National leader Judith Collins does her best Jimmy Stewart-in-Vertigo impression (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images, Photo illustration: Leonie Hayden)

The ruthless electoral politics behind National’s Covid conspiracy-baiting

The public hated National’s politicisation of the coronavirus crisis the first time around. So why is the party doubling down on it now?

So far the National Party leadership team of Judith Collins and Gerry Brownlee has been a lot milder than everyone expected. Judith Collins has arched her eyebrows and reprised her ‘Crusher’ character, a kind of Thatcher/Nurse Ratched hybrid (nobody ever escaped from prison under Crusher’s regime as corrections minister, Collins declared, an announcement that was not factually true but is absolutely true to the character she plays). Collins will, she claims, defeat the coronavirus by not tolerating it, while Brownlee has simply shouted at the media a lot. Under Collins a National government will crack down on gangs and build lots of roads. I’ve found myself skimming through their press releases and wondering “Is this it?”

It was not. On Wednesday – the first day of the second coronavirus lockdown – Collins demanded a postponement of the election, raising concerns about the legitimacy of any electoral outcome using postal ballots, and she accused the government of breaching a constitutional convention to consult with her before making major decisions, a convention that does not actually exist. Brownlee suggested that there is some sort of sinister conspiracy involving the second lockdown and the government’s advocacy of wearing protective masks. What kind of conspiracy? “The media should ask their own questions,” Collins replied, grinning malevolently.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned this year it’s that the public really, really hated National’s politicisation of the coronavirus crisis. Doubling down on it now seems crazy. So what is going on here?

National deputy leader Gerry Brownlee, who is “just asking questions” about the new Covid-19 outbreak (Image: Getty Images/Tina Tiller)

One factor at work is the social media facilitated globalisation of US politics and political conspiracy theories. Countries all over the world are seeing people adopt an American framework for understanding their domestic politics. If there are protests over something in America, activists worldwide tend to faithfully recreate the exact same protests in their own countries.

The notion that wearing face masks is government oppression and postal ballots are fraudulent are popular talking points among the Trumpian right in the US, so they’ll probably resonate with some extremely online voters here. But why would a mainstream political party in New Zealand indulge in this stuff? Isn’t this just going to scare off exactly the voters National needs to win over?

It looks as if National has concluded that “centrist” voters aren’t available to them for this election. The main parties have three different segments of the electorate that they can appeal to. First there’s the base: the core constituency that probably won’t vote for anyone else. You still have to throw them some policy to keep them happy (roads, tough on gangs) but they’re basically in the bank.

Then there are radical voters. This is the small, rather weird subsection of the population that is highly engaged with politics but not invested in any one party. They’re likely to identify as right-wing or left-wing or socialist or conservative or with some other ideology or individual issue. They can be persuaded to vote for the large mainstream parties but they’re also attracted to the smaller parties (Act, the Greens, NZ First), who can focus on the stuff they’re interested in. Somewhere between 10-20% of the electorate falls into this category, but only a subset of that is available to each of the main parties. Very few Act voters will consider voting Labour, ditto for Green voters and National.

Lastly there are the swing voters. These are the mostly middle-aged, mostly middle class, approximately one-third of the electorate who usually vote for either one of the two main parties, and decide elections when they switch between them en masse. You can’t win an election without a decent chunk of them and, based on current polling, Jacinda has almost all of them.

But one thing the public polls don’t show is how strongly a voter commits to a party. The internal polls that the parties conduct usually have that kind of granular detail. You might ask a voter who they plan to vote for and then ask them to rate the different parties on a scale of one to ten. If someone says they’re going to vote Labour, and rate Labour 9/10 but National 8/10, then that person might be available to National, and the party can then group similar voters together and target their messaging towards persuading members of that demographic to switch their support.

Given the year they’ve had, I doubt many swing voters are rating the National Party 8/10. But on recent polling, as many as 100,000 people have switched their vote to the Act Party. Almost 190,000 people voted for NZ First in 2017. National can’t win the election but they can stop their vote from collapsing and keep a lot of their up-and-coming MPs in Parliament while preventing NZ First from going over the 5% threshold if they can capture enough votes back from the radical right.

To most people the implication that director general of health Ashley Bloomfield is an actor in a deep state conspiracy probably sounds insane. But what matters to National is what their most available voters think: if you thought Winston and Shane would keep ‘em honest, or believe that ACT’s plan to dismantle the state is the best response to our current crisis, the notion that Bloomfield is hiding something and is up to something probably sounds very plausible.

We might actually see a postponement of the election date, something you’d think would play to National’s advantage. Conventional wisdom tells us that the worse the economy gets, the more support will flow through to the opposition, and that things will get pretty bad when the wage subsidy ends.

These are unconventional times though, and Collins and Brownlee are starting to look like a very unconventional leadership team. Voters can see what’s happened to the US and Brazil, two nations with conspiracy prone leaders and terrible uncontrolled pandemics. If reasonable people are afraid to vote National because it might get them killed, it won’t matter when the election is held.




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