Wednesday 17 August 2022

When Sir Peter Blake was heading Team New Zealand’s successful 1995 and 2000 America’s Cup campaigns, he posed one constant question to the team for each aspect of their business – will it make the boat go faster? Not only did that keep Team New Zealand focused on the obvious point that fast boats win races, but it also meant every aspect of its operations concentrated on reaching that objective. No matter how else the team was performing, it was not going to win or retain the America’s Cup if it did not have the fastest boat in the competition. 

The All Blacks look to be going through the same process in the wake of their own recent dismal results. They have realised the hard way that reputations and history are no guarantors of future performance, and that if they are to win the World Cup in 2023 they will need to have the best team in terms of players and performance. For them, the mantra now must be: will what they are doing help win the World Cup? 

In the wake of their awkward last couple of weeks, both the Labour and National parties ought to be asking themselves the same question – is what they are doing now helping make their political boats go faster towards putting a government together after next year’s election? In both cases, the answer at this point is not at all clear. Neither inspire any confidence that they have a plan of Blake-like precision to put them on the track for victory next year. 

National remains bogged down by its recent past. Although its new leader has brought more focus and discipline to the party, and while overall political circumstances have been shifting in its direction, National has still to shake off completely the shadow of the last few years. Despite appearing more unified and determined than previously, doubts remain about the capability of many of National’s personnel to form a capable government, should they be able to do so after the next election. 

Labour’s mainspring has been slowing down noticeably after more than two years dominated by the pandemic. Major policies either have not yet been implemented or are not working out quite as intended. Ministers are starting to look jaded and exhausted. More and more the government is falling back on the personal popularity of the Prime Minister for its impetus, but that has also been on a steady decline for more than a year now, and she is looking increasingly detached from the day-to-day process of government. At the same time, no other Minister is showing the mana to step in and fill the gap. 

While National is yet to escape its past, Labour is desperately trying to recapture its past, to rekindle the popularity that saw it win an unprecedented outright majority at the last election. It seems to be genuinely struggling to understand why, according to the polls at least, around 500,000 of the voters who supported it in 2020 have now deserted it, and why around 21 or so of its current MPs are at risk of being defeated next year. Both main parties appear bogged down by their pasts, National unable and Labour unwilling to shed them. 

Indeed, what political momentum there is now comes more from the main support parties – the Greens and ACT, and increasingly Te Pati Māori – but none of them yet has sufficient support to seize control of the political agenda. 

The malaise affecting the major parties is hitting the whole country as well. We are drifting towards a sharp recession, based on a combination of adverse international circumstances and specific domestic factors, with an unusual sense of inevitability and resignation. The recovery from the pandemic has been slow and cautious, with no real sense of urgency or purpose, or any debate about alternative plans. 

Sir Peter Blake’s “make the boat go faster” singlemindedness and the accompanying Red Socks campaign caught the national imagination in 1995 and enthused the entire country to get behind an America’s Cup campaign then struggling to overcome the disappointments of earlier failed attempts to win the Auld Mug. That same sense of inspiration and drive is what both Labour and National need to ignite right now to get out of the mire of their contemporary political distractions and to lift New Zealand out of its increasing overall pessimism. 

That means Jacinda Ardern must recapture the inspirational style she became renowned for in her early days as Prime Minister, and Christopher Luxon must rediscover the energy and drive that characterised his early days as National’s leader. Both need to break out of the straightjackets they have allowed themselves to become trapped in over recent months. But it is not clear at this stage whether either will be able to credibly do so. Nor is there any real sign they are trying to. 

Yet whoever recovers their role best over the year or so ahead, will not only make their own boat go faster, but also will more than likely become the next Prime Minister. The race is on.


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