All other things being equal, by the time Christmas 2019 comes around, the current Government’s 2020 electoral fate will have been sealed, one way or the other, writes former minister Peter Dunne.
Next year looms as the Government’s “make it, or break it,” year, and as 2018 draws to a close, it will be reflecting on its performance and achievements to date, and what lies ahead.
2018 was never going to be entirely smooth sailing. After all, it was a new Government coming into office somewhat unexpectedly, with new and inexperienced ministers and incomplete policy positions of its own.
On top of that, it has had to meld together as a unlikely combination of parties and policy compromises inherent in its coalition and confidence and supply agreements.
It was never going to be easy, and there have been many times when that has shown through all too roughly. Ministerial blunders have been frequent, although not always catastrophic, but with a higher casualty rate than is usual for a new Government in its first year.
While there has been lot of talk and promise about policy intent and direction to come, very little has actually been achieved so far.
At the same time, the Opposition has been tenacious and at times fierce, but has been so beset by its own problems that it has not landed a killer blow on the Government’s credibility, nor seems likely to do so, although it has caused a few bruises.
All in all, the Government will end the year slightly ahead on points, but with much ground yet to make up.
2019 will be entirely different. The Government (all three parties) will no longer be seen as the “new Government”, but just “the Government”. That means the tolerance for error that 2018 has shown will vanish, meaning it will be expected to drop its trainer wheels pretty quickly, something which should have happened months ago.
Ministers will no longer be cut the slack of still settling into their responsibilities, which means under-performing big-portfolio ministers like Phil Twyford, Iain Lees-Galloway and David Clark, or invisible ones like Carmel Sepuloni, will have to step up and start to show clear competence and progress on the Government’s key policies, while others, like Chris Hipkins, who have been talking a lot this year, will need to start translating that talk into clearer action. And Shane Jones will need to learn to just keep quiet.
The Government backbench (again in all three parties) which has, not unexpectedly, been quite supine in its first year, will also need to start demonstrating whether it has any worth beyond being lobby fodder.
The challenge for National
For the Opposition, 2019 will be even more challenging. It cannot continue to rely on the Government falling over itself the way it has been.
National will need to start showing what it stands for – is it going to swing more to the right, as some argue, or will it remain about where it is today, but with sharper policy definition?
But its first challenge will be to get its own house in order in terms of its leadership and internal discipline. Whatever good work it may be doing internally at present in terms of future policy development, and there is much work going on, will count for nothing if the party continues to be seen as more preoccupied with its own seemingly interminable internal battles, than holding the Government to account, and taking the political fight to them.
Despite its high poll ratings, National currently risks being relegated to the impotence of irrelevance.
Eyes on the mayoral races
An indication of the Government’s likely 2020 fate could come in next October’s local body elections, where the three major mayoralties will likely be contested by prominent Labour-identified incumbents. (Labour’s electoral performance will probably determine whether the current administration will have the numbers to be in a position to seek to renegotiate its current governing arrangements after the 2020 election, hence the focus on Labour Mayoral candidates.)
In Auckland, Phil Goff will be seeking a second term, and while a lot of the sheen of his leadership has been worn off in his first term, he is likely to be re-elected, albeit with a much narrower majority, and could be pushed if the centre-right comes up with a credible candidate, not tarnished by the performance of the right in Auckland local politics since the super city was established.
Lianne Dalziel is a shoe-in for the Christchurch mayoralty, should she choose to seek a third term.
The most indicative mayoral contest is likely to be in Wellington where first term Mayor Justin Lester has already been confirmed as Labour’s 2019 candidate.
In many ways, Lester is of a similar cut to the Prime Minister – around the same age, pleasant and at least superficially likeable and popular, generally progressive and well-meaning, but yet to nail down major specific achievements.
On the assumption he faces a credible challenger – none has yet to emerge – he could be pushed strongly, especially given the lack of real progress over this Council term on some of the big issues, and lingering public grumpiness over symbolic, comparatively small, but oh-so politically correct decisions like cancelling the Christmas Parade and the November Fireworks, that he is closely associated with.
Wellington is a Labour city, so the Mayor could also suffer any wider backlash that arises among, for example, grumpy public servants, and others dissatisfied by Labour’s performance nationally, and the lack-lustre performance of its local MPs.
At this stage, the odds are in Lester’s favour. No potential credible challenger seems to be on the horizon, although it is obviously still very early in the cycle, and despite the lack of major progress, the city appears to be in good heart. But the Beehive will still be keeping a close eye on the Lester campaign as it develops, and will understand the extent to which their fates are intertwined.
As 2018 draws to a close, the Government, despite the latest public poll setbacks, will be breathing more easily. On balance, despite the problems and missteps, its performance has not been too bad, indeed perhaps a little better than expected, although still well short of what will be required to assure re-election.
2019 will show whether it has more to offer, or whether it has already reached its peak. For National, the assessment is overall not dissimilar, although its challenge is somewhat greater. It simply has to offer more, and become clearly and sharply defined as a credible alternative.
Politics next year will have a sharper focus. Not only will the pressure be on the big two parties to lift their games from 2018, but there will also be an increased focus on the support partners, and, what, if anything , they have brought to the Government table.
Both Labour and National know that, given this year’s performances, the 2020 election is still each of theirs to lose. What they do not yet know – and 2019 will likely go a long way towards answering – is which one of them will be successful ultimately.