The election campaign is underway but seldom, in recent years, have the two main parties seemed to be so much on the same page, and there is little to motivate or inspire voters, says Peter Dunne

Whichever party leads the government after this year’s General Election, there will not be any substantial change in either the direction of economic policy or the response to the Covid-19 virus pandemic.

If ever seriously in doubt, that reality was confirmed by the much heralded but ultimately extraordinarily bland Labour tax policy announcement last week, and the remarkably mild response it attracted from the National Party.

Moreover, National’s answer to Labour’s Covid-19 actions increasingly seems to be one of broad approval, the only substantive difference appearing to be the promise they would manage it better.

It is hardly inspiring, nor suggestive of any wide process of political change being underway. Perhaps it is inevitable, given the uncertainty and fear that the arrival of Covid-19 has caused, that the craving for certainty and reassurance it has unleashed dominates everything at present, so much so that, although quite unhealthy for the broader wellbeing of our democracy, even the mildest political or public questioning or criticism, has been viewed as verging on treachery and not the sort of behaviour to be approved of.

… one could be forgiven for thinking that this election is really about both the main parties vying to lead the eighth-term iteration of the Helen Clark Government.

It certainly helps explain why the election campaign so far has been one of the most uninspiring in recent memory.

Seldom, in recent years, have the two main parties seemed to be so much on the same page.

Since the election of the Helen Clark-led Labour Government in 1999, the two parties have been moving steadily together, squeezing out other players in the political centre, in their respective determination to dominate the middle ground of politics.

The Key and English Governments were Labour-lite in many respects, and the Ardern Government in its caution on so many issues has shown that it too is following the same playbook.

Now, with the increasing blandness Judith Collins is projecting, one could be forgiven for thinking that this election is really about both the main parties vying to lead the eighth-term iteration of the Helen Clark Government.

However, such convergence between the major parties is not unknown in Parliamentary democracies like ours. The political consensus forged in Britain between the 1950s and the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 was characterised as Butskellism after the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer of the time, Hugh Gaitskell, and his Conservative successor, “Rab” Butler.

Butskellism was defined as a slightly left-of-centre consensus that recognised the government’s role in supporting working families and the trade unions and breaking down the barriers between different groups in society. In New Zealand, a similar broad consensus applied from around 1945 when the National Party decided to embrace Labour’s Welfare State, through until 1984.

Butskellism and New Zealand’s post-war consensus collapsed ultimately when the inequalities within them became economically unsustainable.

In both countries, neo-liberal economic and social reforms were initiated to replace what had gone before them. However, the harsh rigour of Thatcherism and Rogernomics meant both experiments were comparatively short-lived.

In 1997 Tony Blair’s New Labour Government swept to office in Britain. Although holding firm to the principles of many of the Thatcherite reforms it placed fresh emphasis on promoting a new social and economic consensus at the same time, under the New Labour banner. This rebalancing has underpinned successive British governments since then.

Similarly, in 1999 the election of Helen Clark’s Labour-led Government set off the same process in New Zealand. The pillars of the 1980s and 1990s reforms were retained, but the respective Labour and National Finance Ministers, Sir Michael Cullen and Sir Bill English, were also able to refashion quietly the role of the state in the economy to meet the needs of the time.

This Cullishism (as one might be tempted to call it) has served New Zealand well for the last two decades, laying the economic base for the way in which the current Government has been able to respond to the Covid-19 emergency.

In that regard, Labour’s approach has been very mainstream, leaving very little room for National to exploit, especially in an environment where the economic and social risks people fear from Covid-19 leave them yearning for reassurance and being extremely wary of any excessive political risk-tasking.

(Although there are limits, it seems. Having bungled the issue of hosting this year’s Rugby Championship and losing hosting rights to Australia because it was not willing to relax border restrictions for visiting players, the government belatedly backed down for fear of losing the Bledisloe Cup matches in election month as well.)

So long as Cullishism remains our prevailing political norm, it is going to be difficult for the National Party to win an election. Just promising to be better managers of the status quo is not going to be a winning strategy, especially so in a time of great uncertainty.

While there are legitimate questions to be posed about the massive level of future debt the Government is taking on and whether it is affordable, raising them without proffering realistic solutions to be considered, as National is doing so far, is not good enough. Nor is claiming to be better at managing major crises like this ever going to be enough at a time when most people think that while the Government has made glaring mistakes along the way (like the failure to manage the borders until it was almost too late) it has, on the whole, done a reasonable job in responding to a pandemic that is without precedent.

As with Butskellism and the New Zealand post-war economic consensus, there will come a time when the post neo-liberalism rebalancing initiated by the likes of Tony Blair and Helen Clark will be seen to have had its day. There are already signs of this in Britain, struggling to preserve the union and its position in the world economy in the wake of Brexit.

A similar process will occur again in New Zealand, but it may not be until the 2023 or even 2026 electoral cycles. Even then, National will have to prove up to promoting a credible alternative.

In the meantime, with Labour ruthlessly and shrewdly playing politics on every aspect of its Covid-19 stewardship, despite its pious denials to the contrary, National’s more immediate challenge is to remain even relevant, as the first couple of weeks of the campaign have shown.

For voters, the more pressing challenge may be to remain politically engaged during this time. Reports are already indicating that voter enrolments are lagging in the 18 to 24 age group, with less than two thirds of voters in that age group enrolled by mid-August, compared to an enrolment of more than 90 percent from those over 40 years of age.

Moreover, a recent report released by the New Zealand Initiative found that one-third of voters could not name Members of Parliament and half did not understand the MMP system, despite an election looming.

At the same time, voter turnout has been falling steadily at recent New Zealand elections. From an MMP high of just over 88 percent in 1996, turnout had dropped down to 77.9 percent at the last election. Covid-19 induced uncertainty; low enrolment rates; and the sense there is no real electoral competition underway could see that figure fall even further this year.

If the election campaign continues to lack any semblance of a contest of ideas, it will be difficult to see these trends changing.

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