The National Party’s response to the new Labour challenge was laid out at their big event yesterday. Toby Manhire joins the blue sea in Henderson
It was a family affair at the National Party campaign launch in west Auckland yesterday. Dr Mary English was alongside her husband all afternoon, and esteemed at length in his speech. Daughter Maria took the stage to sing the national anthem. And son Xavier took charge of the prime minister’s Snapchat account, though you could be forgiven at first for thinking you’d stumbled on a Tom Sainsbury spoof. Max Key will be reviewing Xavier’s Snapchat game for the Spinoff later in the week. (He won’t).
Wheeling out the family at political rallies is hardly revolutionary, but there is a sense of some urgency around it. As English himself has acknowledged, as finance minister your persona is almost inevitably dour. His strategists have been on the case for a while, serving up #relatablecontent with the likes of fusion cooking and the affecting walk-run poem, but the small matter of a personnel change in Labour and all that has brought about must have sharpened their focus.
The Trusts Arena in west Auckland wasn’t quite bursting at the seams, but the crowd of 2,000 or so were in good spirits, holding aloft posters with the words “Securing our Future” and #Backing Bill (yes, there was a space between the words). It might have lacked some of the elation witnessed at Labour’s Town Hall event a week earlier, but it would be churlish to over-emphasise that comparison. Labour Party members were intoxicated by rejuvenation. It had been a long time since they could grin and really mean it.
Jacinda Ardern was not at the Trusts Arena, but she very much was. The first warm-up act for English, Nikki Kaye – who has twice defeated Ardern in a battle for the Auckland Central electorate – called her boss “by far New Zealand’s most experienced and effective leader” and rolled back out the rockisms, hailing “this rock. Bill English, you rock.” The thinly veiled subtext: Ardern is inexperienced and ineffective.
And as if to acknowledge that National can no longer out-leader its rivals, Kaye had this to add: “National has the strongest team. We are not just one person. Our batting order is a long one.” That must explain those teal-clothed joggers: a cricket team.
Next up was Paula Bennett. The deputy prime minister, by her own account, was relentlessly positive long before Ardern latched onto the idea, and she had bubbly turned up to 11 yesterday. Everything was “amazing”, the audience was asked, “yeah?” at the end of dozens of sentences. There were even jazz hands.
Bennett, too was about the team and the rock and, implicitly, Ardern. “Our team stands behind our rock,” she said. It was about more than “selfies or smiles”, though. “What people really want is substance, proven under pressure.” In English they had “experience, intelligence and fortitude.”
The rock called Bill walked out through the crowd to the sound of National’s campaign song ‘Let’s Get Together’, which was played approximately ten million times yesterday. The speech was solid and unspectacular and down the line. English took aim at Labour, too – he named and shamed them half a dozen times, while Ardern had avoided mentioning National at all.
In a passage you can expect to hear variations on from National a lot in the coming weeks, English invited New Zealanders to consider:
“A choice between two very different visions for New Zealand. National’s plan to keep New Zealand moving forward – a confident plan for a confident country. A strong National team energised by new ideas. A team that’s open to trade, open to investment, and knows how an economy works. Or an unstable, untested group on the left that would risk it all with unpredictable and unclear policies. Take the Labour Party, their policies have two things in common – working groups and more taxes.”
And the line that got far and away the biggest ovation of the afternoon: “Hard working New Zealanders aren’t an ATM for the Labour Party.”
While National will thump happily on that tub all campaign, whether or not it can persuade people it is “energised by new ideas” is another matter. The emphasis on strength and stability and competence and experience and exhortations not to rock the boat will chime with many, no doubt, but it does sometimes start to rhyme with the Theresa May experience in Britain a few months ago. There seems to be a growing mood for dynamism, and that will require more than a relatable Snapchat experiment.
One thing National had that Labour didn’t was a policy, in the form of an education package for primary schools. Teaching second languages in primary school was the closest that came to evidence of a team energised by new ideas. But it was all just a bit nebulous, particularly in the pledge “to give all primary school children the opportunity to learn a second language, if they choose”. Appealing though that might sound, it’s seems a little odd to offer primary school kids the option to do study – that’s not really how primary schools (or primary aged kids) work. And English flailed a bit in the post-speech media stand-up trying on questions of timing. Still, the push for a turbo-boosted National Standards certainly marks out more clear policy difference with Labour, who would scrap National Standards altogether.
As for the contest itself, “people are enjoying the fact that there’s a competition,” said English.
On that, he’s surely right. A National Party voter I was chatting with after the second Bledisloe Cup Test on Saturday evening said that the game reminded him of the election campaign under way: it made it all the more meaningful to be up against a team with a sniff of victory. That analogy only holds, of course, as long as his team ends up winning.
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