Tim Murphy, Annabelle Lee-Mather, Guyon Espiner and Heather du Plessis-Allan give their views on the election campaign so far to the Auckland Bell Gully event. Photo: David St George

There comes a stage in the life of a government when incumbents, beset by poor poll results, begin to feel puzzled at why the public don’t understand how good their government has been, why they’re not grateful for what that party has done for them.

It is almost subliminal. The governing party can see a tide turning but can’t understand or accept why that might be.

There are hints of that now at Labour Party media standups and in campaign comments. It usually starts with suggestions the media hasn’t or won’t get out the real message of whatever the party in power’s beneficence and achievements have been. Or that the public haven’t been focused yet, that the true message will resonate once it lands.

A phase in that pre-election grieving process is to warn voters to be careful what they wish for in the upcoming vote. Finance Minister Grant Robertson offered a version of that this week at the Pre Election Economic and Fiscal Update announcement.

Two weeks into the official campaign, two panels of prominent political journalists have been weighing the prospects of voters heeding that kind of message, and of Labour saving this election from the jaws of defeat that the poll trends predict.

Law firm Bell Gully held election panels of three journalists in both Auckland and Wellington for clients and staff to hear from those in the thick of the campaign, either covering the travelling circus or interviewing and assessing the players in real time.

The Auckland brains trust featured Newstalk ZB drive host Heather du Plessis-Allan, former The Hui producer and current affairs journalist Annabelle Lee-Mather and RNZ investigations journalist and former Morning Report host Guyon Espiner.

They are a fairly eclectic bunch, engaging with politicians over the years in various guises, platforms and formats, but they were pretty much at one about this election campaign so far: 

All agreed the tide has possibly moved out too far for Labour now, even if there are still decent performances to come at the ballot box by the Greens and Te Pāti Māori.

Du Plessis-Allan thought the polling trends even after week one were probably embedded now and the mood for change was becoming more apparent.

Espiner said a Freshwater-The Post poll tested voters’ feelings on the various coalition possibilities and National and Act had around 47 percent positive, while if Labour and the Greens had to coalesce with Te Pāti Māori the response fell to the mid-30s or below. “That so-called coalition of chaos makes it even less likely that [Labour] is going to get there.”

Lee-Mather also thought we seem set for a National-Act government, albeit with both major parties pulling more support than now and the support parties ebbing as voters had their “come to Jesus” moment.

Voters’ relatively slow acceptance of National leader Christopher Luxon personally was put down to a lack of authenticity before the public and with women in particular. Du Plessis-Allan was direct: “He’s inauthentic, right … and it’s just the alarm bells are going off with him because it’s not real.” Luxon would have had to be decisive, brutal even, in his former executive roles and needed to show some of that. 

“I almost think if he played more of the corporate business guy who’s a bit more brutal than he has been right now, he’d risk annoying some people on the left but I think he would appeal to more people. His problem is he’s trying to be someone who he’s not.”

Lee-Mather put some of voter reticence to embrace Luxon down to NZ women seeing the erosion of women’s rights in the US. “And dare I say it his religious beliefs, and I think [they’re] a bit suspicious about that along with some of the other members of the National Party.”

Espiner’s been around NZ political campaigns a long time and thought the Luxon doubts would pass. “You can be an unpopular leader who makes it as a Prime Minister,” he said, citing first Jim Bolger and then Helen Clark.

“I don’t believe for a second he’s going to do anything about the abortion issue. He’s not going to go near it. But he’s allowed himself to be trapped there and, you watch, in the next few weeks any opportunity the left has to lay an IED in the middle of the road for him on the issue, they’ll do that. He’s paying the price for his lack of political experience.”

The consensus feeling at the Auckland panel that current polling trends will be vastly difficult to overcome for Labour was matched by the second media panel assembled in Wellington and sharing their thoughts in Parliament’s Grand Hall in week two.

1 News‘ deputy political editor Maiki Sherman, Newshub political journalist Lloyd Burr and National Affairs Editor for the Sunday Star-Times and The Post newspaper and site Andrea Vance emphasised the mood for change they were picking up on the hustings.

From left: Tim Murphy, Andrea Vance, Lloyd Burr and Maiki Sherman. 

But Vance cautioned against writing off Labour just yet. Citing a poor start by National’s Bill English in 2017 against the phenomenon that was Jacinda Ardern’s crashing onto the scene, she said English found his voice over the issue of water taxes and “that really fired him up”. (English’s National Party took 45 percent of the party vote to Ardern’s Labour on 37 percent but lost when New Zealand First opted to join Labour.)

English had surged, Vance said. “They definitely can turn it around. Leaders can turn it around.”

“In our Freshwater poll, if you look at the underlying data, the undecided and soft voters still very much favour Labour so there’s a lot of people who still haven’t made up their minds.”

Sherman said if she was Labour’s leader she’d be reminding the candidates there was still everything to play for. “But it probably is a bit of a fairytale, at this stage.”

She’d been surprised by the level of competitiveness shown by Luxon in everyday campaign pursuits, in a bike race with a teenager, in scooping ice cream.

Having spent time on the road with Hipkins, Burr said the Prime Minister “looked a bit miserable… he just looks bored, not hungry enough. It just kind of feels like he’s resigned to [the fact] that he’s not going to win.

“He’s terrible on the campaign but in the debates there might be a bit of a point in which people go: ‘Okay he’s much better.’ But I think he just needs to show people that he wants to talk to them, likes listening to them.”

Burr believed Luxon had developed “an air of arrogance about him, maybe a disdain for the media. At media conferences, as soon as you challenge him on something, he’ll just walk out and walk off. The more he looks Prime Ministerial the more he can’t do that because you actually become more accountable.”

Vance said Luxon had improved on the campaign trail but still appeared to be emulating all that he could from the John Key experience. “But Key genuinely enjoyed it and got energy from being out there and doing these crazy things and talking to people. I don’t get the same sense from Luxon. I do think he’s faking it until he makes it. He’s like a robot at this point, just repeating the same things over and over again.”

On the key factors emerging in the campaign, Vance said the old maxim of it being the economy, stupid, was as true this time as ever. “I think the message that Luxon has that National is a better manager of the economy and will turn things around is resonating.

“But I think more than anything, more than policy, more than anything … people feel like now it’s time for a change – ‘We’ve given these guy a go and we want to see what the other side can do’.”

Sherman: “I think Covid has added another three years on to Labour’s time and basically you’re looking at a Government that has had nine years. So that’s the challenge. There’s just that fatigue, that public fatigue with the current government.”

National-Act-NZF possible coalition negotiations

For the sake of debate, the panels first examined a scenario in which National could govern with Act after October 14. What would Act fight hardest for?

In Wellington, Burr said it had proved frustrating trying to seek any “bottom lines” for negotiations from Act leader David Seymour. He thought National might be easily able to live with, say, abolishing the fees-free first year of tertiary study, and removing altogether the bright line test for taxing residential housing profits it currently aims to cut to a two-year timeframe. It might go along with an Act push for some asset sales, perhaps Kiwibank.

Du Plessis-Allan told the Auckland audience there would be three priorities for Act in a governing arrangement with National – education reform, cutting the public service and ending co-governance of public agencies.

Seymour was “obsessed” with education. “I don’t buy the argument he wants to be finance minister or deputy prime minister. I think education is probably what he wants, and it’ll be a fight to get if off [National’s] Erica Stanford, but she might just have to suck it up.” Seymour wanted substantial change to the way education was funded, with vouchers for parents to choose.

Lee-Mather said if Act pushed National to water down the place of the Treaty in legislation, even then it would be too late because New Zealand, including many businesses, was already moving to be a Treaty-centric society, conscious of partnering with the Māori economy. “You can’t change what’s already happening in society.”

While National and Act could move on things like abolishing the Māori Health Authority, without entering a major political background if they devolved funding and services to Māori from the overall Ministry of Health, Espiner wondered if a new government would really want to buy a big fight on wider Treaty and co-governance issues.

To Seymour’s public musings about crafting a new governing arrangement offering National support on votes of confidence but making all ‘supply’ or government spending votes negotiable on a case-by-case basis, Vance agreed it was most likely the posturing of a smaller, partner party.

If Act’s poll numbers kept ebbing (as they have from the mid teens to 11 or 10 percent in the most recent wave of poll results) she said Seymour might not have the hand that he thought he would have.

He could well get his hoped-for war on red tape and regulations, with a nominated minister or agency. “I think National would give him that, in some form.”

National could try to buy Seymour off with the deputy Prime Ministership to make it look like he had greater influence than Act might secure. 

“Ultimately, he knows that if he sits it out, or heaven forbid, allows a return of a Labour government of a New Zealand First-National coalition without Act around the table, his voters wouldn’t stand for that after 10 years of rebuilding the party back from the ashes,” Vance said. “So I think he’ll be more of a poodle than he lets on.”

The NZ First factor

Would New Zealand First and Winston Peters make it to that table?

Sherman said “it absolutely looks like it’s heading that way. If he manages to pull it off that is a massive comeback.”

But she’d heard his talk of Māori not being indigenous, for example, all before. Now he had picked up other disenfranchised voices, even those concerned about trans people using toilets.

She said Seymour, for one, was cross Peters was even getting broadcast time and did not want New Zealand First there. “They’re kind of in competition.”

Burr believed Peters would do anything, gathering any group of people together to get back. “It is a party of disillusion. He’s scraping the bottom of the barrel, all the people who are disillusioned about everything in this country.”

Espiner told the Auckland meeting Act was a party of ideologues. If the right won, “it’s going to be a bloody interesting government. I feel like David Seymour, unlike someone like Winston Peters who has so often been the coalition partner, Seymour for the most part genuinely believes in what he says.”

Lee-Mather said three months ago she would have ruled out a NZ First comeback but she had completely underestimated “what an apex political predator” he was, capturing little pockets of disaffected votes and putting them under his korowai. She didn’t think Peters would really care, for example, whether former MP Georgina Beyer used one toilet or another.

Du Plessis-Allan said he was attracting people who couldn’t vote for Luxon because they didn’t like him and couldn’t quite vote for Act because “they’re still a bit weird” but wanted to vote for a change of government. 

Asked if such a strategic pivot at the age of 77 was a remarkable achievement, Espiner said: “He’s now at the midpoint of his political career.”

“It is strange to watch from where we watch it, because it is like the New Zealand electorate goes one circuit around the goldfish bowl and then utterly forgets where they were. ‘Oh, this guy was great. Look at his smile’.

“There would be no one in the world who’s been in politics for 40 years but pitches themselves as an outsider.”

Espiner believed NZ First would get into Parliament but not necessarily into government. “This time, for once, he’s ruled out one side. He’s had his whole career as a leverage player. It looks to me that he wants to get back into Parliament but probably isn’t super-fussed about being in government.”

It was possible, if National and Act didn’t quite put together a majority over 60 seats, that Luxon might go to, say, the Greens, NZ First and Te Pāti Māori on different issues of supply, rather than invite Winston Peters into a Cabinet room.

A coalition if Labour can hold on

Looking at the other possible coalition outcome, Labour scraping back with the Greens and possibly Te Pāti Māori, the panelists at both events felt the chances were much lower and the options for policy deals that could unite all three were scarce.

Asked what kind of a government that might be, Espiner said: “It’d be a short one.”

“It’s really difficult to see, isn’t it. And when you get closer to polling day you realise the brutal mathematics of it. When you see the mix of the cocktail, you’d have to have to get that over the line, you’d have to say that it looks unlikely.”

Du Plessis-Allan: “Labour would have to swallow such a massive dead rat on one of those taxes. So they’ll have to go capital gains tax but that doesn’t bring money in for ages so they’ll have to probably think about another income tax bracket or a wealth tax. That would be about the only thing I’d predict about that government, because it’s not going to happen to be honest with you.”

Lee-Mather: “I think that yes, they’ll have to make a lot of concessions when it comes to a revenue-generating tax. But I don’t think it’ll be a wealth tax, per se, I think they’ll look to something like excess profits or a land tax and definitely a shift in the income brackets.”

Andrea Vance told the Wellington audience that while the Greens had said they had no bottom lines, they obviously had “very ambitious plans around wealth or capital gains tax”.

“And Labour has ruled that out and can’t really open that again because they wouldn’t have a mandate to do it. So that’s going to be a complex deal they’re going to have to deal with in negotiations.”

She said Te Pāti Māori’s bottom lines, according to president John Tamihere, were an exit from the Five Eyes intelligence pact – “Well, that’s not going to happen … a capital gains tax, which isn’t going to happen. A ghost house tax, which I think Labour could do, and then GST off kai, which they’re going to do partly anyway. So I think that’s an easy win for them.”

“I think if any party was going to sit on the parliamentary cross benches, it’d be Te Pāti Māori.

“In terms of the Greens, they’re not going to get a wealth tax so they would go hard on their climate emissions reduction policies. And I think they’ll go hard on public house building, which I think Labour could agree to.”

Sherman believed neither of Labour’s potential coalition partners could expect to achieve much – “again because there’s not much wriggle room financially.  I definitely agree there’s not going to be a wealth tax. No new taxes.”

Te Pāti Māori wanted to abolish prisons and spent billions here and there. “That’s not going to happen”

She doubted that party would even get the Māori Affairs minister role. “You know what, it’s really hard to think about what that kind of coalition could look like.”

Burr disagreed on new taxes, saying the parties might be able to address a wealth tax by instead calling it an ultra rich levy – targeting the very wealthy and clearly not aimed at others.

* Bell Gully is a foundation supporter of Newsroom

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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