Campaigns are waged by diehards, but they’re won and lost by the disillusioned and the risk-averse.

Exasperation with the status quo jostles with fear of the future — and voters, bored or furious with the devil they know, weigh up whether dancing with the one they don’t is worth the risk.  Every election is a change election. It’s just that sometimes the answer is “no, thanks”.  

And so, as the New Zealand campaign winds down in unexpectedly gripping fashion, what’s the state of play? Is Labour a nose in front or have they fallen back behind the resurgent Nats? There’s ample polling data to support both cases. Pick your poison. 

Some pundits make a virtue out of never making predictions. A fool’s errand, they say — and they’re probably right. Prognosticators aren’t exactly enjoying a purple patch these days, especially after the twin shocks of Brexit and Trump.

Bereft of partners, National will face little choice but to serve the next term from opposition. 

But, by coming on here, I’m saying in effect “listen up, I’ve worked on heaps of these campaigns, politics is my wheelhouse”. Surely it’s shortchanging readers who dutifully wade through columns like this to hold out on the most obvious campaign-related question of all: who’s gonna win? 

And so, duly cognisant of the folly, allow me to take a punt. 

When the dust settles on the 2017 election, Jacinda Ardern will be sworn in to lead a coalition government built on a four-way arrangement with the Greens, NZ First and the Māori Party. The Greens and the Māori Party will agree to back confidence and supply from the cross benches, while only NZ First will occupy cabinet spots. This will be necessary since the combined Labour-NZ First vote will fall 3-4 points shy of a majority. The National Party will win a marginally higher share of the party vote (41-43) than Labour (37-40) but, bereft of partners, will face little choice but to serve the next term from opposition. 

Labour was heading for an even stronger result before it became entangled in the tax working group controversy. You simply could not make up an issue better suited to spotlight Labour’s vulnerabilities.  For some swing voters – otherwise drawn to Jacindamania and eager for a change in government –  nervousness about Labour’s fiscal credibility and vague tax plans will be enough to send them scurrying back to National’s reassuring embrace.  If you believe Newshub’s latest poll, a veritable stampede have already raced back into the fold; to believe 1News, it’s a trickle. 

The most galling aspect of the trouble Labour encountered over the tax working group is that it was entirely foreseeable, and should thus have been easy to avoid. It is yet another self-administered spiral punt into the back of an unguarded net. 

That National would extract maximum pain for any less-than-watertight aspect of Labour’s fiscal or tax plans should be obvious to a politically-disengaged toddler. It’s the first play in the book. But – far worse – to delegate tax reform to an unelected working group of experts is such a gift to National they must not believe their luck. It offers such rich pickings, feeding into multiple intersecting narratives about Labour, none of them flattering: they’re shifty on tax, dodgy at maths, and captured by bureaucrats.  

Voters seem ready to reward Joyce and English for their fiscal stewardship by handing the reins to leaders they consider better suited at investing the bounty.  

None of this is Ardern’s fault, but it is her problem. And it’s too soon to tell whether attempts to staunch the bleeding have succeeded. By announcing that none of the working group’s proposals would come into effect before the next election, Ardern may have assuaged fears of sudden, draconian tax changes. But has she done anything to combat the associated perception the party can’t make tough choices, and is unprepared for the hard yakka of governing?  

Ironically, the strength of the New Zealand economy, with robust business and consumer sentiment, may help Labour in this case. It could turn out that voters are less spooked by the prospect of fiscal mismanagement when they feel there is room for error. For that reason, I’m guessing scaremongering won’t sway enough voters in time to reverse the tide. Beyond merely anointing a new and glamorous PM, voters seem ready to reward Joyce and English for their fiscal stewardship by handing the reins to leaders they consider better suited at investing the bounty.

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