Matthew Hooton: Labour Party rebrands Ardern, National better stay sharp

OPINION:

Midway through its second term — and halfway through its assumed nine years — the Government recognises it’s in a bit of trouble.

Curia pollster David Farrar points out that recent governments are usually well ahead in the polls at this point in the cycle. The exception — which Beehive strategists emphasise — was Helen Clark’s Government briefly dipping below Don Brash’s National in 2004.

That comparison doesn’t work. Brash was promising radical change, while Clark enjoyed a booming global economy and tax take from which to fund Working for Families and interest-free student loans. Even then, she won only narrowly.

In contrast, Jacinda Ardern faces Christopher Luxon, a John Key-like foe promising not to do much of anything except bring back 2017. Having borrowed $62 billion for Covid, Grant Robertson has little room for election bribes, except the additional $10b already earmarked for this year’s Budget and next.

More significantly, voters have become extremely wary of bold visions, grand plans and multibillion-dollar promises that deliver nothing, like Robertson’s $1.9b for mental health, the centrepiece of his so-called “Wellbeing Budget” in 2019.

Before cementing their working relationship, Bill English infamously claimed that Key “just bounces from cloud to cloud”. Key this week accused Ardern of running a “dog and pony show” that makes announcements of announcements of announcements, rather than getting things done.

There’s something to both insults, in that government communications in the social media era have become decoupled from any policy programme or even reality.

Former US President Donald Trump was the ultimate master of this post-truth politics. On his first day as President, he laughably claimed to have drawn the biggest inauguration crowd in history. On his last, he maintained he had won an election he lost by more than 7 million votes and 74 electoral college delegates. In between, his words weren’t even intended to connect with reality. His base didn’t care.

We may mock the Americans, but how far are Trump’s absurdities from, say, Key promising a financial services hub in Auckland with no plan to deliver? Or Ardern pledging to reduce inequality while fuelling house-price inflation? Or Luxon’s implied commitment to cut taxes, maintain spending and more quickly pay back debt, all at once?

Globally, the disconnect between rhetoric and reality threatens democracy and peace, but that won’t worry politicians 18 months from an election.

Labour and National strategists are much more focused on responding tactically now the median voter isn’t interested in being rallied as a Team of Five Million to achieve Switzerlands of the South Pacific, nuclear-free moments, $30b trams or whatever “this” meant in “let’s do this”.

In a more sceptical political environment, Luxon’s rather dull brand built around running an airline is an asset. So too is Nicola Willis emphasising not revolution but basic maintenance of orthodox economic pillars like price stability, labour-market flexibility, a broad-based and low-rate tax system, fiscal responsibility and competitive markets.

Labour’s response is to rebrand the Prime Minister from the inspirational St Jacinda of Covid to a good-old, sleeves-rolled-up, practical Kiwi. Expect less Grey Lynn social-justice warrior and more Morrinsville fish ‘n’ chips worker.

Rhetorically, Ardern’s declaration on Wednesday that the past two years have been “bloody hard” was not an off-the-cuff comment, but carefully written into her script. It echoed her final speech before Christmas when she said Kiwis “bloody deserve” a decent holiday. Prime ministerial directives to be kind appeared in neither performance, nor did references to the Team of Five Million.

Directly contradicting her nuclear-free moment, Ardern embraced her inner Robert Muldoon by abruptly cutting petrol taxes and bus fares after National made traction on the cost of living.

She headed to Eden Park yesterday to welcome the return of crowds to the Cricket World Cup and Super Rugby and — at the risk of Clark’s wrath — the Six60, Guns N’ Roses and Ed Sheeran concerts booked for summer.

These stunts were part of a bold Beehive strategy to regain ground in areas voters now care about most, but where National has taken the lead, most importantly the economy.

Ardern has taken enormous risks with those voters who believe she saved their lives by scrapping the architecture of her Covid state, including border controls, contact tracing, vaccine passes and most mandates. Within weeks, nothing will remain except “guidance” to wear masks and stay home if you have a cold.

Ardern’s risk probably paid off. Such votes are rusted on to Labour for 2023, while pro-restriction public voices were loyal enough to Ardern to not cause a fuss. Meanwhile, Ardern got stuck in helping tourism operators with Australian TV appearances.

The Harvard commencement address aside, Ardern’s trips to Australia, Asia, the US and Europe this year will also be less Grey Lynn and more Morrinsville — more about selling meat, wool, dairy products, kiwifruit, timber and holidays than the UN and climate change.

Behind all this, Beehive strategists bet the economy will do better over the next 18 months than local economists and the Opposition predict.

Support came yesterday from International Monetary Fund (IMF) economists. Despite forecasting growth to slow, inflation to rise and the labour market to remain tight, the IMF reports our economy “has reached a strong cyclical position, enabled by sound management of the Covid-19 crisis despite intermittent setbacks”.

It says the “normalisation of macroeconomic policies” — political space National wants to own — is already under way. Describing Robertson’s scheduled tightening of fiscal policy as “appropriate”, it says he still has room to provide additional targeted support depending on “the evolution of the pandemic and economic conditions”. It says recent moves will help address imbalances in the housing market.

If the IMF economists have criticisms of New Zealand, it is that they doubt tax cuts are feasible given the ageing population. They argue for a truly broad-based and low-rate tax system, with New Zealand “transitioning from relatively high corporate income tax to other sources, such as capital gains and possibly land taxes”. The emissions trading scheme should have more bite, especially with agriculture.

None of this helps Luxon and Willis. It more provides attack material for Ardern and Robertson.

Ardern’s new sleeves-rolled-up, practical Kiwi brand may grate with some as much as the old St Jacinda brand did with others. But it gives her a much better chance of securing that coveted third term and a place alongside Key, Clark, Jim Bolger and Muldoon as a three-time election winner.

National better stay sharp.

Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.

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