Election 2017: When campaigns go rogue

by Graham Adams / 13 September, 2017
NOTED Opinion.

Labour's last minute change of leader to Jacinda Ardern has helped this year's general election feel more like it was called in a hurry. Here, Jacinda Ardern and Bill English go head to head in the first leaders' debate. Photo / Getty Images

This isn’t a snap election, but it feels like one.

When a visibly drunk Muldoon called the schnapps election on June 14, 1984, a journalist suggested it didn’t give him much time to run up to an election just a month away. The Prime Minister’s slurred reply was: “It doesn’t give my opponents much time to run up to an election, does it?”

They did a lot better than National. Its campaign was marked by bungles, including a full-page newspaper advertisement that David Lange initially thought was an attack ad paid for by his own party. It featured an unflattering shot of Muldoon and the caption: “Who Needs This Man?”

The mood for change was overwhelming. Muldoon was swept out of power on Bastille Day, July 14.

This year’s general election seems similar. Even though it’s not a snap election, it has felt very much like one since Andrew Little stood down as Labour’s leader on August 1, Jacinda Ardern stepped up and both National and Labour’s election strategies were turned on their heads.

Neither side has had much time to prepare for a campaign in which the political landscape has changed so radically in such a short time. Labour scurried to replace hoardings and campaign ads to showcase Ardern alone while National was thrown into disarray, searching desperately to find policies and dog whistles to head off the “Jacinda effect”.

Just six weeks ago, National thought Ardern’s ascension was merely a hiccup, and that it could still coast to victory on a “steady as she goes” platform, relying on its reputation as a sound economic manager with Bill English’s experienced hand on the tiller of government. It would pick off Ardern with clever little slogans such as “Let’s Tax This” as a play on her “Let’s Do This” and ignore her wherever possible, which just might make her disappear entirely.

Labour’s hope was that she could at least ward off annihilation and “save the furniture”, as Mike Moore put it when he took on the Labour leadership from Geoffrey Palmer in 1990.

Then the unthinkable happened. The polls tipped in Ardern’s favour; the Greens imploded; National’s ally Peter Dunne, sensing defeat, peeled off; the news media breathlessly reported the rise of Jacindamania; and on the evening of the first leaders’ debate, a Colmar-Brunton poll put Labour ahead of National for the first time in 12 years.

National leader Bill English has had a change of heart on extending paid parental leave. Photo / Getty Images

National has been reeling. Everything changed once the party realised it would have to change tack to fight a much more formidable leader than Andrew Little. The sound of government policy being slammed into reverse has become deafening.

On August 29, National promised to extend paid parental leave from 18 to 22 weeks over two years if re-elected even though it vetoed a bill last year that would have extended it to 26 weeks.

On September 2, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman decided that having a target of reducing suicides by 20 per cent over the next decade was “reasonable” when just a few months ago he wouldn’t agree to adopting it. His explanation that “I have moved on in my thinking” could easily be translated as “We’re panicking now that Ardern is nipping at our heels.”

In the middle of the second leaders’ debate on September 4, Bill English suddenly decided that he would lift 100,000 children out of poverty within the next three years if re-elected, even though he had previously insisted it’s impossible even to measure child poverty in New Zealand.

Then there are the gaffes as National twists and turns in its efforts to gain electoral advantage. On September 3, Police Minister Paula Bennett said some criminals had fewer human rights than the rest of us. English had to apologise on her behalf and admit she had got it wrong.

On September 4, Finance Minister Steven Joyce claimed there was an $11.7 billion hole in Labour’s fiscal plan and refused to recant even when a procession of the nation’s most respected economists and analysts said he was wrong. Bill English backed him publicly, as did Paula Bennett. They had little choice, of course, but it has made the three most senior members of the National-led government look foolish. Not least, it has damaged Joyce’s reputation as a capable Minister of Finance.

Broadcaster David Slack summed up the fallout in a tweet: “We learned this week that the Police Minister doesn’t know what human rights are & the Finance Minister can’t add.”

On September 9, Social Development Minister Anne Tolley reversed her opposition to an inquiry into historic abuse in state care. She had previously denied that abuse was systemic despite the fact that without an inquiry it is impossible to know. She claimed it would only re-traumatise victims while Bill English queried whether an inquiry would achieve anything. Ardern had already promised to hold one.

On September 10, World Suicide Prevention Day, backbench MP Simon O’Connor undid any good work Jonathan Coleman’s change of heart about a suicide target might have achieved with an attack on Ardern’s stand on euthanasia. On his Facebook page, he wrote: “It’s strange that Jacinda is so concerned about youth suicide but is happy to encourage the suicide of the elderly, disabled, and sick.” Bill English texted O’Connor — who was the chair of the Health select committee’s inquiry into assisted dying — to say it it was wrong to conflate youth suicide and assisted dying but he refused to back down.

National obviously thinks its backflips and repeated twisting of the truth are worth the reputational damage as it throws everything at Labour to halt Ardern — including using such tired old tricks as getting tough on beneficiaries. On September 6, National said that, if re-elected, it will cut jobseekers’ benefits if they fail to meet drug rehabilitation, work experience or training obligations.

What the mishmash of policy announcements shows more than anything else is that National is desperate and will say and do anything to hold onto power. It should really change its campaign slogan to Groucho Marx’s quip: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them... I have others.”

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern hasn't given much detail about her party's tax plans. Photo / Getty Images

The Labour Party has also been caught flat-footed in some areas, particularly by Ardern resurrecting the possibility of a capital gains tax that had been abandoned by Andrew Little. She says she will appoint a working group to assess New Zealand’s tax system to make it fairer, and that she will likely act on its recommendations before the next election — that is, without giving voters a chance to decide if they approve.

Kicking the question of a capital gains tax into touch by handing the policy debate over to a panel of experts has saved her from being caught out on the details now but it has also given the government plenty of room to sow fear and doubt over what assets it will include and how it might be applied. So far, Ardern has ruled out taxing the family home or the land it sits on but she is vulnerable to charges that she is not the transparent and open politician she claims to be.

It’s also clear she doesn’t know enough about the topic to comment authoritatively on it — especially given she was uncertain about a land tax when first asked.

Ardern’s lack of expertise in finance and economics is generally seen as a weakness, but it’s worth remembering that previous Labour prime ministers have succeeded without being financial specialists.

Helen Clark wasn’t initially well versed in economics although she learned enough to be a confident commentator even if she was never an expert.

David Lange wasn’t strong on economics — a weakness that Muldoon tried but ultimately failed to exploit to his advantage. He was fond of saying that Lange was the person you’d ask for a plea in mitigation in court but not for his opinion on economics.

In August 1980, in Parliament, Muldoon said of Lange:

“Before he came into the House, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition was a very nice fellow; he was an amiable fellow. He was highly regarded in the legal profession in Auckland. His fellow practitioners said: ‘Don’t ever engage him if it is a brief that requires a lot of careful attention, a lot of attention to detail, but for a plea in mitigation he is unbeatable’… So he came in and said, ‘Oh, I know nothing about economics, but I am a nice bloke’ — and he is a nice bloke, and he made a great impression on the people. He is very, very good on television. He looks good on television, and everyone says, ‘I like that fellow.’ His problem at the moment is that, as a leader of the Labour Party, he has to be a little bit nasty. That he finds difficult, but he is trying. He is doing his best to be a little nasty.”

The relentlessly positive Ardern could be cast in exactly the same light — a nice woman who is very, very good on television, and has made a great impression on the people but one who’s not very strong on economics and is not good at being nasty. In fact, English has tried to tar her with that brush by labelling her electoral appeal “stardust”.

However, Muldoon’s patronising of Lange ultimately did the Labour leader no harm. Voters wanted a fresh and younger face and were tired of the diminutive “economic wizard” and his government.

Lange won 1984’s snap election in a landslide.

In 2017, the polls are see-sawing between National and Labour. The election results after this frantic campaign are still anyone’s guess.


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