National tried to go high-tech in its virtual campaign launch – but it was a far less sophisticated mathematical error which overshadowed Judith Collins, Sam Sachdeva writes

As far as political humiliations at Avalon Studios go, Paul Goldsmith didn’t quite match the time Rodney Hide dropped his Dancing with the Stars partner during a cha-cha.

But the National finance spokesman’s own stumble, on a spreadsheet instead of the dance floor, was more than embarrassing enough.

On a day when the party was meant to be revving up the troops at its Covid-disrupted campaign launch, Goldsmith was instead explaining how he and his team had overlooked a $4 billion gap in the calculations for its fiscal plan.

After a stumble on the way to the microphones, Paul Goldsmith told reporters he was “irritated” by the miscalculation in the party’s costings. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The error was revealed by Finance Minister Grant Robertson on Sunday morning, who tried to hide any sense of glee as he explained where National had gone wrong.

As part of efforts to cut down on government borrowing, the party had announced it would suspend contributions to the Super Fund for a decade, saving the Crown just over $19b.

There was just one problem, Robertson said: National had based that figure on Treasury projections from May’s Budget, and not last week’s gloomier Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Update which had forecast just under $15b of Super Fund contributions over the same period.

It was eerily reminiscent of 2017’s “fiscal hole” debate, when Finance Minister Steven Joyce claimed Labour had left an $11.7b gap in its books.

But while Labour, backed by most economists and experts, had convincingly rebutted Joyce’s allegations then, Goldsmith made no such attempt at denying what he confessed was “an irritating mistake”.

“We accept our mistakes, we own up and we move on. We’ve fixed them, and it doesn’t materially change the critical things that we’re trying to do for New Zealand.”

The mistake is more damaging at a symbolic level, allowing Robertson and other Labour MPs to repeat the mantra that National is no longer the party of John Key and Bill English.

At one level, that is not an unreasonable argument (and it was certainly preferable to leader Judith Collins’ claim the error was “entirely inconsequential”).

The party would still be able to fund its surprise $4.7b tax cut package by drawing down on the Government’s Covid response fund – although the wisdom of that is another matter altogether – while redoing the numbers would simply lead to a debt to GDP ratio of 36 percent by 2033/34 rather than 35 percent, as Goldsmith noted.

But the mistake is more damaging at a symbolic level, allowing Robertson and other Labour MPs to repeat the mantra that National is no longer the party of John Key and Bill English.

Such senior politicians would never have made such a rookie mistake, voters are meant to infer, even if Labour hardly gave Key or English that level of credit during their time in power.

Goldsmith hardly sounded confident that the Super slip-up was an isolated error, saying: “I’m sure Grant Robertson’s got a hundred spin doctors working over every line and he’ll be excited about these things.”

The error also gives National’s opponents a chance to relitigate their broader concerns about the party’s tight operating allowances and the potential cutbacks to public services as a result, even though Collins and co have issued vociferous denials on that front.

And of course, the news breaking on the morning of National’s campaign launch ensured that Collins’ speech and the event as a whole would be overshadowed – surely Labour’s intent, notwithstanding Robertson’s unconvincing attempts to profess innocence.

National had to make do with a smaller, more separated crowd than Labour enjoyed for its own campaign launch, thanks to Level 2 restrictions. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Pool.

National did not help itself either, delivering a policy-free launch in order to let its tax cut plan receive maximum oxygen.

It is a strategy that may have worked in a best-case scenario, although it seems fair to wonder why the party did not make the tax plan the centrepiece of its launch, but the fiscal faux pas became the main storyline in the absence of a compelling counter-narrative.

As for the “virtual” campaign launch itself, it is easy to see why Collins described the moment as bittersweet.

National pivoted to a broadcast event, with a socially distanced crowd of 90 or so supporters, after its original plans for a traditional rally with an audience of thousands in Manukau were scuppered by the second Covid outbreak.

Outgoing National MP and former broadcaster Maggie Barry served as the MC for proceedings, while the party did a reasonable job of compensating for the lack of atmosphere that accompanies a live crowd.

Barry regularly “crossed” to pre-recorded videos of MPs and aspirants flanked by their supporters – gold star to Northland’s Matt King for the most high-energy performance, with Waimakariri MP Matt Doocey and his one-eyed Cantabrians close behind – while there was a concerted effort to display diversity with candidates offering greetings in an array of languages.

But as Collins noted, it’s not quite the same when you’re not doing it in person, and there is always an element of cringe that attaches to Kiwi political parties attempting to be high-tech (for instance, Jacinda Ardern’s ‘TedTalk’ marking her government’s first anniversary).

Judith Collins hit all the usual notes in her campaign launch speech. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Pool.

The National leader’s own speech, after an oddly apocalyptic introductory video outlining New Zealand’s Covid-hit economy, was hardly thrilling either in content or delivery. 

Collins hit her usual beats, accusing Labour of having nothing better to offer the economy than higher taxes and excessive red tape, criticising its “erratic, unplanned governance and lazy incompetence”.

That was fine as far as it went, but similar attacks in recent months do not seem to have moved the public mood much and there is precious little time until the start of voting.

An apparent applause line about scrapping the Resource Management Act (RMA) didn’t quite land, but she had much more success when talking up National’s tax policy.

“We believe that the person earning the money owns the money,” Collins said to cheers.

The party will hope that sentiment isn’t isolated to the National faithful, although the good spirits among those leaving the launch was certainly positive after some tough times.

There will be high-profile tests of the party’s popularity this week, with at least one television network expected to release a poll and the first leaders’ debate between Ardern and Collins taking place on Tuesday evening, via TVNZ.

National will need to put up decent showings in each if it is to have even the slightest chance of quickstepping its way to a competitive race.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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