Opinion: There can seldom have been a situation where conditions have so strongly favoured a political party going into an election, but where that party is far from assured of success. National is much better placed than Labour to win this year’s election, but it is not at all certain that it will do so.
This is a considerable achievement on National’s part. Most opinion polls now show voters rate National significantly ahead of Labour on all the major issues – from the economy and the cost of living, to law and order and even more traditional Labour issues such as education and health.
But despite the emerging public preference for its policies, National has still been unable to persuade enough voters to trust it to lead the next government. While the National/ACT bloc has been ahead of the Labour/Green bloc for many months now, the lead has now reduced to a hair’s breadth, when it should be increasing.
National has now slipped behind Labour for the first time in over a year, and its advantage in the overall centre-right/centre-left contest occurs only because ACT is polling significantly better than the Greens. That itself should be a worry for moderate voters looking for a more centrist home than the current Labour government. A National-led government reliant on ACT to get over the line is unlikely to be the moderate, centrist alternative they are looking for.
National has taken a very long time to adjust to the changed political climate after Jacinda Ardern’s departure. It failed to recognise that once she went, the face of the government changed, a point quickly reinforced by Hipkins’ policy bonfire. He skilfully managed to paint a picture of a new Prime Minister leading a government with new and refreshed priorities, even though its personnel makeup was still basically the same as before.
In doing so, Hipkins has defused National’s clever early line that this was no more than the same old government as before, only with a different leader. But National seemed slow to pick up that it had been outmanoeuvred, and continued to plug that line to voters who were not showing much interest in it.
National’s next excuse for not making more traction was the complacent one that Hipkins has been enjoying a longer honeymoon than usual for new leaders because of the cyclones earlier in the year. So, they concluded, there was no point trying to score political points while cyclone relief remained the public focus.
As leader, Christopher Luxon looks solid and reliable, but he still appears very wooden and stiff in comparison with everyman Hipkins
Meanwhile, a 30-year record rise in the cost-of-living, increasing labour shortages, rising interest rates, and falling business confidence levels have all been reported, with barely a murmur of concern from National, still wary of interfering with the Prime Minister’s apparent voter honeymoon.
All that leaves National looking more and more like a sleepy bystander than an active participant in this year’s election race.
Yet the wheels of the Hipkins’ government are steadily loosening. Voters are already ranking it behind National on all the key issues. Moreover, the shoddy performance of some ministers in recent weeks and the tardy and inconsistent way in which the Prime Minister has dealt them, has reminded voters once more that this is one of the least talented Cabinets in a long time.
The same troubles that bedevilled Ardern and her attempts to achieve a transformational agenda are now striking at Hipkins’ attempts to restore “bread and butter” politics: ministers who simply are not up to the job.
Nor do the recent shenanigans within the Green Party over list rankings and family violence inspire any confidence that the election of more Green MPs would improve Labour’s performance in government. If anything, as Ardern ever so subtly implied in her valedictory speech, the process of governing would likely therefore become difficult.
If ever the time were ripe for National to seize the political initiative through to the election, it is now. Voters seem to be lining up more behind the policy direction National is promoting than that currently being delivered by Labour. But National is failing to grasp the essential point – that although people may agree with what it is saying, the polls strongly suggest they are not at all confident National can, or will, deliver those policies in government.
And while those doubts remain, and National still seems to be drifting, voters are not going to turn to it in the droves it needs to form a government. This is especially so when it looks more and more likely that the energy behind a future National-led government will come from ACT.
So, why is National failing to connect with New Zealand voters? Its top team of MPs – notably Nicola Willis, Chris Bishop, and Erica Stanford – look at least a match for Grant Robertson, Michael Woods, and Carmel Sepuloni. And National does not yet have the baggage of failed or under-performing ministers as Labour does.
Although lacking the diversity of Labour’s current ranks, National does appear to be making steps to address that through its current candidate selection round. As leader, Christopher Luxon looks solid and reliable, but he still appears very wooden and stiff in comparison with everyman Hipkins.
National’s failure to connect with voters has less to do with personnel, and even policy, but more to do with purpose. For all its faults, Labour still manages to convey a sense of no-time-to-waste focus and fervour in its policy approach, which sweeps people up in pursuit of the cause.
National, on the other hand, appears too methodical for its own good, lacking passion about what it stands for, which smacks of languid complacency. It desperately needs to breathe some fire and life into its hitherto lacklustre campaign. After all, if it cannot project enthusiasm, it cannot expect to inspire others.