Labour hits pause at 23.59 on Doomsday Clock

Becalmed by public opinion, Labour has thrown capital gains and land taxes overboard. But is it too late?

Its decision to seek permission and not forgiveness from voters at the 2020 election could cauterise its problem in the polls.

It does show a party willing to listen to feedback, albeit perilously late in the election campaign.

And it takes some political gumption to front up and admit leader Jacinda Ardern's 'captain's call' to plough on with tax reforms without a mandate was wrong. Finance spokesperson Grant Robertson did that fronting, but the party has relented, nonetheless.

The big question is why Labour let its tax vulnerability run and run, a sitting duck for a scrambling National Party over the past fortnight. Critical days, news cycles and early votes may have been wasted. Early voting began on Monday and some of those thrown into doubt by National's attacks may have already taken ballot box fright.

Robertson made it clear Labour had listened. He was able to rule out any new taxes between 2017 and 2020 other than those Labour has specified, including a possible Auckland regional fuel tax, a tax on water use and a tourism impost. He pledged openness over the caucus and cabinet deliberations on any future taxes too. 

While it was possible legislation on a new tax could be passed before the 2020 election, such a law would not take effect until the 2021 tax year so voters would be able to pass judgment on it before implementation.

It is possible the Doomsday Clock that was seemingly ticking for National in this campaign had started instead to tick for Labour.

Ardern said on the West Coast that she had driven Labour's campaign. "I have taken political risks but I have done that because I feel so strongly about the urgency there is about tackling the housing crisis, but I needed to balance that against the certainty for voters." She said : "It was my call, it was my call."

She repeated that the new position was a result of a trade-off between "urgency and certainty," adding she was going to do politics differently, listening to the people.

National was unforgiving. Campaign chair Steven Joyce said: "Two taxes down, five to go". Leader Bill English said of the Labour decision to put any proposed capital gains tax to the next election: "Why didn't they do it this time?"

They won't let Labour off the hook. English zeroed in on Labour's plan to withdraw National's tax threshold, Working for Families and Accommodation Supplement changes due to come into effect on April 1, accusing it of taking away $1000 a year on average from those who would benefit.

That is all theoretical, as you can't take away something that will never have been given. As English said, Labour will have to pass a law to stop National's changes occurring, and it would. Labour is promising to over-turn a National promise, not to take anything real away. And it has its own package of family income changes that it argues help a larger number of needy families.

The late Labour change of mind must have followed lengthy internal discussions over the risk of staying the course versus the risks of cutting and running. To look responsive or to look indecisive. Oh to have been a fly on the wall for the feedback session from whatever polling focus groups were made available to the campaign team.

Ardern did not have to let the Tax Working Group and cabinet decisions on its recommendations be open to implementation before the next election. Previous leader Andrew Little had already seen that electoral quicksand and made it subject to voters' approval. But she did so and repeatedly used the 'I' word in justifying that stance on the basis of moving with urgency on housing affordability.

Having had National on the run, it trailing briefly in the polls and battling talk of change, Labour's subsequent stalling in the Newshub poll and most likely its own internal polling was self-inflicted. With the Nats' confidence rebounding, their born-to-rule boldness restored, Labour might just have allowed their opponents time to revive enough to survive.

It is possible the Doomsday Clock that was seemingly ticking for National in this campaign had started instead to tick for Labour.

At the last viable moment, Ardern and Robertson have tried to hit pause. 

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