Blaming Simon Bridges for his party’s dreadful polling at the end of a global pandemic is as unfair as it is unreasonable, but relentless negative media coverage finally brought about his demise. Jacinda Ardern’s meteoric rise in the polls, an expression of gratitude from the public that COVID-19 did not turn into another Spanish Flu, is in line with that of other world leaders, irrespective of their political leanings. Whether the same leaders will be rewarded for the economic carnage that now unfolds is another, more problematic question.
Over the last three decades, New Zealand voters have moved further to the left politically. The last true conservative government was that of Jim Bolger, applying extreme austerity measures during the recession of the early 1990s, creating a society with an underclass of people unable to afford to live. The legacy of those times remains with us today. Most of us do not like seeing families with working parents struggle to make ends meet, or young couples unable to afford a home of their own. It is not the Kiwi way. As a result, more voters have moved left, taking the ‘centre’ of politics away from where it was 30 years ago.
The Helen Clark government, trying to improve the lives of people on low wages, introduced welfare for all, with her Working for Families policy. When John Key became prime minister in 2008, most National voters expected him to roll back the welfare policies of the Clark era, but he didn’t. Acknowledging the severe hardship this would create for many families, he refused to do that. This was a major shift away from the conservative politics expected from National, moving firmly into the political centre. John Key was the first prime minister to increase welfare benefits in 45 years. There was nothing of the old conservatism left in the National party by this time, but he was the most popular prime minister in decades.
Left wing parties, however, have joined the fray and most have moved further to the left too. Parties such as Labour, once the champion of the working man, have abandoned their roots and now support globalism, immigration and significantly increased government control. This leaves the centre of politics empty for occupation by so-called conservatives; those who still believe in hard work, small government and personal aspirations. Many former Labour voters now identify more and more with parties they would once have considered as fundamentally right wing.
Those that claim that capitalism has failed, notably Winston Peters in 2017, are confused. Capitalism is as successful as ever at giving people aspirations and improving their lives. It is globalism that has failed, or more accurately, it is globalism that has failed Western countries. All manufacturing was relocated to overseas countries for their cheap labour and the lives of our own working people were devastated. Now many people who would have had factory jobs paying reasonable wages are limited to labouring work or other menial jobs, usually on minimum wage. This is why Trump has proved so popular in America; he listened to the voices of the disenchanted. Bringing back some of our industries in a post-COVID world would go some way towards redressing the global balance. The developing distrust of China, particularly over its behaviour regarding the virus, may go some way towards making this happen.
Those that view the National Party as too centrist fail to see that the majority of voters are found in the centre of the political divide. As virtually every election is won by swinging voters, major parties have to pitch their message to the voters in the middle. Those who say that National has moved too far left fail to see that many of their voters have moved that way too. There are not many true conservatives left any more. Even ACT, recognised as a party to the right of National, is far more centrist than the National party of the 1990s. Supporting abortion law and proposing an end-of-life bill is hardly the stomping ground of traditional conservatives.
The election of Todd Muller as party leader is not merely ‘shifting deckchairs on the Titanic’, nor is it a party acting out of desperation. Those who say this is bad timing have not thought the matter through. After two polls within a week showing a big shift of votes towards Labour, National recognised that the voter shift has come from its own support base. These are the swing voters who determine every election outcome, and they had swung towards Labour. The leadership change was a call to those voters to come home.
After almost daily TV appearances from Jacinda in the last 2 months, everyone is talking about National again with renewed interest. And Muller is sending the right message; not criticising the government for its handling of the pandemic, which he describes as ‘impressive’, but focusing on the economic fallout that the pandemic will bring in its wake. As COVID-19 burns itself out, and life returns to some semblance of normality, more and more voters will be looking for good economic stewardship. If Todd Muller runs a good campaign, smashing the government for its poor economic performance and highlighting its failures over the past 3 years, he might persuade those voters that he is the man for the top job.
Those that are criticising Todd Muller for his involvement in climate change legislation fail to see that the majority of voters believe, at least to some extent, in man-made climate change. If National declares itself as a man-made climate change denier, it loses a significant chunk of its support. Thus, Muller’s ability to work alongside the extreme left Green Party in finalising carbon emissions policy shows his ability to work with other parties on issues that matter to voters. John Key did the same thing with anti-smacking legislation, and it did his political career no harm.
Jacinda’s huge popularity on the back of competent handling of the pandemic is likely to wane once the economic reality bites, but her enormous public appeal must not be underestimated. However, National has a longstanding reputation for excellent economic management. National’s intention to repay public debt by growing the economy rather than increasing taxes may resonate with voters concerned about the legacy the pandemic will leave to their children. If Muller can get that message across to voters in the public debates, he may well win the election.
National also needs to make voters aware of the increased controls that the government has imposed upon us as a result of the pandemic, controls that most voters would find abhorrent in normal times. Allowing the police to enter your house without a warrant because they suspect that there may be 11 people having a cup of tea together is extreme – particularly when bars are open for up to 100 people. Voters may have accepted such controls in times of unprecedented circumstances, but they need reminding that such rules are still in place. Labour is unlikely to highlight this issue; it is imperative that National does so relentlessly.
Just one final thought on Todd Muller. He is a largely unknown quantity as yet, but first impressions are good. If he wins the September election, he will have gone from new MP to prime minister in 6 years. That would be impressive, but he wouldn’t be alone. The last person to do that was John Key.
With a government focused on growing the economy, paying down debt and keeping taxes at a reasonable level, economic recovery should be considerably quicker than under a Labour government. This may be the only way New Zealand can avoid becoming the Venezuela of the South Pacific.
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