Newshub’s outgoing political editor looks back on the 2020 election campaign in a chapter from a new book
Back in January 2020 when we were young, carefree and full of hope the political year started like any other with the set pieces – Labour’s caucus retreat at a vineyard, Rātana celebrations, Waitangi. It’s the perfect way to come back to politics after a break – ie, you’re not in Parliament. Because although Parliament is lifeblood for Press Gallery journalists – we’re part of the fabric, stitched into the fleur-de-lis carpet, just as trampled on sometimes – we really, really love getting out, talking to voters and observing politicians in the real world. It’s illuminating and great fun, which is why we also live for election year and the campaign – six to eight weeks of unbridled, adrenaline-soaked, relentless, exhausting, exhilarating politics in the wild.
So 2020 started in the field – and then the wheels came off. Covid, coups, conspiracies, scandal, ministerial screw ups, a sexting MP, leaks, lies, leadership… It was immense. My eyes were bulging, bloodshot and bagged by the time campaign o’clock came around. We were still ready, the Newshub politics team was pumped, but we were terrified of what lay ahead given the year had been so full of noise.
And so it began – a filthy electorate campaign in central Auckland with a senior National Party figure calling up talkback in the middle of the night pretending to be Merv from Manurewa to undermine one of his party’s own candidates. The crazy looked set to continue.
Then . . . like so much of the year . . . handbrake . . . Covid.
Back to Wellington, back to Covid, back to the 1pm presser and all its social media baggage.
Campaign round two and, miraculously, clear air. The clouds parted; the pressure had been released; the hyperdrive of 2020 went down a gear. We finally had policy to discuss – Matariki, drug harm reduction, business loans, tax, energy, electric vehicles, border policy.
It was, as the Prime Minister said, a Covid campaign. It was Covid that helped determine the outcome, Covid that cemented Jacinda Ardern’s reputation for strong leadership in a crisis – something we already knew following the Christchurch terror attack and the Whakaari / White Island disaster the year before.
Ask Ardern pre-election campaign about her leadership and the hellish trifecta of crises that beset us and she would kick to the broader team, showing humility. Whether you believe it was entirely genuine or not, she never wanted to make it about her. Come the campaign, it was a different story. Labour knew it was their not-so-secret weapon, a bazooka of political power. So often politics is about nuance, reading between the lines; the slightest change of language can mean so much.
National came into the campaign with one leg severed… an arm chopped off… two fingers amputated…Then, remarkably, it shot itself in its remaining foot
During a campaign subtlety goes out the window. Labour brazenly played the Covid card. During a rally in Wellington in the final throes of the campaign, Ardern trumpeted her leadership in a crisis: “You truly get to know your government and your leaders when disasters strike . . . the alternative is an opposition party that is focused on itself.”
It was also writ large in the political advertising Labour released, carefully workshopped and focus-grouped down to the letter: Jacinda Ardern prime ministerial in her ninth-floor office, calm, competent and in charge, with accents of Labour red and the portrait of Michael Joseph Savage placed just so.
But I struggle to see how National could have won the election even if Covid hadn’t happened.
What a litany of failure. Own goals, friendly fire and faux pas. The National Party’s annus horribilis was a remarkable exercise in political mismanagement. It was like an episode of The Thick of It had a baby out of wedlock in a church with an episode of House of Cards and somehow an episode of The Office was the surrogate. National could not catch a break and – barring Covid – the party only had itself to blame.
The party came into the campaign with one leg severed (the first coup), an arm chopped off (the second leadership change), two fingers amputated (Andrew Falloon, the sexting MP, and Hamish Walker, the MP who leaked Covid patients’ details) and several stubbed toes (including declaring Pākehā MP Paul Goldsmith Māori to make up for a lack of diversity). It was always going to struggle to make it across the finish line. Then, remarkably, it shot itself in its remaining foot. Paul Goldsmith’s “fiscal hole” undermined National’s sacred domain of responsible economic management while simultaneously blowing to pieces its one chance at a cracker, vote-winning election bribe – its tax cuts.
Gaffes became a theme of National’s campaign: Gerry Brownlee’s Covid conspiracy theorising (“interesting series of facts”); Judith Collins praying in front of media she’d invited, then pretending she didn’t want us there; her fat shaming and blaming (“We all have to own up to our little weaknesses”); Brownlee’s blowout – swearing at a young reporter (“Your people give me the shits. They’re bloody lazy as buggery”).
But it was an MP most New Zealanders would have struggled to place, Denise Lee, who lopped the head off this weird anatomical analogy I’ve adopted. She emailed the entire caucus with a supermarket list of strongly worded complaints about the leadership – an attack on the leadership, during an election campaign – which was leaked to Newshub’s Jenna Lynch. Firstly, you only send emails like this to the whole caucus if you want it to go further. This was meant for public consumption. Secondly, if you’re passionate enough about a party to become an MP, in theory you love your party. You may not like the leader, you may not like something they’ve done. In normal times, sure – you might leak about it, agitate, blow the whistle. During a campaign you’re supposed to put the party first. Do whatever you can to try to win. This email and subsequent leak so close to an election were the king hit that destroyed any chance of National securing a win.
NEW ZEALAND FIRST
Winston Peters is still the most recognisable man in New Zealand politics: the kingmaker, muckraker, pisstaker and ballbreaker.
Peters had a lot going for him this term. He started out as a statesman, had a successful stint (subbing for Ardern) as Acting Prime Minister, was well-regarded in foreign affairs. His ministers did well splashing cash around the regions and with the Defence Force. He flexed his coalition muscle. He could have run a more positive campaign by playing more to those strengths and trying to get some of Ardern’s stardust to rub off on him rather than attacking the government of which he was a part.
I spent a day with David Seymour in Arrowtown – that’s when I truly clocked the groundswell
But, like everyone, Peters struggled to get a word in edgeways during Covid. Throw in the Serious Fraud Office investigation into New Zealand First Foundation donations, top it all off with some bad advice from an ill-informed cabinet and advisors, and there was a confluence and display of all the bad bits of Winston Peters.
With all due respect to David Seymour and his band of merry newbies, the 900 per cent increase in his party is less about him and more about the National Party’s aforementioned howlers. That’s not to take away from the fact he had a very good term. Once he got past the desperate attention grabs in fluoro lycra he did the hard mahi on euthanasia, working tirelessly and across the aisle to get a piece of legislation he truly cared about passed.
His opposition to gun reform, on the other hand, was more about political opportunism. That’s politics though – they all do what they can to hold onto or increase their power.
And it all worked. It really became a reality for me when I spent a day with Seymour in Arrowtown – that’s when I truly clocked the groundswell. Almost everyone that Seymour wombled up to in the small town pledged him their support. Even David Seymour was surprised. Seeing Seymour’s teenie tiny dinky little ACT Party bus climbing through the majestic ranges of Central Otago was the perfect visual representation of what Decision 2020 was going to mean for Seymour. David was about to become Goliath.
Bloody brilliant. First up, ten points to Rawiri Waititi, the only person in New Zealand who could flip a Labour seat in the epoch of Juggernaut Jacinda. Then doubling their presence in Parliament on the specials, coat-tailing in Debbie Ngarewa-Packer. And from the second they walked through the doors at Parliament they’ve been an almighty presence.
“A pebble in the shoe of government”, Waititi said in his maiden speech. A Māori voice in every piece of legislation to come to the House. It’s particularly great to have an effective Māori opposition when there are so many Māori ministers in government. Those ministers have their work cut out for them: Labour has no excuses, no blaming New Zealand First and Winston Peters this term. Inequality and the disproportionate representation of Māori in all the wrong statistics has to be addressed.
The Greens have been attempting to strike the right balance of sitting at the table in government while simultaneously wanting to knock the table over
And a lot of those ministers should be worried about the Māori Party for political survival reasons too. Many of them are elected in Māori seats. At the rate the Māori Party is going, if they keep up the momentum and do what they’ve promised to do, it’s easy to see them increasing their party share in Parliament in 2023 and taking the fight to Labour big-time in the Māori electorates.
There was a very real risk the Green Party wouldn’t make it back this election. The party hovers around the 5 per cent threshold and when the Green School schmozzle was revealed, alienating many in the Green base, that could have spelled game over. The Greens played some pretty deft politics in the wake of the mess, James Shaw apologising 18 million times and then talking up the risk to their political future.
They exploited it and it paid off. Fear of the Greens being ousted got their supporters back onside; fear of a Labour-only government too: that bit didn’t work out so well for them. The Greens have been attempting to strike the right balance of sitting at the table in government while simultaneously wanting to knock the table over. So far they’ve got it about right: speaking out on housing, voting against the government’s top tax rate.
ADVANCE NEW ZEALAND
Advance New Zealand was the only other party – and I use the term loosely – to exit Parliament following the election. For their leader Jami- Lee Ross I have just two words: good riddance.
Taken from the new book Politics in a Pandemic: Jacinda Ardern and New Zealand’s 2020 election, edited by Stephen Levine (Victoria University Press, $50), featuring contributions and reflections by all the party leaders, plus selected media and a lot of policy wonks. Tova O’Brien’s chapter is republished here with courtesy of Newshub and VUP