It won’t quite be Luxo versus JacArd but Labor’s victory does offer some pungent tea leaves to explore.
Lightning failed to strike twice for Scott Morrison and the Coalition on Saturday night, and yesterday Anthony Albanese was sworn in as the first Labor prime minister since 2013. According to impeccable sources, New Zealand is literally another country to Australia, so let’s not overstate the lessons, but with a general election not too far away – 16 months, perhaps – it’s worth mulling what clues it might offer.
The broader political weather, after all, is the same: nations emerging from the worst of a horrible pandemic, buffeted by a surging cost of living, looking out at a fragile, sometimes bloody world. For Morrison and Albanese, the core of the campaigns were: I’m better placed to lead us through this stormy patch that than the other guy, and so it will be with Ardern and Luxon. It’s no coincidence that the budget last week was titled “A Secure Future”.
This is off-topic, but briefly: for Jacinda Ardern there will be satisfaction at the formation of a Labo(u)r government. On 501s and deportation, noises are being made already that Albanese may curb the urge to – as she angrily put it just before Covid overwhelmed everything – “deport your problems”. But at least he won’t, as Morrison had hinted he would, ramp up the noxious policy.
And while Albanese and Penny Wong will temper some of the more bellicose edge of the Coalition rhetoric on China, the wider geopolitical dynamic will be unchanged: Australia is allied at the hip to Washington, suspicious and back arched towards Beijing; Aotearoa will keep trying to navigate a nuanced foreign policy path that avoids having to “pick a side”, and that presents challenges of its own.
A plague on both your houses
No, not in the Covid or monkeypox sense. The most immediately striking message in the Australian result was a repudiation of both big options. The Liberal-National Coalition obviously took a big hit. But Labor’s vote went down, too – just by a lot less. There is little to suggest that the same will happen in New Zealand, and in many ways our proportional system accounted for that some time ago, ensuring that parliament is no duopoly, but the smaller parties here, as well as any would-be independents, will feel encouraged.
The teal independents, the Greens and climate change
The “teal wave” crashed through the blue-chip inner-city suburbs on Saturday night, sweeping out half a dozen Liberal candidates including incumbent treasurer Josh Frydenberg. This is not a political party but they share three core values: climate change, political integrity and gender equality. All are areas the Liberals have abandoned or flunked, and now they’ve seen their moderate, urban strongholds (among them areas where membership and fundraising are critical) devastated. It wasn’t only the blue-greens that had a good night: the green-greens did, too; gains in both houses had the party hailing a “greenslide”.
I blathered at length on what a teal wave might mean or not mean for New Zealand here, but in short: climate change is unequivocally an issue that impacts a non-trivial number of people’s votes. The New Zealand National Party is not the Coalition. They are on board with the emissions budget and the track to zero. They are not covering their ears and going lah-rah-lah. But if there is a risk to the broad church of the National Party on the climate response, we’ll see it as the formula for agriculture to be brought into the emissions trading system is determined. That comes to a head later this year. And the more general point is this: climate can no longer be dismissed as a peripheral factor in elections. It could even be decisive.
We don’t talk about Covid
Obviously the pandemic was a feature of the Australian campaign – but it didn’t loom large. As new infections, hospitalisations and deaths remained stubbornly high, making it very clear that this was not a “post-Covid” world, that’s the way it was discussed, when it was at all. At times, according to one observer, it was as if “Covid-19 is a dirty word that politicians are fearful of addressing”. For many, Morrison’s big decisions in the pandemic were the high point of his premiership, for Albanese, health was a banner issue – but neither wanted to talk about it. (The exception here being Western Australia, where the pandemic played out quite differently.)
Covid is not over, and even if it were it would be a good time to talk about how to respond next time around. But politicians have determined – no doubt drawing on focus groups, polling and anecdata – that people don’t want to hear about it, or at least aren’t going to vote on it. The same is already beginning to play out here. Ardern literally labelled the 2020 vote “the Covid election”, and that was what delivered her historic majority. In 2023, expect her – and the opposition, too – not to want to talk about it much at all.
The small target strategy
There has been much talk during the Australian campaign of the “small target strategy”. It refers to Scott Morrison’s decision – much like Boris Johnson before him – to identify a small target, in the form of a child, to bulldoze on a sports field in an illustration that they can, well, bulldoze a child.
The small target strategy, but really this time
There has been much talk during the Australian campaign of the “small target strategy”. It refers to Albanese and Labor dialing back the promises, the vision and pretty much everything so that they could give Morrison and the Coalition little to aim at. That is a direct strategic response to what happened in 2019, when the relatively fresh Morrison successfully campaigned against Bill Shorten on a “that lot are bloody terrifying” platform. Morrison tried it again this time – but there was less target to hit and he was at times left scrambling. It meant, dismally, this was not a campaign of big ideas, of visions, nor of anything-mania.
In New Zealand (where Labour pretty much ran a small target strategy in 2020) National will have been watching that with interest. Like Morrison, Ardern’s last years have been absorbed in the Covid response; as with Morrison, her popularity has waned (though not for all the same reasons). There will be a strong temptation, certainly as long as the polls keep moving in the same direction, for Luxon’s strategist to bank on voters wanting to move on, to go less-is-more, to run a campaign that pledges to new faces and a safe pair of economic hands, to bang on about the cost of living and inflation but not a lot more, to mount a small target. That’s not without risks of its own, of course. A small target means a small vessel, and smaller vessels are easier to sink.
Harsh but true: The women of Australia looked at Scott Morrison and ran away as fast they could. Part of that was around the government’s awful response to a flurry of sexual misconduct allegations from Canberra, and many ran with the teal wave, which was female in policy priority, in successful candidates and voters.
No one in New Zealand politics needs reminding just how critical it is to keep women’s votes top of mind. A big part of the motivation behind the last National leadership change was winning back that vote, which had fallen off a cliff. The list function in MMP tends to encourage diversity in representation in ways the first past the post doesn’t, but the Australian result underscores how important it is both in principle and pragmatically.
Election day advertising
There are parts of New Zealand’s election day rules that ring strange and anachronistic, especially as regards innocuous social media posts. But a cynical and just plain low promotional text sent on election day to voters declaring an “illegal boat” had been intercepted en route to Australia, which added “Keep our borders secure by voting Liberal today”, suggests maybe it’s better our law err on the side of caution. Mind you, it could be that it did them more harm than good.
The early part of the campaign saw gotcha attempts swarm like spiders in a flood. Albanese stumbled early on when he couldn’t name the base interest rate or unemployment numbers, and Morrison reminded everyone of that at every opportunity. Some of the gotcha air was released from the tyres in one of the campaign’s best moments, when Greens leader Adam Bandt was asked by a reporter to specify the wage price index. He replied, “Google it, mate.”
Will New Zealand media and political rivals go gotcha in 2023? I don’t know. But I’ll bet the candidates will be swotting the CPI and the price of milk like never before.