National leader Christopher Luxon (Image: Tina Tiller)
National leader Christopher Luxon (Image: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsMarch 11, 2022

What went right for National

National leader Christopher Luxon (Image: Tina Tiller)
National leader Christopher Luxon (Image: Tina Tiller)

Amid a major Covid outbreak and a skyrocketing cost of living, it’s hardly surprising to see Labour’s fortunes dip in the latest TV poll. But National has done more than simply ride the tidal wave ashore, writes Ben Thomas.

Last night’s TVNZ/Kantar poll has been described as “seismic”. But earthquakes strike suddenly. The reversal of fortunes that saw the opposition National Party overtake the Labour government, at 39 and 37% support respectively, was more akin to a tsunami: the crashing reverberation of an earthquake we already knew about finally arriving.

In this case, there are two earlier fault lines: the pandemic and the rising cost of living.

Labour’s commanding position in polls, and its record MMP election result in 2020, were built on beating Covid and a surprisingly strong economy. It’s hardly a surprise to see those same fortunes dip with over 20,000 new cases of the virus in the community each day, and a skyrocketing cost of living.

It’s no coincidence, then, that this is the first time National has edged ahead of Labour in the TVNZ poll since February 2020. But what of the performance of National itself? Has it simply ridden the tidal wave ashore?

In part. Under the three-month-old leadership of Chris Luxon, the party has followed a similar path to Labour under its then new leader Jacinda Ardern in 2017: first, bringing back voters from minor parties on its own side of the political spectrum (Act has declined in each of this year’s TVNZ polls), and then moving towards the political centre.

Luxon’s state-of-the-nation-style speech on Sunday, which boosted his profile in three of the four Kantar polling days (March 5-8), was panned by some as predictable National, talking about hard work, tax cuts and welfare dependency. But after the white-knuckle ride of the Collins leadership, a boring, predictable National Party is just what many of its former voters are after.

Promises to cut new taxes were a perfunctory stake in the ground for the base, a reassurance the old National was back and focused on core business. However, the key metric for the speech’s success was how many times the words “cost of living crisis” were repeated online, in media, in socially distanced lunch rooms and – crucially – in questions to government ministers this week.

The prime minister has been flat-footed on cost of living, struggling in vain against the ineffable political truth that even if petrol prices aren’t the government’s fault, they are still the government’s problem. 

New Zealand voters have always been quick to turn to politicians to solve their problems, even before Covid rehabilitated big government worldwide. The power of the state to do good was never more on display than with the first lockdown, which gave New Zealand an almost unique pandemic breather, and the enormous transfers of cash through the wage subsidy to prop up jobs.

The flip side is that expectations of government have increased commensurately, no matter how illogically: witness calls for targeted taxpayer support for Wellington businesses affected by the squalid spectacle of the parliament lawn protest. 

The protest itself was the centrepiece of the National leader’s earlier, slightly bolder, and less successful address to the nation, in which he described a country divided by capricious Covid rules. A week before the final grotesque scenes of rioting but only a day before (unsubstantiated) allegations of poo flinging and a protester driving his car at police, Luxon fell slightly on the wrong side of benefit of the doubt for the occupiers and their ostensible anti-mandate cause. But if his claims of division were over-egged, the call for a roadmap out of Covid restrictions (including mandates) certainly had an audience. 

In the Kantar poll 43% of respondents disapproved of how the government had handled the protest. We can only guess at the split between those who thought the army should have been dispatched and those who thought ministers should have met with the mob. The poll did show, however, support for employment vaccination mandates has dropped off from 75% at the beginning of the year to 63%.

Public confusion and impatience with the pandemic response has increased. As close contact and self-isolation rules change at dizzying speed, and as the government dismantles border restrictions and MIQ, what’s been lampooned previously as National’s “stopped clock” approach to calling for relaxing restrictions is now proving right several times a day.

The prime minister won’t be calling last night’s poll a crisis. But that won’t change the nature of the challenge ahead.

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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