Things with Todd Muller made sense. He was cautious and bland. National would fight the election over who had the best ideas. Jacinda Ardern would avoid getting dirty and debate those ideas. Then Muller left. And a firecracker was lobbed into the campaign.
The dawn of a Judith Collins led National Party has upset election plans across the political spectrum, with Jacinda Ardern now facing a charismatic rival while smaller parties stare at possible oblivion.
Labour’s plan until the September 19 election had been to avoid a clash with National, stay above petty politics, and focus on relentless positivity. The prime minister, a gifted communicator, wanted to highlight successes in her government’s response to Covid-19 all the way to election day.
That plan met a flaw this week. That flaw is called Judith Collins’ personality. It will be hard for the prime minister to avoid it. Asked about her new challenger on Wednesday, Ardern tried to transcend the election and sidestep her rival. It didn’t work.
“I absolutely accept there is an election this year. And there is no avoiding that. But at the moment, it’s taking a bare minimum of my thinking because we’re still in a global pandemic,” the prime minister told reporters. That clip didn’t make the evening news, which focused on Collins.
A clash of styles
The election is now about two months away and Collins has promised to mount an aggressive campaign against the prime minister, promising to tackle her rival’s “nonsense” head on. Where Ardern may have avoided a direct clash of personalities on the campaign trail with former National leader Todd Muller, that no longer seems possible.
“The debates will be a lot more entertaining than they would have been with Todd Muller. He never seemed comfortable in his skin, while Judith Collins oozes confidence,” said Neale Jones, a former senior Labour adviser.
“Judith Collins will want to run a very combative campaign. She’s talked very clearly about bringing the fight and not putting up with Jacinda Ardern’s ‘nonsense’. I think Jacinda Ardern will try to avoid getting drawn into a fight,” he added. “It’s just not her style. She’s not a scrapper.”
The two women, while espousing contrasting political ideologies, will overwhelm the national electorate with one thing in common: they’re both “authentic personalities,” according to former National ministerial advisor Brigitte Morten. Neither of them will hit you with much spin, they’ll both be pretty straightforward, she said.
The rival pitches
It’s now possible to sketch out what much of the next eight weeks will look like. Beyond the policy announcements and micro-scandals, though, the underlying narrative is written in beach sand. A rogue wave of Covid-19 could always sweep it away.
Labour will appeal to the great mass of voter in the middle for more time – or as the party’s slogan puts it, “Let’s keep moving.” The underlying argument is that Ardern was thrust into top job with little experience, she’s shown great promise through tragedy and with a stronger team she’ll do well over the next three years.
The reply from National: they didn’t deliver. They didn’t build houses, they didn’t build light rail, they didn’t crush childhood poverty. Ardern might be well-meaning, but she’s got few good ministers and she’s in over her head. Throw the keys back to the people who have decades of experience in the Beehive.
“Labour will say that they need time, they deserve more. New Zealanders have that sense of fairness that she’ll do better with three more years,” said Rachel Morton, former press secretary to former, former National leader Simon Bridges. “She’s also done really well with three tragedies. She was let down by her [ministerial] team, but she’ll do better.”
Labour officials expect the polling gap between the two parties to close considerably between now and election day. Who enters the prime minister’s office after the election will depend on the smaller parties.
Smaller parties in peril
The arrival of Collins means a rethink for many of parliament’s smaller players. For New Zealand First, her arrival is “their worst nightmare,” said Brigitte Morten. “Judith appeals to the same people who are their voters. Older voters who like tougher law and order, along with a return to more traditional values, provincial values.”
Labour’s coalition partner was already in trouble before the arrival of Collins. NZ First’s immediate parliamentary future is now in doubt, resting largely on whether Shane Jones can pull off an electorate upset in the Northland electorate.
Also occupying the political right, Act had been poised for a return to parliament in force when Muller was leading National. It’s possible David Seymour could have been joined by a handful of MPs, ending his lonely stint in the house. That momentum is now flowing away, said Rachel Morton. “When National was polling really strongly earlier in this term, Act was polling at 1.5 to 2% and that’s still a very good result for Act. This will hurt them,” she said.
Spotlight on Auckland Central
The new National leader is less likely to have a major impact on the Greens. Not many of their left-leaning voters would see much appeal in Collins and her promise to tear up environmental regulations and build more highways. As long as they clear 5% in the next campaign, they’ll be in some form of alliance with Labour.
However, Collins’ ascent brought about the departure of former deputy leader Nikki Kaye.
Kaye’s loss is seen by the Greens as a possible gain. Kaye has held Auckland Central since 2008. Prior to her win, with one small interruption, the seat had been a Labour stronghold since the first world war. The Greens’ Chlöe Swarbrick has promised to mount a serious challenge to take the seat.
In 2017 the Greens were confident they could win Nelson and poured resources into the electorate. On election day Matt Lawrey more than doubled their previous candidate’s result. He still finished third. The two left-of-centre candidates won more than half the vote, but National incumbent Nick Smith carried the electorate. Smith has held Nelson for 24 years and won in 2017 with his lowest-ever showing.
As a comparison, in the 2017 election the Green candidate, Denise Roche, finished with just shy of 10% of the vote in Auckland Central. Labour’s Helen White had about 40% and Kaye won with 45%. It is quite the hill to climb for Swarbrick, and Labour’s message is that voters only risk clearing a path for the National candidate if the vote is split. Among the pressing questions for the coming days and weeks is just who National will put up as its candidate, in a seat that will be very much in the spotlight.