Labour-National spat gives voters the last laugh

Peter Dunne

Peter Dunne

Wellington, October 13, 2023

The last National Party campaign leaflet received in my letterbox this week urged me to “Please party vote National.”

Unlike the bold promise of “A Brighter Future” under Sir John Key, or Dame Jacinda Ardern’s positive “Let’s Do This,” National’s message looked more like a plea for help than a call to arms. 

In a way, it summed up the whole election campaign. None of the parties – perhaps apart from Te Pati Māori, seeking to appeal to a distinct constituency – has offered anything substantially different from what is already happening. The election campaign has been far less a contest of ideas, than one of which grouping of parties dislike each other least but think they can manage the status quo best.

Negative attacks

Labour’s campaign has focused almost entirely on what a National/ACT government might do.

Its own achievements over six years in government have been barely mentioned. In part, this is because its delivery of the transformational approach Ardern promised in 2017 has been so abysmal, and in part, it is because Labour’s prospects of being able to continue in government have been diminishing for months now.

Even this week as the polls show a slight improvement in Labour’s position, but still not enough to remain in government, the negative attacks continue.

National’s campaign has fluctuated from the quiet confidence of a party being a government-in-waiting two or three weeks ago, and not wanting to do anything to upset a seemingly unstoppable wave to power, to something far more hesitant after its own goal regarding New Zealand First.

National now realises opening the door to New Zealand First was a major tactical blunder, hence its current panic. Its previous hopes of a clean National/ACT coalition have all but evaporated, and the prospect of New Zealand First attempting to once more hold the country to ransom looms ever larger. No wonder it is now delivering the plaintive and desperate “Please party vote National” message.

Key’s warning about the country waking up to “limboland” this coming Sunday now looks set to come to pass. While a National-led government of some type is still the most likely election outcome, it may take some time to finalise.

The tactics of NZ First

New Zealand First has always delayed entering negotiations until the final election results have been declared. That will not be until November 3, meaning any talks involving New Zealand First could still be underway when the Port Waikato by-election occurs on November 25. If there is a prospect, depending on results on Saturday, of National and ACT not needing New Zealand First after the by-election, they may prefer to drag discussions with New Zealand First out until that time.

Ardern’s last-minute message to Labour supporters to “Vote for what you believe in” is far more ambiguous than Key’s blunt warning. She goes on to spell out in her video message the things that are important to her. But, given the current environment of an overwhelming mood for change, her message could encourage those who voted Labour for the first time in their lives in the 2020 pandemic election to cast their votes elsewhere this time around. While her message is closest to expressing a vision for the future that has been lacking elsewhere throughout the campaign, it is probably too little, too late to have a marked effect on Labour’s chances.

Labour’s negativity during the campaign and its indifferent record over the last six years inspires little confidence that a new Labour-led government can get on top of the cost-of-living crisis or restore economic growth.

Despite a nearly 70% increase in public spending since Labour came to power, there remains little confidence it knows how to improve critical public services in health and education.

Tax Policy doubts

Doubts about National’s tax policy and overall fiscal plans are detracting from its economic credibility. While polls still show National rates significantly higher than Labour on economic management and other key issues, its responses to criticisms during the campaign have reduced those rankings somewhat. In its favour, though, is its discipline.

Unlike Labour, where numerous MPs have either dismissed its chances of victory or disagreed with Hipkins’ call not to introduce wealth and capital gains taxes, National’s MPs and candidates have remained focused and on-message.

So, at the end of the campaign, it looks like coming down to this. Labour wants your vote to keep National, ACT and New Zealand First out. The concessions it may have to make to the Greens and Te Pati Māori are secondary considerations.

National just wants to be back in power and will do “whatever it takes” to get there.

What sacrifices it might make to New Zealand First to do so are also unknown, but National says it will be able to manage them.

Faulty perceptions 

Both Labour and National have fallen into the trap of assuming voters see the world the way they do. They assume their coded warnings and messages to their presumed supporters about the risks of voting for the other side will be heeded in the polling booths.

But in an environment where the common theme seems to be a mood for change – however that is defined and whatever form it may take – and where the election campaign has been so staid, these messages and warnings may not be enough to secure people’s loyalty.

In the privacy of the polling booth, voters may yet have the last laugh.

Peter Dunne is a former Minister of the Crown (December 1999 to September 2017). He lives in Wellington and writes a weekly column.

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