The Labour leader has gone there. He’s publicly claiming his party has picked up ‘momentum’ in this campaign, that intangible factor so sought after by parties running behind in the polls.
Attending the autumn Moon Festival in Mt Eden, Chris Hipkins used the ‘m’ word twice, a risky strategy when Labour is at between 26 and 28 percent in the national polls and his claim could be debunked within days, when the next surveys are released.
Confidence or bravado? Internal Labour polling – or anecdotes and gut feelings from Hipkins himself and Labour members out in the field?
All the momentum so far has been with other parties: Act and National for a while (although theirs has ebbed), and more lately with the Greens and New Zealand First. Labour has fallen in seven 1News polls in a row, and in Newsroom’s poll of polls has pretty much flatlined for the past fortnight.
Hipkins is confident enough to claim: “We really picked up quite a bit of momentum in the past week. I’m feeling very optimistic that in two weeks’ time when the polls close we will do significantly better than the polls have shown up until now. We are going to do significantly better.”
Significantly better than 26-28 percent could mean many things – to nudge into the 30s and limit an electoral hiding or stretch further north towards where National currently sits in the high 30s.
Challenged to say if his optimism came from Labour’s internal polling, he said the party didn’t reveal its private figures.
Labour has almost laid out all its policies and in the remaining weeks Hipkins says it will concentrate on a “very energetic ground campaign to get out the vote. We’ve got a huge door-knocking campaign and I’m confident we are going to see a high turnout and the momentum we’ve seen in the last week or so is going to translate into a different outcome to the one many have been predicting.”
Certainly Hipkins’ demeanour was relatively buoyant. He led a posse of his MPs into the muddy grounds of Potters Park in Mt Eden for the Chinese festival and bounded up to the waiting Chinese Ambassador Wang Xiaolong with a big smile and hearty handshake.
Calling on his visit to China in late June, Hipkins’ speech underscored the decades and breadth of relations between the two countries and Wang responded thanking “all levels of government in New Zealand” for their good relations with the Chinese community.
The National leader Christopher Luxon visited the festival on Friday, before the official opening. Politicians from both main parties attended, with six Labour MPs and two candidates tailing Hipkins in the crowd and four from National (and former MP Dr Jian Yang, who was revealed to have taught at a Chinese spy academy before emigrating to New Zealand).
Hipkins had a Saturday crammed with events with the Chinese, Cook Islands, rainbow and then Islamic communities, and will release Labour’s election manifesto during an Auckland blitz on Sunday.
Luxon was in Hamilton through Saturday and will also be campaigning in Auckland on Sunday.
Hipkins has had former leader Andrew Little at his side, alongside the Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni, of late. Little, who stood aside for Jacinda Ardern in 2017 and allowed the Jacindamania bounceback that contributed to the party taking power, said that as a list MP he had the time to join the leader’s events.
In his time as leader (between the 2014 and 2017 elections, so he never fought a campaign proper) he’d done some of the things Hipkins was now undertaking and could offer support where necessary.
He laughed off a suggestion he might be the new Annette King, his and Jacinda Ardern’s deputy leader who in 2017 acted as a personal mentor, confidant and supporter at Ardern’s side through much of what was also the leader’s first election campaign.
Little said he wasn’t privy to real time party internal polling but backed Hipkins’ sense that Labour was picking up support.
Contrasting the feeling with that of the 2014 election campaign, when David Cunliffe was leader and Labour attracted just 27.5 percent of the vote, he said the feedback on the doorstep and in public meetings was quite different, and was not what had been reflected in public opinion polls lately.
Hipkins mentioned what could be a holy grail for Labour, a high voter turnout, and it was Little who featured the Labour leader in a social media post this week highlighting the benefits of early voting which opens from Monday.
Newsroom understands some in Labour feel its vaunted volunteer machine has not kicked into gear fully this campaign, with one source suggesting where once dozens of people would turn out at this point in the cycle to door-knock, currently it could be as low as low single figures in even vote-rich suburbs.
But there is some confidence – which might be more a case of hope – that the machine swings into action, the volunteers join the race for the next fortnight and previous successes in getting out to vote can turn the current tide.
One MP commented at another event recently that getting people to open their doors was giving that electorate’s team the chance “to talk people back from the ledge” of giving up on Labour and backing other parties.
Which is not really indicative of a positive surge for Labour if the volunteers aren’t yet out in force.
At a media stand-up at the festival, Hipkins repeated his concern that one of his candidates had been assaulted at a campaign event and a Te Pāti Māori party candidate had had her home invaded and a threatening letter left behind.
Assaults, attacks or other behaviour threatening candidates showed “total contempt” for the democratic process, he said.
Labour’s candidate Angela Roberts, grabbed and slapped on the face by a meeting attendee last week, has now referred the incident to the police in Taranaki.
Hipkins hadn’t been briefed on the home invasion allegation from Te Pāti Maōri candidate Hana-Rāwhiti Maipi-Clarke, and thought it would be inappropriate during a campaign for police to share information with another party leader such as himself.
He said: “There’s more racism and misogyny that we have seen in previous elections. I have full respect for the women and Māori who put themselves forward for elected office. They have my absolute respect and support. They should not, however, have to put up with abuse.”
Asked if he thought political rhetoric was fuelling anger or extreme feelings, he said it was clear some parties were seeking to divide New Zealanders, to set groups against others, attacking Māori, and transgender people.
“There are a number of parties out there that are deliberately seeking to persecute minorities.”
Asked which parties, Hipkins said he’d called out New Zealand First in the Newshub leaders’ debate for one of its candidates’ racist comments about Māori.
“We’ve seen Winston Peters himself attacking New Zealand’s gender diverse community.
“If you look at his comments he’s clearly setting out to attack certain parts of the community.”
People who were inciting some of the behaviour should think again. “I don’t want to level any particular allegations. I just think everyone needs to take a step back.
“I certainly hope that this is a moment where everybody takes a little bit of stock and thinks about how they’re going to engage in this campaign. I have no problem with people being passionate … but there are a hundred ways of expressing that without physically getting up in someone’s space.”