. In Thursday’s first leader debate, she acknowledged this explicitly. Asked whether she’d agree that New Zealand had “a pretty robust and a pretty successful economy”, she said: “Yeah, yeah, I do.” The basic economic settings of New Zealand are now accepted as the way things are done here.
Bill English’s message that it can all be put at risk, will resonate if the electorate thinks Jacinda Ardern and would-be finance minister Grant Robertson are still too inexperienced to take over the Treasury benches. The electorate may listen to the word of caution that continuing economic progress is not a given. That it does actually depend on who is in government.
On the other hand, the electorate may yet think that the economic fundamentals are locked in. Jacinda Ardern is certainly attempting to sell that impression. That you can have both. Positive change along with prudent economic management. But if Labour promises too much, that message will be lost.
Bill English and National will not be able to only rely on the past. That will not be enough. They have to show new ideas relevant to the future. Not too many so that public gets a whiff of panic, but enough to show relevance to voter needs. The recent education announcements fit into this narrative quite well.
The political equation is now reduced to these fundamentals. On the Labour side, energy and change, but with the risk of inexperience. On the National side, solid practical performance, but without the risky zest of excitement.
The next three weeks will show what the public want most.