Shane Te Pou reflects on some of the noteworthy performances over this elongated, seemingly interminable, election campaign
If, as it’s often said, politics is show business for plain-looking people, then election campaigns are awards season.
In my final pre-election column, I’d like to reflect on some of the noteworthy performances, along with some other highs and lows, we’ve seen over this elongated, some might say interminable, campaign. I’m also going to look ahead to see which of our political actors, newbies and veterans alike, are likely to shape the next term.
The ultimate prize comes on Saturday when I believe Jacinda Ardern will lead Labour to a thumping win. In truth, there was never much doubt about that. In light of the Government’s widely admired Covid-19 response, and with National’s rolling leadership crisis, the fundamentals always favoured the incumbent. But protecting a lead is never an easy task either, and Labour deserves credit for running a disciplined, professional and effective campaign. While I’ve been disappointed at the lack of policy ambition, the party’s small target strategy was undeniably the right one. The fact Judith Collins has spent the past few days trying to hang a Greens policy – the wealth tax – around Labour’s neck is testament to how successful they’ve been.
The National Party’s campaign has been comparatively amateurish. Sure, cycling through three leaders in as many months was not an optimal start. But this doesn’t excuse unforced errors like Paul Goldsmith’s egregious budget fail or the persistent leaking and counter leaking between the party’s warring factions. The latter challenge seems to me to have consumed Collins in the waning days of the campaign. Whether it was her awkward prayer stunt or this week’s gleeful fat-shaming, the leader seems to have given up trying to persuade swing voters in favour of buttressing her right-wing credentials. She has calculated that her future as Opposition Leader depends on winning the support of the ascendant Christian Right within the post-election caucus – one that could well be without liberal champions like Chris Bishop and Nicola Willis. When you factor in the likely success of the ACT Party, with whom National will need to compete with for very conservative voters, the dynamic doesn’t favour a pivot back to the political centre. Demography is destiny, and it’s hard for me to see how a Judith Collins-led National Party dominated by Christian conservatives is going to attract the breadth of support from Kiwis – especially among younger voters – it will need to topple Labour.
One bright spot for National has been the emergence of Shane Reti as a talent to watch. He brought rigour and energy to the health portfolio, as well as a commitment to science. While he was increasingly drowned out by his leader’s hyperbole, the party would be mistaken not to elevate him post-election.
Back to ACT briefly. Seymour deserves credit for his campaign – minor parties have it tough in New Zealand elections. It’s tough to break through in the media, and spending limits make it hard to get your ideas across. There’s also the danger that your list or electorate candidates, usually less strenuously vetted than in the bigger parties, will invite unwelcome attention for their problematic CVs or wacky ideas. While I think this risk remains for ACT once its MPs are sworn in, for the campaign period at least, Seymour ran a tight ship.
Meanwhile, the Greens fought back valiantly from the Taranaki school debacle, and James Shaw’s maximum mea culpa proved very effective. It was a high-stakes manoeuvre that more risk-averse politicians would have baulked at, but in the end, it was Shaw’s willingness to front the issue courageously that got his party back in the hunt. That said, I’m nervous about the Greens failing to reach the 5 percent threshold for two reasons: they generally underperform the polls, and the wave of overseas votes they can usually expect will, I suspect, mostly end up in Labour’s pile this time. What Kiwi stuck in lockdown somewhere else in the world, having witnessed our response, wouldn’t want to back Jacinda?
That’s why I’m urging progressives in Auckland Central to support Chloe Swarbrick. Labour’s Helen White is a strong and experienced candidate too, but she will make it in off the list anyway. For similar tactical reasons, it makes sense for centre-left voters in the Māori seats to rally around Labour candidates, especially Peeni Henare in Tamaki Makaurau; let me tell you folks – John Tamihere is no progressive. Support will also come the way of Tamati Coffey in Waiariki.
There are a raft of new candidates – too many to name here – who will bring a much-needed jolt of energy and ideas to our Parliament. I’ve been particularly impressed by Barbara Edmonds, Labour’s candidate to replace Kris Faafoi in Mana (he’s gone to list-only). Edmonds is a tax lawyer and mother of eight from Titahi Bay – a genuine local for the first time since the seat was formed as Porirua in the 1960s. Beyond that, she is sharp, down to earth, and effortlessly charismatic. Expect great things.
Among more seasoned pols, I’m expecting a stellar next term from Justice and Treaty Settlements Minister Andrew Little, whom I’ve spoken with a number of times recently. Little’s been a strong performer but New Zealand First has been an anchor on his ambition. Newly unshackled, I think we will see Little deliver some major criminal justice reform, as well as a long-awaited settlement with Ngā Puhi, which has transformational potential in the Far North. Apart from the PM herself, no senior Labour figure has greater potential to shape Labour’s progressive legacy over the next three years.