Opinion: It was no surprise that Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon were quick to condemn the recent killing of a young woman in the boy-racer incident in Rangiora and the fatal bus station attack on Auckland’s North Shore. There is, after all, an election campaign going on, and politicians need to muster all the empathy they can in difficult situations.

But there were deeper reasons for Hipkins’ and Luxon’s quick responses. Both know that lawlessness is a major election concern, and both have their own distinct responses to that.

Spectre of defeat should spur Hipkins and Luxon, but where’s the passion?
The latest charts and data on Election 2023
Practice makes Luxon less imperfect

For National, it is all because the Labour Government has been soft on crime, focused more on keeping people out of prison than keeping communities safe. Hence, they argue, the rise in violent offending and the need for a stricter approach to youth offending through the re-introduction of measures such as boot-camps and the three strikes law.

Labour, on the other hand, blames the rise in violent crime on wider social factors such as the rising cost-of-living and the pressures that is causing. It favours more supportive measures such as wrap-around services for at-risk young people. It dismisses National’s call for tougher penalties as a return to the reactionary ways of the past that never worked and will not work now.

Unfortunately, the spate of violent incidents this week does not fit well with Labour’s narrative and will confirm for many people that their communities have become less safe in recent years. Whatever the specific factors behind each incident, they will blame the Government for what has happened. Already struggling in the polls, Hipkins will know that any more attacks like these will surely sink his electoral chances more swiftly than any barb Luxon and his colleagues can throw.

The current voter malaise therefore puts the next government on early notice that, once formed, its major priority, above all its pet projects and wish-lists, will be to reconnect with a disillusioned electorate. At present, neither major party appears to be focusing on that

The breakdown in law and order all fits with the wider malaise gripping the country. Many people are still trying to put their lives and businesses back together after the pandemic, and more recently the cyclones, in increasingly uncertain economic times. Focusing on politics, even for a few brief weeks, is therefore not the priority in their lives the politicians would like it to be. They are more interested in getting themselves back on track and feel frustrated the politicians are not listening to them.

This frustration is giving way to a perception of a widespread, although unspecific, mood for change in the electorate. But that may not be enough to inspire voters to go out and vote for change. Many are saying they are so disillusioned they will just stay home on election day, because none of the parties inspire them.

That is why this election campaign is being lamented as one of the most tedious and lacking in excitement in a long time. Candidates, commentators, and the voting public alike are complaining that the campaign seems to be dragging on interminably. The sooner the election is over, the better, many are feeling. Candidates are reporting from their doorstep conversations that people have been generally polite and courteous, even if not especially interested.

In many respects, the reaction parallels what happened in the 1990 election – the year of Labour’s record landslide loss to National. As one of the few Labour MPs to survive that election, I well recall the reaction when we got together after the election to lick our wounds and work out what had happened. Many of us noted how civil the campaign had been, something that appeared at odds with our decisive rejection at the election.

But then it dawned on us that the reason for that civility was that voters had long since made up their minds to change the government, so there was little point in being angry or aggressive during the election period. Instead, the courteous hearings we thought we were receiving, were really voters saying goodbye. Having long since decided to toss the government out, there was no need to waste time telling its candidates so before the election.

The same appears to be happening again. For many voters the campaign has become irrelevant because they have already made their minds up, and are patiently waiting for voting to start, so they can make the change they seek. There is therefore no need for them to be rude or belligerent towards politicians in the meantime.

The same feeling also explains why the persistent criticisms of National’s tax policy numbers have so far not been more damaging. And it also explains why Labour’s big-ticket items – GST off fresh fruit and vegetables and free dental care for under 30s – appear to have had little impact. People do not believe the big promises politicians make any more.

It is, of course, possible there will be some dramatic turn of events in the next couple of weeks which shakes everyone out of their lethargy and brings the election campaign to life, but it is unlikely. Instead, the parties seem destined to continue trotting out their same old messages their same old way to an electorate that seems to be no longer listening. In less than two weeks, the campaign looks set to become even flatter once early voting begins. If the pattern of the last election continues, nearly half of voters will vote before election day.

The current voter malaise therefore puts the next government on early notice that, once formed, its major priority, above all its pet projects and wish-lists, will be to reconnect with a disillusioned electorate. At present, neither major party appears to be focusing on that.

Violent incidents like those we have seen this week jolt politicians back into a sense of reality about what is happening in our communities. Although they are immediately powerless to do anything to reverse those tragedies, they know they must be seen to respond sympathetically, hence Hipkins’ and Luxon’s reactions. However, for fatigued and uninterested voters their words will be nowhere near enough.

Peter Dunne was the leader of United Future and served as a minister in former National and Labour governments.

Leave a comment