We are in for a close election

Opinion by Roger Childs

Judith Collins 1The elevation of Judith Collins to the National Party leadership will see the party close the gap in the opinion polls on Labour. Previously we were heading for the September election with the Ardern-led government almost certain to be returned with an increased majority. But with the experienced, no-nonsense Collins now in charge of the Opposition the odds will narrow.

Labour have been sustained by the popularity of the Covid-19 strategy and the less than expected damage to the economy. Under Todd Muller’s short term as leader, National made a series of blunders culminating in the stupidity of Michelle Boag and Hamish Walker releasing privileged information to the media. This was the catalyst for a change in the leadership and Collins now has the chance she has wanted for some years.

No easy task with Labour in the ascendant

Ms MournfulJudith Collins will not under-estimate her challenge, but will take comfort from the knowledge that the prime minister came from nowhere at a similar time in 2017 to claim the top political prize later in the year. The Coalition government has had its ups and downs over the last two and a half years, but their economic management has been sound. 

However, the Coronavirus crisis changed everything. Jacinda took charge of the government’s response and along with the talented and unruffled Director General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield, reported daily on trends and progress. Basing decisions on the information from scientists and health officials the government developed a logical strategy of moving through Covid-19 levels to lockdown and out again. Of course they could have acted faster to test at airports and closed the borders earlier, however the objective of flattening the infection curve worked and the cases are now down to a trickle. The country’s success is the envy of many counties and states, and public approval of the approach, which did involve major restrictions to people’s rights and freedom of action, has been over 80%.

Grant Robertson 1There were critics who pounced on the occasional mistakes and missteps, and there were claims that the economy “had been smashed”, a depression was looming and unemployment would rise to the mid-teens. However, under the astute Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, a Covid-19 rescue package was quickly put in place to help businesses and those put out of work. This has been refined and expanded as time has passed. There were howls about the cost of this strategy and questions over how it would be paid back, but surely National would have done something similar. As it happened the economy has survived and recovered better than many expected, but obviously there will still be major consequences when financial assistance to workers and businesses runs out.

Jacinda has ridden the Covid-19 wave with confidence to taken her party to increased popularity in the polls. She and Bloomfield have been polished performers on early afternoon television throughout the Covid-19 crisis; information on what people could or could not do at various levels has been widely publicized, and the use of mantra like–

  • stay home and save lives
  • the team of five million
  • support local businesses
  • visit your own country

–rang a chord with most people.

A couple of months out from the election Labour will be confident of success backed by a grateful public.

Can Judith Collins turn things around?

She should have been given the leadership earlier as she has been one of National’s most effective politicians for some time. Her background as a lawyer makes her a strong debater; she is quick on feet and has a no nonsense approach to the issues of the day. Many have said that National needed a strong woman to take on the prime minister who is a consummate communicator with a winning smile. 

Judith Collins has a wealth of political experience having been a successful cabinet minister in the Key government and spokesperson under Simon Bridges over a range of portfolios. Her career has not been free of controversy and she was implicated in Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics for getting too close to Whale Oil editor Cameron Slater and consequently lost her cabinet status. There was also a trip to China where she unwisely got involved in promoting her husband’s bottling company. But she has reestablished her reputation and on Tuesday won the National leadership.

However, she has plenty to do to win the confidence of the public. She will be a match for Jacinda Ardern in leadership debates, but unfortunately there is not a lot of dynamism and talent on her front bench where there are a number of tired, old faces.

Nevertheless it is now “game on” in the run to the election and National will feel they have a new lease of life with the leader they should have had much earlier.

Opinion by Geoffrey Churchman

Margaret Thatcher portraitJudith ‘Crusher’ Collins is often likened to Britain’s Margaret Thatcher (the ‘Iron Lady’) who became the Leader of the Opposition there in 1975 and stormed to victory in May 1979.  She remained as PM for 11½ years while her Conservative Party stayed in power 18 years.

It’s quite possible that Judith Collins will emulate a similar crushing defeat of the Labour-led government, but as observed in an earlier post, no party in NZ has won more than 50% of the vote since 1954 and the main factor that led to Margaret Thatcher’s victory — several industrial strikes in the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978-1979 — doesn’t apply. However, high unemployment and high Asian immigration were secondary factors and they do apply.

In the last published opinion poll (conducted over 8-12 February 2020) before Cv-19 became a big concern, National had a 5 percentage point lead on Labour (46% to 41%); the previous November it was an even bigger 7 percentage point gap.  Results in opinion polls always quote a margin of error, but National was clearly ahead in that time — what happened to see that reversed?  The simple answer: Lockdown with a lengthy daily dose on TV of Jacinda’s smiling face and reassuring (if not always correctly pronounced) words, alongside the competent, but single-focused Director General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield who was clearly telling Jacinda what to do and effectively called the shots.

Many rightly criticised the government for the arbitrary and excessive restrictions on who could trade during Lockdown. What backroom bureaucrats decided was “Essential” ruled out a lot of businesses that could have operated quite safely and would not have gone under.  The government did nothing to challenge that.

But Lockdown was a bonanza for Jacinda, being someone who craves attention and the photo-op, and she made the absolute most of it. The opinion polls subsequently reflected that.  However, things have moved on and she’s intelligent enough to know Lockdown can’t be repeated or it will be economically disastrous for the country and electorally disastrous for her.  The government spending splurge post Lockdown has provided the opportunity to deal with the infrastructure crisis the country has, but far too much has been allocated to the wrong things and to people for whom the reasons for receiving it are highly questionable.

Despite the ceaseless uncritical adulation of Jacinda by the MSM, my pick is that both Labour and National will poll in the 40–45% of the vote range in the election and the formation of the next government will accordingly depend on how well minor parties the Greens and ACT do.  NZ First will be punished for being a junior coalition partner in the present government and more than likely will not be in Parliament. The same applies to some extent to the Greens, but their support base is more dedicated and less fickle than NZ First’s is — they may just creep over the 5% line.