Opinion: Last weekend was a weekend of two teams – the champion Crusaders, who won their seventh straight Super Rugby title since 2017, and the National Party desperate to win its first general election since 2017. The contrast could not have been more marked. The Crusaders have made a habit of winning in adverse circumstances, but National is still struggling to capture the public imagination, despite a political situation turning more and more in its favour.

Much of the Crusaders’ recent success has been built on their ability to capitalise on the mistakes of their opponents – a skill National has yet to learn. Many conversations today are highly critical, bordering on loathing, of the Hipkins’ government’s performance but they have yet to translate into a positive feeling for National, with just over three months to go until the election.

In many quarters there is a strong sense that Labour’s days are deservedly numbered but the public opinion polls continue to paint a picture of a virtually deadlocked election outcome, despite the rising criticism of the government and what it is doing.

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The Michael Wood saga should be the final nail in Labour’s coffin, but there is no real evidence yet that it will be. Most people are not interested in Wood’s share portfolio, or his failure to declare it as he should have.

Of more concern is the impression it creates, coming on the back of a succession of other ministerial scandals in recent months, of a government in disarray, and a Prime Minister forced to be more focused on patching up the internal cracks than the “bread and butter” issues he said would be his priority when he took office.

This is especially so at a time when the weekly shopping bill is rising steeply, and when the economy’s immediate prospects are looking increasingly negative. So far, though, none of this is being reflected in the public opinion polls, although there are reports that some internal party polls since the Wood affair escalated have shown a significant drop in Labour’s support.

Last weekend’s National Party conference was therefore the perfect opportunity for National to capitalise on what has been happening in recent weeks by seizing the high ground and setting out the steps it would take to ensure a more principled and ethical approach to the way government works, should it lead the next one.

When presented with opportunities, National (more like the Blues than the Crusaders) does not yet understand how to capitalise fully upon them

But, instead, the big announcement was of a new hard-line law and order policy, normally more associated with ACT or even New Zealand First in its heyday.

It was a missed opportunity which looked more about staunching the steady flow of votes to ACT on National’s right than winning over new voters. The policy will undoubtedly appeal to National’s rural and provincial base. But although law and order looms as a major election issue throughout the whole country, the hard-line approach set out at the weekend is unlikely to hold the same appeal to those urban liberal voters National lost to Labour in 2020, whom it now needs to win back in droves if it is to return to government.  

The announcement had all the hallmarks of having been devised as a conference set-piece many weeks ago. Luxon has been flagging the law-and-order issue in many of his recent speeches, so an announcement of this type was no real surprise. But it still looks more like an opportunist response to a significant problem, rather than an important component of an integrated set of policies to “get New Zealand back on track” as Luxon has been promising.

The Labour government has been reeling because of the Wood affair. Ministers’ responses to National’s announcement show a sense of clear relief that they can now shift the focus to picking holes in the less thoroughly thought-out aspects of National’s policy, rather than continuing to have to try to explain away Wood’s apparent amnesia.

It is hard to imagine the Crusaders, whom Luxon (like me!) so loyally supports, making such a simple mistake on-field. If ever there were an opportunity for National to have made a strong statement about how it would restore the mana of government and public trust after years of failed policies and overblown promises from Labour, the weekend’s conference was it.

But by making a visionless, reactive law-and-order announcement their conference centrepiece, when many people were looking to the party for a new sense of direction and purpose, National blew it. It was a moment they let get away, something Luxon’s Crusaders would never have done.

For its part, Labour will welcome the fact that for a few weeks at least (if they are lucky, until Sir Maarten Wevers’ report on Wood’s handling of his pecuniary affairs comes out much nearer to the election) they have the chance to focus on their issues and regain some of their lost momentum. The outcome of the Prime Minister’s visit to China – the first by a New Zealand leader in four years – is likely to feature strongly. 

But they are far from out of the woods yet. There are still lingering issues from the Stuart Nash case to be addressed; Minister of Education Jan Tinetti’s Privileges Committee case has yet to be resolved, and the Wevers report on Wood could contain yet more damaging revelations.

Labour’s only consolations may be that according to the polls, at least, voters are not getting too excited by all these happenings, nor yet seeing the National Party significantly more favourably. And that when presented with opportunities, National (more like the Blues than the Crusaders) does not yet understand how to capitalise fully upon them.

Luxon proudly wore his Crusaders shirt to the National Party conference on the eve of last Saturday’s Super Rugby final. While it was a bold and somewhat unexpected gesture, it would have carried more impact had he shown that National was going to lift the bar in politics the way the Crusaders have in rugby.

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