Despite the cartoonish ‘Crusher’ label, the National leader has always been a policy wonk. Right now, she’s doing her best to present a palatable idea of a government in waiting, writes Ben Thomas.
It may be hard to fathom but, approximately 17,000 months into 2020, National has not yet officially launched its election campaign. After the interruption of the Auckland lockdown, its (online) campaign launch comes only this weekend, a mere two weeks before early voting begins.
Supporters may look for the launch to answer one question. If it makes sense for Labour and its wildly popular leader to hug the middle ground where the centre voter lives, and minimise risk to protect its 50%+ polling and shot at forming a single majority government, then why on earth is National, hovering around the early 30s, doing the same thing?
Labour’s almost embarrassingly cautious income tax policy last week underlined the drift towards the centre of our two major parties, even if it’s a “centre” that would be scarcely recognizable to someone from the pre-Covid world.
Even the most wild-eyed leftists would never have dared believe in January that the government’s Budget Responsibility Rules would have buckled under the weight of tens of billions of dollars in unplanned economic stimulus by polling day.
Very little of that spend has made it near anything that Jacinda Ardern would have three years ago described as “transformational”.
Grant Robertson’s income tax policy was almost tokenistic. It will, optimistically, hit the top 2% of income earners (assuming they only receive salary, and cannot structure their tax affairs to minimize the new payment), with a new rate of six cents for every dollar earned over $180,000 – around $23 a week for someone on $200,000. It will bring in the same amount of revenue as the government spends each year on universal superannuation payments to the 30,000 over-65s who already earn six figure incomes. Despite the protestations of Act leader David Seymour and National’s Judith Collins, it is unlikely too many centrist Labour voters will be allergic to the new top tax rate.
In recent days Robertson and Chris Hipkins have girded themselves, like trampers fording a flooded river, against the torrent of cash gushing from the Reserve Bank and Treasury coffers, to yell out that extra spending on benefits and dental care are not advisable in the current economic conditions.
National has been similarly conservative. Its breakout star Dr Shane Reti teased an exciting development on dental funding yesterday in the wake of Labour’s disappointment, which turned out to be a free toothbrush for every child.
If Labour is cradling its overwhelming majority like a tender baby to keep it safe, then National would seem to be like a bird nesting on a stone. What is it protecting?
The answer is that National is gambling. But the gamble could be seen as more akin to feeding coins patiently into a pokie machine for six weeks than betting their whole wallet on black. There have been no unrealistic “hail Mary” policies, of the likes of Kiwibuild.
Instead National has steadily been presenting itself as a government in waiting.
That’s par for the course when the public is itching for change. But there’s little evidence of that right now.
Its policy has been mostly unexciting but – contrary to fears after policy chair Amy Adams left with no finished products ready for the campaign – for the most part they are credible pieces of work.
Gang expert Jarrod Gilbert, a critic of “tough on crime” law and order rhetoric, praised National’s gangs policy. Its methamphetamine policy put harm reduction first. It quietly promised to double the amount spent on maintenance of public school buildings in the wake of the Green School funding debacle. And, yes, it’s promised free toothbrushes.
This is not surprising under a Collins leadership. Her cartoonish Crusher persona has always been delivered as an inside joke with the public, like a professional wrestling anti-hero. For all her mischief, however, Collins herself has always been much more of a policy wonk than the earnest head librarian type MPs who like to describe themselves as such, and has always been socially liberal by National standards.
For National’s bet to pay off, though, the country needs to move past the public health response to Covid. The unexpected Auckland outbreak seems to have done nothing to dent the prime minister’s aura of accomplishment around the virus.
However, it has created some discontent for businesses around the country, who feel they are paying for Auckland’s clusters.
Today’s Prefu will give an indication of the economic outlook for the year ahead. The burden of the virus has fallen unequally so far and official statistics have somewhat disguised this fact, as central Auckland merchants told media yesterday when confronted with figures showing trade in Auckland was as good as ever.
The vast majority of the huge government spend up this year has merely been to keep the economy’s legs pumping in the air – like Wile E Coyote, having run off a cliff but not yet looking down to the air below. It has sustained businesses and jobs via a mammoth wage subsidy through the unprecedented national shutdown of March, April and May, and is being deployed to create new “shovel ready” work for some of the recently unemployed.
But the next month looms, if not as a moment of truth, then certainly a slow lifting of the veil. Robertson has previously refused to venture a guess at how many of the 375,000 or so jobs currently sustained by one of the wage subsidy extensions might cease to exist this month. Low insolvency figures from the previous quarter suggest that long-feared failures of hospitality and tourism businesses may materialise. Tenants have started to received notices of rent increases as the government’s freeze comes to an end.
Meanwhile, schools continue to rot, methamphetamine problems continue to grow in the regions. The world keeps turning, and the public looks not just for a Covid saviour but another government in waiting.
A gamble on many small things is still a gamble. But Collins probably prefers the term calculated risk.
Ben Thomas is a public relations consultant and a former National government press secretary.