Analysis: The verdicts of a coterie of independent economists and the investment bank Goldman Sachs are clear: National’s tax plan has some serious holes in it.
On the flip side, it’s also clear that if Chris Hipkins finds himself in a position to govern after the election, it will be with two coalition partners who have explicitly pledged to implement a wealth tax he has ruled out.
These are legitimate issues for both parties. Instead of debating them, National and Labour have devolved into wild mudslinging. Press releases pile up in reporters’ inboxes each day. Politicians take to the black and white tiles in Parliament – normally barren during an election campaign – to rebut the latest allegations against their party and launder a new set of attacks against the other side.
In 2018, Donald Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon told a journalist his key strategy.
“The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”
Though neither Labour nor National have quite the same attitude to the media, the strategy is the same.
The flurry of attacks, some with substance and some completely baseless, makes it impossible for voters to tell what’s actually wrong. It’s far easier to tune out than take the time to piece together which of Labour’s allegations stack up and which of National’s do too.
That’s the point. On some of these issues, the parties have no good answers. Christopher Luxon, when pressed on Monday morning about Goldman Sachs saying National’s tax plan would be inflationary, simply responded, “I disagree”.
Rather than debate them seriously, the parties have chosen to muddy the waters. Throwing everything at one another to see what sticks crowds out even the attacks that matter.
Hence, National’s near-daily press releases highlighting whichever Labour MP or candidate has recently suggested they personally support a wealth tax. These comments aren’t intended to reveal a hidden plot to impose a tax if reelected, but aren’t a surprise when much of the party – most of the country, even – thinks such a tax is a good idea. There are legitimate questions for Hipkins to answer about post-election negotiations, but the implication that he is lying to the electorate is simply unfounded.
Or, on the other hand, the almost daily release that reporters wake up to from Labour, putting the spotlight on either the latest criticism of National’s tax plan or else the party’s crisis over potentially needing to work with New Zealand First. Some of these findings are worthwhile, as with the Goldman Sachs report. But the constant negativity – Hipkins now starts almost every one of his stand-ups with an attack on National, rather than a positive message – makes it hard to piece important from nonsense.
Journalists do a good job of parsing what’s bunk from what’s not, but increasingly voters don’t receive this information mediated through news.
On social media, according to the New Zealand Social Media Study, the volume of positive posts still outweighs negative posts (though not for National, which is more negative than Labour). Still, the negative posts that do arise can just as easily be a baseless attack as a substantive one.
In the end, everyone loses when campaigns devolve to this sort of mudslinging.
Voters tune out or decide it’s simply too hard to get to the truth of a matter and vote without being fully informed. It also drags down the favourability and popularity of both contenders for the top job.
We should aspire to an election where people vote for candidates they believe in. Though both Hipkins and Luxon may have natural deficiencies in that regard, flooding the zone with shit ensures we get a campaign where the least disliked wins, rather than the most favoured.