Politics

Now what? 10 more things that could change this election campaign

What will National do if the wheels start to come off its campaign? How will Jacindamania cope with Labour policies that are not progressive? And what about those head-to-head leader debates? Simon Wilson looks at potential turmoil to come.

1. Jacinda Ardern will have to explain Labour’s immigration policy

Did everyone forget Labour’s record on immigration? What will happen to Jacindamania when she moves on from announcing Labour’s genuinely progressive policies, like transport and water pricing, and we get back to Chinese-sounding names? Labour’s immigration policy is designed to appeal to NZ First voters and National voters worried about the pace of change and looking for someone to blame. There are certainly votes in it. But it enrages the left, and will do so again, because you can be very certain Winston Peters will make sure immigration returns as a hot campaign issue.

Jacindamania is largely an expression of liberal voters consolidating behind Ardern. But to win the election Labour has to take votes off National. While some of those will be disgruntled urbanites who view National as tired and stuck, many are provincial voters who don’t care much about the concerns of urban liberals. The trick for Ardern is to keep the Jacindamania progressive momentum going while building her appeal to others who don’t care so much about those concerns. As Labour knows full well, it’s not easy.

Todd Barclay with the Prime Minister, in happier times.

2. Winston Peters will release the content of Bill English’s texts to Glenys Dickson

Glenys Dickson is the former staffer in National’s Clutha-Southland electorate office who was close to former local MP Bill English but apparently in a feud with his replacement, Todd Barclay. Peters has revealed in parliament that she received hundreds of texts from English, at a time when he said publicly he had not had much contact with any of the people involved in the Barclay scandal. What’s he hiding?

Dickson has been seen at NZ First meetings and it’s extremely likely Peters knows what’s in those texts. Why hasn’t he released them already? English says the texts have been deleted, but that’s only at his end. Are they so embarrassing to English and/or Dickson that Peters doesn’t know how to release them? Or has he merely been waiting for Jacindamania and Greendemonium to die down a bit?

Those texts were expected to provide the big political scandal this week – that was until Green Party MPs started throwing Molotov cocktails at each other. Their time will come.

3. Jacinda Ardern will hurt Bill English on TV

No, not literally. She’s not a violent person, that we’re aware of. But remember what happened in the leaders’ debates in 2005? Don Brash did poorly against Helen Clark because, he said, he was a chivalrous soul who didn’t know how to criticise a woman. He got laughed at for that. [This item has been corrected.]

It’s going to be ten times worse for Bill English, faced with the relentlessly upbeat and televisually brilliant Jacinda Ardern. If he attacks her he will almost certainly look patronising and oafish; if he doesn’t attack her he may simply seem irrelevant. And if he tries to turn the spaghetti-pizza personality into something more engagingly entertaining? Let’s not go there.

As for Ardern, whether or not you like her style and/or her substance, she is not liable to stuffing up. She’ll stand there explaining policy, which she’s always been good at, and her glow of positivity will be so bright it will seem like they’ve turned off the lights on English’s side.

The debates will get big audiences, too, because of the interest Ardern brings to the campaign. It’s not a question of whether she will win those debates, but simply of how badly she will wound him.

As RNZ produce Tim Watkin has said, this has happened before in the history of television politics: in America in 1960, when John F Kennedy destroyed Richard Nixon.

Newshub / Reid Research Poll, 9 August 2017

4. National will start to fall in the polls

The incumbent party almost always slides during an election campaign, especially after three terms. National is in the mid-40s now: how far will it drop and what will it do to fight back?

Stand by for a monster bribe.

5. Jacinda Ardern will have to explain her party’s approach to TPP

See 1 above. Labour is not a reliable partner in the long campaign against the TPP or other manifestations of free trade. Ardern will have to find a way to explain her party’s commitment to an open economy that does not enrage the left. As with immigration, it will not be easy.

6. Winston Peters will go all Donald Trump

Peters will probably be happy to patronise Ardern, believing the resulting liberal outrage against him will translate into further support for him in the provinces. But he might be wrong about that: Ardern herself has strong provincial credentials and many of Peters’ own supporters won’t like him belittling her. But he’ll try it anyway.

In the bigger picture, he’ll double down on his attacks on immigrants and his promises of economic salvation in the provinces. The former will be done with dog-whistling and tone, the latter with bold headline policies. A whole new industry for Northland?

The current state of the polls gives Peters the balance of power and real leverage, because both National and Labour now look like credible contenders to form a government with his help. He really can play them off against each other. But he won’t want Labour taking voters off National without grabbing some for himself.

Donald Trump won in the US because, in the end, he took the Rust Belt swing states the Democrats did not realise were vulnerable. In our own election we talk a lot about the importance of Auckland, but the key may still be the provinces – especially the provincial cities, where both NZ First and Labour will need to pick up a lot of votes.

7. The Māori Party will realise the tide is out

The Māori Party wants to remain in government, whoever forms the government. But Labour has Kelvin Davis as deputy now, along with Willie Jackson as a highly engaged organiser. It’s on track to keep its six Māori electorate seats and could pick up the seventh. What will the Māori Party do? Abandon National? Go feral in its attacks on Labour?

It’s hard to see it winning much from any such strategy, but there could be collateral damage. Somebody’s reputation, somehow, is going to get ruined.

8. Willie Jackson will insist charter schools are here to stay

Labour has an absurd policy on charter schools: it’s going to abolish them but allow some “special character” schools to remain. That’s just semantics. Worse, Labour’s policy is the result of a dated approach to education in general: it struggles to accept there might be creative, effective solutions to a raft of issues outside the mainstream.

Sooner or later, Jackson is going to be goaded into saying as much, and that will provide the Jacindamania fans with another problem.

Newshub / Reid Research poll, 9 August 2017

9. Labour will surge past National in the polls

Still, either despite or because of rows about immigration, free trade, charter schools and the like, Labour now has a real chance of overtaking National in the polls. What will happen if we get to the last 10 days of the campaign and Labour is polling in the low 40s and National the high 30s? Suddenly the talk will be: could Labour win so many votes it will be able to govern on its own?

The stakes this election are incredibly high for all the parties and especially their leaders. For Bill English it will be profoundly humiliating to lose – again. Labour MPs hate, just hate, being in opposition – but if they can’t turn Jacindamania into victory, when will they ever win? For Winston Peters it’s the last great roll of the dice.

For the Greens, their survival depends on it – they’re desperate not just to stay above the 5% threshold, but to get enough votes to bring in those new younger MPs and renew their caucus. The Māori Party faces oblivion and so does Peter Dunne. David Seymour will probably win Epsom again but that’s likely to be all Act wins, which will surely spell the end of his party (with Seymour joining National).

Expect desperate measures.

10. There will be a new dirty politics scandal

Cameron Slater will not be happy to watch a Labour government elected, and nor will any of the other “politics is a filthy business” people named in Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics. So what are they doing about it? Sitting this one out? Just doesn’t seem likely, does it?


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