A poorly performing Govt but one winning card

Even before the Walker-Boag debacle, Todd Muller had no option but to carry on in the frustrating knowledge that he will constantly be overshadowed by an otherwise poorly-performing Government which has grabbed the Covid-19 card and is playing it ruthlessly, writes Peter Dunne

A few months ago, Scott Morrison was the most unpopular and derided politician in Australia. His absence overseas on holiday while the most devastating bushfires of recent times raged across the country, and his seemingly slow response to the crisis once he returned made him look a leader who had lost touch with his people.

Yet now, he is winning strong praise for his handling of Australia’s national response to Covid-19. So much so, that during the coverage of the results of the Eden-Monaro by-election at the weekend, when at one point it looked like his government might become the first government to win a by-election off the Opposition in one hundred years, the commentators were all putting the possibility down to what they described as Morrison’s extraordinary leadership during the pandemic crisis.

They noted that incumbent leaders usually benefit from the saturation media coverage they receive in a time of national crisis, especially when people become fearful for their personal circumstances and therefore more risk averse than usual.

The parallels with New Zealand are striking. At the start of this year, the Labour-led Government was looking increasingly like another one-term Labour government, bumbling towards defeat later in the year. Although the Prime Minister was personally popular, in contrast to her Australian counterpart, it was being thought increasingly unlikely that would be enough to save her ineffectual administration from defeat at the hands of what was looking like an increasingly reinvigorated National Party.

But now, especially in the light of developments within the National Party this week, it would be a very brave person indeed who would countenance let alone even make such a prediction, such has been the political impact of the Prime Minister’s handling of the Covid-19 situation here.

Like her Australian counterpart, she has skillfully taken every opportunity to be at the forefront of the media coverage that has arisen, conveying an air of compassionate reassurance and high-level competence, while just as carefully leaving all the difficult details for other ministers and officials to explain and justify.

Constant reliance upon catchy and kitschy phrases like “bubbles” and “the team of five million” have played their part in what has become a very clever and carefully orchestrated political campaign, appealing to the community instincts of New Zealanders.

Yet, just as carefully, all the while this most political of campaigns has been dressed up as being above day-to-day party politics, and more about the country as a whole pulling together in a time of crisis. By implication this means that any criticism can be easily dismissed as vested interest and politically based.

During the Eden-Monaro by-election campaign Australia’s federal opposition leader reportedly made 22 separate visits to the electorate in support of his party’s candidate. Scott Morrison’s visits were far less frequent, but they did not need to be. His Covid-19 media dominance meant he was probably more prominent and visible to the average Eden-Monaro voter every day through television and other opportunities and able to look like the country’s real leader than his opposite number could ever hope to be.

Todd Muller faces precisely the same problem, exacerbated by the fact that he faces a general election here in just a few short weeks. No matter how many regional visits he makes, speeches he gives, or workplaces he visits, he is undercut every day by the latest Prime Ministerial pep-talk on Covid-19, now delivered via the restored daily Beehive media conference. If there was ever any doubt about the Government’s determination to extract every possible gram of political advantage from the Covid-19 situation, the restoration of these daily essentially free party-political broadcasts should dispel that.

Labour’s new “Let’s Keep Moving” slogan is consistent with this picture being painted of progressive, focused leadership spurring New Zealand on to a better future. It is just a pity it is not borne out by the facts.

Right now, Labour will be pinching itself in disbelief as to how well it has been able to use Covid-19 to its political advantage, whereas National, on the back of the Boag/Walker affair, will be close to despair.

The damage that has caused to the party's credibility is incalculable and a massive blow to National's claim to be better able to manage the recovery than Labour. While Labour's record so far has at best been patchy, National's recent bumbling performance inspires little confidence it would be any better.

In the circumstances, Todd Muller has no option but to carry on doing what he has been doing, in the full and frustrating knowledge that he is still likely to be overshadowed by an otherwise poorly-performing Government which has grabbed the one positive card it has discovered and is playing it ruthlessly.

This was evident at the weekend’s election year Labour Party Congress where there was much congratulatory talk about the Prime Minister’s “inspired” and “saintly” leadership.

Rather than dismiss it as unwise puffery that might  distract attention from the real focus of winning the election, she was more coy, saying “you will not find that at all in any of the remarks I’ve made.” The implicit message seemed to be that while she accepted the accolades were correct, she did not want to be seen suggesting them herself. Instead, she resorted to the time-honoured “this is not the time for anyone to rest on laurels,” platitude.

Labour’s new “Let’s Keep Moving” slogan is consistent with this picture being painted of progressive, focused leadership spurring New Zealand on to a better future. It is just a pity it is not borne out by the facts.

At the last election, Labour focused its pitch for government on housing, child poverty, and reducing inequality. It argued it had the answers to all these issues, but three years later, there is little progress to report on any of these fronts.

Labour’s most potent and resonant criticism of the previous government was its approach to housing. Labour was going to end the housing crisis through Kiwibuild which would develop 100,000 affordable homes for New Zealand families over the following 10 years, and through a reinvigorated public housing programme to slash waiting lists and homelessness. The rhetoric was compelling.

However, today, KiwiBuild is in tatters, with only a few hundred homes having been built, the scheme generally seen as a sad joke, and the minister responsible reallocated to other duties. Nor has the public housing waiting list has been slashed – it has gone up more than threefold from 5,844 households at the time of the change of government to 17,982 today. While more state houses have been built, they have just not kept up with rising demand.

When the Government was formed, the Prime Minister signalled as a priority her intention to reduce the number of children being raised in poverty. She even made herself Minister of Child Poverty Reduction to further emphasise her personal commitment.

Yet, over two years later, there has been little progress.  Even a natural Labour ally like the Child Poverty Action Group has lambasted the Government’s policies as unlikely to lead to any real change, while the Children’s Commissioner has been blunt in his criticisms. He has variously described the Government’s efforts so far as “underwhelming” and “weak, supine and passive.” His office says more children are now living in poverty than when the Government took office.

Most disturbing are the figures relating to Maori and Pasifika families. While official figures show about 10 percent of Pakeha children are being raised in deprived circumstances, the equivalent figures for Maori and Pasifika children is now 25 percent and 29 percent respectively.

Before the advent of Covid-19, which will have distorted figures for the worse significantly, there were already various reports of rising general poverty levels in the wider community. Foodbanks especially had been reporting increased demand, and demand for emergency assistance grants had remained high. The general consensus appeared that, if anything, things had deteriorated slightly, rather than improved under this Government.

That is why no firm decisions on things like opening up national borders should be expected before our September election. After all there is always the risk of getting them wrong – like the initial woeful approach to border control ...

Now, unsurprisingly, the Government is using the opportunity of the economic and social rebuild necessary in the wake of Covid-19 to renew its bold and lofty talk about the need to restore equality across the board. Of course, as has become customary, there has been nothing of substance to back up the latest aspiration. Moreover, based on the Government’s record to date, little in the way of substantive delivery should reasonably be ever expected.

Housing, poverty and equality are the basic issues which shape our country’s future, and the election should be about the ability or otherwise of the Government to resolve them. They are the issues parties aspiring to be in the next government should be focusing on relentlessly and bringing to public attention constantly. 

In trying to frame Labour as the party that handled the health response to Covid-19 well, while National is the party to take over and lead the next phase, the recovery, Todd Muller is starting to play the right game, although time is not on his side.

But as Scott Morrison has shown in Australia and the Prime Minister continues to show here, the impact of the Covid-19 crisis and continuing opportunity to remind people about how well it has been handled is still a much more powerful political weapon, than bread-and-butter issues about the country’s future.

That is why no firm decisions on things like opening up national borders should be expected before our September election. After all there is always the risk of getting them wrong – like the initial woeful approach to border control – which would be disastrous just before an election.

More importantly, reaching such a decision now would just push Covid-19 one more step into the background, which is the last thing a Government with such a disappointing record on every other front would want to do right now.

Although, it seems at the moment that National is becoming Labour’s best re-election weapon.

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