Tuesday, 31 May 2022

 

Time may well prove Christopher Luxon right in his boast that National will form the next government because of Labour’s handling of the cost-of-living crisis. But it is far too premature, and borders on smugness, for him to make that claim today – almost eighteen months before the next election is due. 

Over the last few weeks, according to a rolling average of the polls, the National/ACT bloc has edged slightly ahead of the governing Labour/Green grouping. However, that edge has not yet translated into a clear majority for National and ACT, even though the polls are showing them far more likely to be able to form a government than Labour and the Greens. While the trendlines all year so far have been showing National steadily rising and Labour falling away, it is still too early in the election cycle and the margin too slim between the respective blocs to draw any conclusion other than next year’s election looks likely to be a close contest. 

Just as Labour’s triumphalism in the wake of its stellar 2020 election result started to wear thin as Covid19 lockdowns dragged on and on in the latter months of 2021, so too will any perceived early gloating by National that it is on its way back to power. Both parties need to remember that election results reflect the judgement of voters, not the self-assessed performance of political parties. 

Therefore, when Christopher Luxon next claims Labour’s handling of the cost-of-living crisis is set to deliver National the reins of government next year he needs to appreciate that will only happen if voters want it to happen, not because National says it should happen. While voters certainly have little tolerance for, or patience with, governments they feel have let them down or failed to perform, they also have an equal intolerance for political arrogance or parties drawing premature conclusions on their behalf. 

Right now, the sharply rising cost-of-living is hurting many households across the income spectrum. Drawing attention to the way in which the government has dealt with the crisis so far, and what other steps might be taken, are legitimate political responses, but using it the way Luxon did was a little gauche. However, that paled into insignificance compared to the fierce over-reaction of the Minister of Finance. 

Grant Robertson took excessive umbrage at Luxon’s brag, saying he was using a serious political issue, affecting many hundreds of thousands of people, for his own narrow political advantage. Robertson conveniently and hypocritically overlooks that Labour took the same approach before the 2017 election with its attacks on the housing crisis it saw had developed under National. Indeed, it is hard to recall a situation where politicians across the spectrum have not tried to use difficult national situations to their own political advantage! 

But by his over-the-top response to Luxon, Robertson has simply escalated the issue and given credibility to National’s position that there is a serious cost-of-living crisis, which Labour has no answer to. It is just like 2017, when the more intensely National denied Labour’s claims of a mounting housing crisis, the more convinced the public became there was one, and that the then National-led government was not up to dealing with it. 

In both situations, the best thing the government parties could have done was ignore the Opposition’s claims, not stoke their credibility by attacking them with the ferocity both displayed. Labour today, like National then, has fallen into the trap of thinking that demolishing the other side’s policies is a credible substitute for their own failings in government. 

But, as far as voters go, they are more interested in what a government is doing about a problem, than its criticism of the Opposition. While Luxon’s comments will have come across to some as cocky and premature, Robertson’s heavy response will have confirmed for others that the National leader hit a raw nerve. Had Robertson kept his mouth shut, what Luxon said would probably have been forgotten by now. But instead, the loquacious Finance Minister has ensured his government’s handling of the cost-of-living crisis will remain high in the public mind right through till the next election, whatever may happen in the meantime. 

This week’s TVNZ/Kantar poll showed 63% of respondents think the Budget cost-of-living package should have included beneficiaries and superannuitants. That, coupled with Labour dropping a further 2% in its own support level should be sufficient warning to the government that it presently faces an uphill battle persuading people it is doing enough on the cost-of-living front. Dissatisfaction with its performance, and the gap between the parties, will only increase if Labour’s response to criticism of its performance continues to be turning on the critics rather than addressing the issue. 

But National must be careful too. While the political trendline is moving in its direction, it is not yet cemented in place. There is a fine line between firm, determined opposition giving rise to mounting confidence of a successful outcome at the next election, and complacency and arrogant over-confidence. National will quickly come unstuck if voters see it assuming an election win is all but assured before any votes have even been cast. The party should not forget that voters, in New Zealand and elsewhere, have an uncanny way of reminding political parties it is they, not the parties, who decide election outcomes. 

While Luxon’s determination to see National re-elected to government is commendable, and the turnaround in the party’s fortunes since he became leader impressive, he cannot allow his enthusiasm to get ahead of itself. Throughout the next eighteen months his maxim needs to be “more haste, less speed”.

 

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