My prediction is that Labour will lose most, if not all, of the provincial seats it picked up last year. Many of those electorates broke with precedent by voting Labour, giving New Zealand its first decisive majority-led government of the MMP era, but on present trends they are likely to revert to the historical norm in 2023.
The 2020 election result was anomalous because of the exceptional circumstances. Not only had Jacinda Ardern made a powerful impact with her handling of the Christchurch mosque massacres and the Covid-19 crisis (at least initially), but National was in turmoil.
Faced with having to choose between a personable young politician in charge of a government that seemed to know what it was doing and a rival party that couldn’t agree even on a leader, voters logically opted for the former.
But here we are, just eight months down the track, and already the picture looks very different. National is still fragmented, ineffectual and apparently demoralised, but in the meantime Labour's wheels have started to fall off and could roll right over the re-election chances of MPs who benefited from the provincial switch to Labour in 2020.
There’s a pattern here. The third Labour government of 1972-75 fell apart after just one term. The fourth managed two before it collapsed in an inglorious heap. On both occasions, Labour tried to do too much too soon and with too little ministerial ability.
Helen Clark ran a much steadier ship, largely because she imposed tight discipline, but the present Labour government is looking more reminiscent of Norman Kirk’s. It’s over-ambitious, under-endowed with talent and too impatient to re-invent the wheel. The bureaucracy is struggling to keep up, and it’s showing. A popular leader isn’t enough to compensate for (or disguise) incompetence, fatigue and hubris.
On top of that, Labour, with no coalition partner to keep it in check, is pursuing a radical ideological agenda that’s alien to middle New Zealand. Voters have shown time after time that they prefer dull, stable and predictable (for which, read National) over mercurial and idealistic.
Here’s another strange thing about Labour governments. Often it’s minor, almost petty, irritants that turn voters against them. In a column this week, Heather du Plessis-Allan recalled the Clark government’s attempts to ban incandescent light bulbs and require the installation of water-conserving showerheads. Both became emblematic of an interfering nanny state and were partly blamed for Labour’s defeat in 2008.
Du Plessis-Allen could have gone back further – to the bizarre furore over Labour’s proposal to introduce health regulations banning cats from dairies, which triggered a backlash against an already floundering government in 1975.
What’s it likely to be this time? Well, HDPA identified one obvious possibility: the punitive tax on diesel utes. This is especially potent because it plays into the old urban-rural divide, which was temporarily neutralised on election day last year.
Farmers will obviously be penalised by this supposedly climate-friendly move, but so will urban tradies. It won’t be lost on the public that the new tax will hit two crucial productive sectors in an economy that’s struggling to recover from the massive loss of international tourism revenue.
Ardern didn’t do herself any favours with her subsequent clumsy protestations that Toyota was planning to market an electric ute anyway (it isn’t), and that lots of ute owners have no legitimate reason to use them. That might chime with electric bike-owning Labour and Green voters in Grey Lynn and Mt Victoria, but it smacks of judgmental elitism of a type that Ardern normally seems careful to avoid. (Declaration: I assume I’m one of those ute drivers with no “legitimate” reason to own one. I bought mine because I tow a caravan and load the ute up with bikes and camping gear. Apparently Clarke Gayford has one too, presumably for towing a boat. And my local Labour MP, Kieran McAnulty, famously uses his ancient Mazda ute – painted socialist red, of course – as a political prop, presumably to emphasise that he’s just one of the blokes. Ardern was happy to be photographed in it with him during her election campaign last year. I wonder, did she quietly chide him for driving a thirsty, polluting clunker that he has no “legitimate” use for?)
The timing has been unusually inept too, considering this is a government that’s obsessive about orchestrating its PR spin. If you accept that in politics, optics is everything, it didn’t look good that the announcement of the unfriendly-to-farmers ute tax roughly coincided with the green light for a cycling and pedestrian bridge over Auckland Harbour. Committing $785 million to humour a tiny minority of the affluent urban middle-class – and this on top of generous taxpayer subsidies for EV buyers that will favour the same privileged group – sent a powerful signal about whose interests the government prioritises. To put it another way, it was a double dose of harsh medicine for the "old" New Zealand that Labour seems impatient to consign to the scrapheap.
I bet, too, that plenty of nurses were scratching their heads in dismay and wondering why a supposedly worker-friendly Labour government could find money for pet projects when it supposedly couldn’t afford to meet their reasonable pay demands.
Missteps such as these eat away at a government’s credibility – and popularity – by inches and degrees. It’s not always big issues (extremist climate change policies, for example) that damage governments; these often seem too remote, too complex and too abstract for people to grasp, still less bother about. Rather, it’s the things that hit them at a direct, human level. A tax on diesel utes is something people can easily relate to.
For another example, consider the shambolic Covid-19 vaccination programme. The government spin is that it’s meeting its vaccination targets, but that’s no indication of success when the targets have been set conveniently low. People will judge the government’s performance on how New Zealand measures up internationally, and in that regard our record is dire: 120th in the world, according to figures this week, and the poorest-performing of all the OECD countries with which we like to compare ourselves. Talkback lines are buzzing with calls from people frustrated at being unable to book their shots, despite supposedly being in a priority group, and angry at feeling misled by the smarmy Covid-19 propaganda blitz.
Even the media, whose natural instinct is to protect Ardern and Labour, are finding it hard to disguise the government’s failings, though they still do their best. Health Minister Andrew Little has been put on the spot this week over the embarrassing disclosure that only 0.2 percent of the money allocated to mental health has actually been spent – and this on top of mental health campaigner Mike King’s protest march to Parliament over the same issue.
This is a government that spends like a drunken sailor on follies such as the $98 million Hamilton-Auckland commuter train (which reportedly averages 30 passengers a day), but seems paralysed when confronted with areas of urgent and acknowledged need. A Labour government so inept that it can’t even spend money? That’s surely an historic first.
Even more embarrassing to Labour was Little’s anguished admission that he was frustrated by the lack of action from his ministry. In fact it was beyond embarrassing; it was pathetic. He’s the minister, for Heaven’s sake. He’s supposed to know what’s going on and to make things happen; it’s called ministerial accountability. Implying it's the fault of his bureaucratic underlings makes him look weak (and worse, cowardly).
Ardern and Grant Robertson were equally eager to disown the problem. T J Perenara would have admired the alacrity with which Ardern offloaded the ball when confronted at her Monday press conference about the measly five extra beds provided for acute mental health patients. For someone so unused to being asked awkward questions, the prime minister proved lightning-fast in switching her attention to a more agreeable subject. For the first time since she came to power four years ago, we are seeing what Ardern looks like when she’s rattled.
But back to that urban-rural split (and I mean split as in differentiation, not conflict). This week we heard about the NZTA’s harsh cuts to spending on rural roads, presumably so that money can be redirected to favoured projects such as the Auckland Harbour cycleway. Roads that keep farms supplied and enable crops and livestock to be transported for processing will be neglected so that affluent Aucklanders can cycle over the harbour on a summer’s day for a leisurely Saturday morning latte.
We also learned of a University of Otago report highlighting the long-term damage, human as well as economic, caused by the bungled response to the mycoplasma bovis crisis, which resulted in the culling of 171,000 cattle.
According to the report, a “badly planned and poorly executed” process led to farming families feeling bewildered, isolated and powerless. Local knowledge, expertise and pragmatism were ignored in favour of inefficient and insensitive bureaucratic processes.
Now here’s the thing: the majority of New Zealanders live in cities, and the close links that once existed between town and country have become attenuated over time. But people who are well-informed still realise that the country’s prosperity depends heavily on the rural sector, and there remains a high level of respect and empathy for farmers – particularly at times of crisis, such as flooding, drought and livestock diseases.
When New Zealanders hear of normally stoical farmers breaking down in tears over the needlessly brutal and heartless way their herds were slaughtered and the arrogant sidelining of their own knowledge and experience, they’re likely to be on the farmers’ side. This is especially true of people who live in the provinces and are exposed to the rural sector.
On its own, this isn’t necessarily the type of issue that will determine how people vote in 2023, other than for those directly affected. But cumulatively, little peeves and resentments - over taxes on diesel utes, favouritism toward urban elites, neglect of provincial interests, incompetent and dishonest management of the vaccination rollout - build up over time. A government that was rewarded only last year for its empathy and sensitivity is rapidly turning into one that looks arrogant, incompetent and defensive.
I’m not predicting a Labour defeat at the next election; that’s too much of a leap (though I wouldn’t rule it out, either). But I do think there will be a backlash, and it will be most pronounced in the provinces. The crucial question is which of Labour’s rivals will be best positioned to take advantage of it - and at this stage, that’s an open contest.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.