I’ve said it before, and Ardern is proving it: a national crisis is political gold for governments. The Global Financial Crisis and the Christchurch Earthquakes were outside John Key’s control but the perception of his abilities as leader were entirely within his influence.
John Key had a background in the financial sector prior to becoming an MP, so not only was he familiar with operating in an environment of crisis, voters didn’t need a demonstration of his abilities to be perceived that way.
Ardern hasn’t had that advantage prior to the Covid19 pandemic. More disadvantaged than simply unknown, Ardern operates an administration that includes several individuals and factions that had either publicly imploded, failed to deliver, or failed to counter accusations of unethical behaviour.
Helen Clark exuded toughness, in appearance and manner, with the body bags to prove it when required. Key was likeable, had an aura of calm competence and when less talented members of his government cleared out their desks, Key didn’t need to point it out. We knew he and the party machine were too well-oiled for weak links to go unchallenged. Ardern has had multiple opportunities to be tough, seen to be tough, and be respected for it. Ardern decided to cultivate an alternative image.
Despite leading a regime of few successes, most of which were abolishing rather than creating, Labour’s election prospects mid-Lockdown look very different to pre-Lockdown. Ardern’s performance has changed expectations that her Government will be on the backfoot in a close electoral contest. What’s more, those expectations have changed without Ardern herself changing. The kindness and compassion that once looked like amatuer weakness, now look like unflappable competence detached from any concern about hostile reporting.
Simon Bridges has a very different problem, made worse by lacking an immediately apparent solution. To top it off, Bridges is not equipped with the likeability Ardern possesses without having to work for it. Being likable shouldn’t matter, but, unfortunately for Bridges, it is essential – and his profile is sufficiently strong to prove he hasn’t got it.
The long-lived positivity of National’s polling is even harder to explain when National’s leader was elected with single-figure approval ratings that stubbornly remain in the single figures. Despite that, National’s support is finally starting to wane, and there are many more factors to consider than David Seymour and his outperformance of Bridges.
One of my personal frustrations with politics, that appears to be a feature of most western democracies, is not just the similarity of the two major parties, but that few voters can see that similarity. Their large and enthusiastic volunteer organisations don’t see it either, and every election is fought by volunteers who genuinely believe our problems are just one election victory away from solving.
The hand dealt to parliamentary parties in the 2017 election may finally go some way to changing this perception. The sheer volume of legislation churned out from the current Parliament is greater than previous terms; while the volume of legislation being supported by the so-called opposition is unprecedented. 119-1 was initially just the figure by which legislation has passed a parliamentary vote, but it has become the rallying point for disillusioned National voters. Seymour hasn’t allowed the name of government bills such as the Child Poverty Reduction Act to dissuade him from voting on principle, and, unlike broad-church National, has actually used the poor quality of law making as a reason to oppose passing it.
Firearm legislation, child poverty legislation which actually measures inequity, zero carbon legislation and more have been passed 119-1 even when National MPs consistently attack the bills during their Third Reading! It has taken two years and a global pandemic for Bridges to finally criticise aspects of Government policy, and now that is damaging his support even further!
Labour’s $11 billion package put forward prior to the Lockdown is the predictable Keynesian orthodoxy I’d expect, and which National would have proposed were they still in Government. Simon Bridges only criticised some minor aspects, but the public response wasn’t just swift in its expression, but vicious in its condemnation for Bridges daring to play politics due a global crisis. Poor Paul Goldsmith had to publicly plead with Labour to accept National’s offer of help to spend billions of dollars on riding out the coming crisis.
While Parliament remains adjourned, Ardern has thrown Bridges a bone to counter accusations of her Government becoming a dictatorship using the powers available to her in the Health and Civil Defence Emergency Management Acts. While most politicians are publicly invisible, Ardern alone is on television daily, the significance of that coverage virtually unheard of in modern day politics outside of dictatorships. For decades, the art of the soundbite was the art of winning television politics. During the lockdown, answering questions in detail and in full is the prerequisite for success, and nobody but Ardern has that platform.
The 11 member Epidemic Response Committee is the only other opportunity available for public exposure, and being streamed on Zoom with a dozen other faces is a poor second best. However, David Seymour has adapted quickly to the technology despite the poor image quality and competition for visibility. In contrast, Bridges has turned this opportunity into a regular exercise in self-flagellation; looking confused, churlish and untalented in contrast to the Prime Minister’s widely watched press events. Worse for Bridges, a viral pandemic is not the time for him to deviate from his record of voting with the Government since 2018.
What has cost National support from its pre-lockdown voter base prevents them gaining new votes now. During an emergency, the default prevailing view is that New Zealanders need to work together to get through the crisis. Working together is not a strategy that will get Bridges in the news; criticising the government only gets a barrage of criticism of Simon in the news. National desperately needs the Lockdown to end as quickly as possible to avoid losing seats in September. Unfortunately, any attempt to publicly hasten the end is like getting caught peeing in the pool.
Every week from now that New Zealand remains in Alert Level 3 or 4 is a week National cannot campaign or criticise the Government without repelling voters toward Labour. Conversely, every week National fails to distance itself from the Prime Minister creates more disappointed centre-right voters looking for an alternative. Bridges will lead National up until the election; the only chalice more poisonous than becoming leader post-election defeat is to become leader pre-election defeat. However, Covid19 has turned the coming election campaign from too close to call to warfare in the trenches on a downward slope.