The Government has come to the midpoint of its term in an enviably strong position. It has been helped considerably in the short term by the Prime Minister’s impressive leadership in the aftermath of the Christchurch tragedies, which has won justifiable acclaim; and, over the longer period, by a steady deterioration in the performance of the Parliamentary Opposition.
The Prime Minister’s leadership speaks for itself and does not need further amplification (nor the increasing nauseating sycophancy being shown by some senior journalists who ought to know better).
Everybody can see it, and recognise the genuine spirit behind it, and appreciate it for what it is. They certainly do not need supposedly impartial journalists taking on the role of awestruck cheerleaders.
National’s position is somewhat different. On its day, it can be close to devastating – its demolition of KiwiBuild and Phil Twyford’s credibility has been a tour de force, and its continuing pricking of the pomposity balloon of Shane Jones is also something to behold.
However, those occasions seem increasingly few and far between. For the rest of the time National looks disorganised (although nowhere as bad as Labour during its nine years in Opposition) and too focused on its own entrails to be seen as an effective alternative at this stage.
Without her on top of her game, things look somewhat rickety and shabby. None of her Ministers (with perhaps the ironic exception of her predecessor Andrew Little) stand out as on top of, or even up to, their portfolios, with some simply downright incompetent.
So, all in all, Labour can feel satisfied with its position at this stage of the cycle, although some mighty “buts” lie ahead to be overcome, before it can be entirely confident about its future.
While the Prime Minister is undoubtedly the Government’s biggest asset, she is consequently also its biggest potential liability.
This is not because of anything she has done or might do, but because of the paucity of talent around her. That was obvious when she became party leader in a hurry in 2017, and nothing much has changed since.
Everything rests on her. Without her on top of her game, things look somewhat rickety and shabby. None of her Ministers (with perhaps the ironic exception of her predecessor Andrew Little) stand out as on top of, or even up to, their portfolios, with some simply downright incompetent. And her backbench (with perhaps the exception of Deborah Russell) looks like a totally talent free zone.
While the Prime Minister’s popularity remains at its current stellar levels, this is not a problem – her colleagues’ deficiencies are dwarfed for the time being. But when the Prime Minister’s star starts to wane – as it inevitably will – the focus will go back on those around her, and why she has tolerated their lacklustre performances for so long. (The experience of former US President George Bush senior is worth recalling here – his personal approval ratings reached an unmatched 89 percent after the Gulf War, but, as that receded, the focus switched to the failings of his domestic agenda, and he was comfortably defeated by a then little known Governor from Arkansas in the Presidential election about eighteen months later.)
The Government’s next big problem is simply one of time.
A lot has been promised, very little has yet been delivered, while the electoral clock ticks louder and louder. The next election looks likely to be held between August and early November next year (the quiet, but increasingly persistent rumours around Wellington that the Prime Minister is looking to an election later this year to consolidate her position notwithstanding).
That means that the “period of restraint” – the period of time when governments cannot make substantive policy decisions in the lead up to an election – could begin as early as May next year, barely a year away. And that means, all the Government’s major policy commitments for this term will have to been substantially achieved by then, which seems extremely unlikely.
The “period of restraint” is becoming increasingly problematic. Initially, it applied to the period of the election campaign only, but over recent years the bureaucracy has been steadily pushing the time frame out. In 2017, with a late September election, it began in mid-June – just over three months from the election, and there was even the suggestion from some senior bureaucrats that the Government should formally become a just caretaker government from that point. I can recall it being suggested albeit half-heartedly to me that the establishment of Fire and Emergency New Zealand, which I had driven through Parliament earlier, might have to be delayed because the projected launch date of I July 2017 fell within the “period of restraint”. While it may suit bureaucratic convenience, it is a constitutional nonsense, which should be resisted to the hilt, and governments allowed to govern properly for the full three year term they are in office, but, in the meantime, it is a significant constraint.
The Government’s next problem relates to its confidence and supply partners. To all external intents and purposes, the unlikely relationship between Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens seems to have functioned satisfactorily to date.
Obviously, there have been tensions and divisions internally, as there always are in such relationships, but to date only the frequent outbursts of Shane Jones seeking to further inflate an already grossly over-inflated (and in terms of competence, undeserved) ego, have been problematic. The Prime Minister’s very timid handling of him has been a concern, in stark contrast to the fate he would likely have quickly endured under former Prime Minister Helen Clark.
However, there has to be concern about the looming electoral fate of both New Zealand First and the Greens. Every government or coalition support partner to date under MMP has been severely punished at the next election, and there seems no reason to suggest 2020 will be any different. The loss of just a couple of percent by each of them would see both parties out of Parliament, as neither holds an electorate seat.
But, if Labour’s mountain to climb is steep, National’s is plain perpendicular.
There have been suggestions that the Provincial Growth Fund is really all about enabling New Zealand First to win an electorate in the North next election, and that Labour might give the Greens a free run in Wellington Central. The only worth of both those moves would be to trigger the coat-tailing provisions of the one-seat threshold, but that would require all three parties to do a complete about-turn on their previous commitments to abolish that provision. Whatever, the outcome, the current reality is that Labour could well find itself bereft of significant partners after the next election.
For Labour, from here, the challenge is quite stark: bolster the Prime Minister’s personal standing by culling much of the deadwood around her; achieve some policies rather than just talking incessantly about them and how good they will be; and, secure the future of its support partners. It will be extremely difficult to do any of them, let alone all three.
But, if Labour’s mountain to climb is steep, National’s is plain perpendicular. The leadership issue is critical, not just in terms of the performance of the current leader and whether there is anyone else who could do any better, but also in terms of what impact any of them could make against a dominant Prime Minister.
At this stage, election 2020 looks increasingly like Labour’s to lose.
National is not quite as constrained on the policy front, because it is not in office, but it has to be seen to be standing for something specific and positive, and not just the scatty and grumpy dog barking shrilly at every parked car it sees.
But above all, National needs a credible partner or two. Suggestions the nascent blue-green party will emerge strongly so far seem to have been hopelessly overly optimistic; and hints of new parties to the moral and social right of National are downright scary.
On its day, National can be as right wing as anybody, and certainly does not need to be pulled further in that direction to gain public support. That is not where the New Zealanders whose swing votes decide who governs are. Rather, National needs to be moderated to the centre, and there are no signs of anything credible emerging in that space as yet, leaving National’s prospects looking bleak in the meantime.
All of which contributes to the Government’s unexpectedly strongly midterm position. At this stage, election 2020 looks increasingly like Labour’s to lose.