John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Election 2014: Parties ready but are you?

The general election is on September 20. John Armstrong, Adam Bennett and Isaac Davison cast an eye over the main players.

The swing voters who have stayed loyal to John Key may likewise presume he will coast home so easily that National does not need their tick. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The swing voters who have stayed loyal to John Key may likewise presume he will coast home so easily that National does not need their tick. Photo / Mark Mitchell

What if New Zealand held an election and the voters did not bother to turn up? With 100 days to go until election day on September 20, the political parties - no doubt fibbing through clenched teeth - profess to be ready. Or close enough.

Labour has integrated its backroom research staff with its communication and media operations in a large taxpayer-funded "war room" at Parliament.

The Greens knocked on 10,000 doors up and down the country a couple of weekends ago in a dress-rehearsal of what, for them, is a new face-to-face way of targeting their message to those identified as being sympathetic.

National has amply filled its coffers by using its greatest asset - John Key - to host many plush and expensive-to-attend fundraising dinners.

Winston Peters has been quietly shoring up his core vote on the more basic tea and biscuits Grey Power circuit.

What the new kid on the block - Internet-Mana - has lost timewise is being compensated for by the experience of long-time activists and the naive exuberance of first-time party members.

Plus, of course, not a little cash from the Internet Party's founder, Kim Dotcom.

The latter may yet curse his bad luck, however, to have launched a party at the very time when the electorate at large seems unresponsive to fresh ideas and faces, which in Internet-Mana's case are not actually that fresh anyway.

The pervading feeling is that voters simply have not connected yet with the policies and messages being peddled by the parties in what, apart from Jamie Whyte's necessary excursion to the right in his quest for Act's lost soul, is a pretty crowded marketplace around the political centre.

The polls have developed rigor mortis. Nothing is moving them. That either means people have already made up their minds or are refusing to engage until full campaigning begins and politics becomes inescapable.

It looks as if there is more of the former than the latter - much to the worry of Opposition parties, which, failing to make inroads into National's buoyant support, are showing dangerous signs of cannibalising one another in what is an increasingly desperate hunt for issues which might set an otherwise lethargic electorate alight and which have not already been hosed down by National.

The arrival of Internet-Mana will only exacerbate the dog-eat-dog competition on the centre-left, where many voters may have already convinced themselves that National is going to win anyway and will consequently stay at home.

National may also suffer. The swing voters who have stayed loyal to John Key may likewise presume he will coast home so easily that National does not need their tick on the ballot paper.

All up, voter turnout may be even less than the abysmal 74 per cent in 2011 when it fell by six percentage points on the previous election.

Labour intends pulling out the stops to get non-voters it identifies as leaning its way to the polling booths.

The likes of David Cunliffe might argue the opinion polls are all over the place and that only one poll matters - the one on election day. And that below the surface calm lurks ferment and anger which will erupt on election day and toss out a two-term National Administration.

The apparent calm is more the case that, by and large, when it comes to getting politicians to listen and respond to voters' often selfish wishes and demands, Key-led National is about as good as they are likely to get.

Beyond partial state asset sales, National has avoided doing anything to antagonise middle-ground voters during the past three years.

Where it has upset people on some issues, those have largely been peripheral - such as the monitoring of the intelligence agencies.

The truth is that the current Government is not that much different from a cautious Labour one. This makes Key and National extremely difficult to attack and is why the centre-left parties have expended so much energy on the seemingly easier option of trying to besmirch Key's reputation. Voters will eventually tire of Key when Labour once more grabs the public's imagination and thereby highlights Key's eschewing of the politics of vision and constant favouring of pragmatic solutions. But that is not going to happen at this election.

The seven crucial factors that will largely determine election result

1 John Key's personal popularity.

National's biggest asset. The marked lift in the economy would probably still have National well clear of Labour had Key fallen under the proverbial bus. But not at a sufficient level to win a third term in power. Key is the difference. No one else in National has the agility to cross the political divide and lure people who would normally never vote National.

2 The 'no-change' election.

This election is in the same class as the ones in 2002 and 1987 where Labour victory was a foregone conclusion. Antagonism towards the incumbent ruling party is arguably even more sporadic than it was in those cases. To the message of change being pushed by Opposition parties, the electorate seems to be emitting a collective yawn that says, "Why change?" The difference with those previous cakewalks is that National has effectively consumed the votes of its allies, leaving it poised between a slim victory or narrow defeat.

3 The alternative.

Is New Zealand ready for a left-of-centre(ish) government made up of Labour, the Greens, New Zealand First and Internet-Mana or some combination of those parties? Will voters accept the party which wins the most seats in the next Parliament by a long shot - National - no longer being a party of government? How will a Labour leader lacking any reservoirs of goodwill built up in Opposition cope with the likely voter backlash if he has no choice but to rule with an inherently unstable governing arrangement?

4 The myth of the 'missing million' voters.

True, 800,000 or so registered voters failed to make it to a polling booth last time - leading Labour to believe it stands to benefit hugely if it can get even a portion of these people to vote. However, the better measure is the difference between the non-vote in 2011 and 2008 - an increase of around 180,000. That roughly equates with the number of votes Labour lost between those two elections.

5 The economy, of course.

The indicators measuring the health of the economy have been shifting in National's favour for some time. The books are almost back in surplus. The rather large thorn in National's otherwise rosy picture is rising interest rates. But the Reserve Bank seems likely to slow down its phased hikes in the official cash rate. Rather than nibbling to no great effect around the edges of National's success story, Labour is trying to persuade voters National is falling down when it comes to ensuring the recovery is sustained and that major reform is required.

6 The Big Dot-commotion.

The election's wild card. With the electorate becalmed, the Internet Party and the umbrella Internet-Mana movement may struggle to catch the necessary wave to see it pick up the Waiariki seat to add to Hone Harawira's Te Tai Tokerau electorate. If Labour wins the two other Maori Party-held seats, National will lose a vital support partner.

7 Winston Last. But not least.

Going on poll results, which usually underestimate the party's true level of support, New Zealand First will be back - but not by much. If it fails to beat the 5 per cent threshold, then National might be celebrating victory. But Cunliffe's shifting of Labour leftwards will have left those voters alienated from Labour feeling even colder and they will stick with Peters.

National 8/10*

Leader: Prime Minister John Key says National is "looking very strong", pointing to polls that show the party could govern alone.

Key players: Minister Steven Joyce, Jo de Jeux (campaign director), Peter Goodfellow (party president)

Campaign: Focus will be on economy, economy and economy. National will point to two years of tentative growth and increasing business and consumer confidence, while emphasising unfinished business and that it is the best party to complete the job.

War chest/donations: The party is "cautiously positive" about its war chest, which was mostly funded by small, regular donations from individuals and businesses.

Candidate selection: Candidates have been confirmed in nearly all 71 electorates. The list rankings will be finalised at the annual conference and will include a number of new faces to replace National's eight resigning MPs.

Major policy announcements:

• Programme to raise student achievement, which introduces new roles such as expert teachers and expert principals

• Establishing more fast-tracked special housing areas to increase supply

• Completing unfinished employment reforms and resource management reforms

Labour 6/10

Leader David Cunliffe: "Campaign preparations are going well and are further advanced than in recent election cycles. Our party has more than double the members at the last election ... "

Key players: Campaign manager David Talbot, from polling company UMR, will be working with party secretary Tim Barnett who will run the party machine. The 12-strong campaign committee includes Matt McCarten, party organiser Geoff Hayward and MPs Grant Robertson and Phil Twyford.

Advertising: Labour is using ad agency Running With Scissors.

Candidates: Have all been selected. The party list including ranking will be announced a week on Sunday.

War chest/donations: Boosted recently by the high-profile donation from gym magnate Phillip Mills.

Major policy announcements: Labour will shortly release its fiscal plan under which subsequent economic and social policies will be funded. It has already released policies including:

• Housing affordability - the Kiwibuild home building plan, and a restriction on foreign residential real estate purchases

• Extending paid parental leave to 26 weeks and bringing in a "baby bonus"

• NZ Power to curb electricity prices

• Quake recovery

Green 9/10

Co-leader Russel Norman says the bold new carbon tax policy announced at the conference two weeks ago has mobilised the party base. MPs and volunteers have already carried out 10,000 door-knocks for a campaign dress-rehearsal, and donations and funding are at an all-time high.

Key players: Ben Youdan, (campaign director), Kristin Gillies (campaign coordination manager), Ryan Mearns (digital adviser)

Campaign: The party has employed Auckland ad agency Post for its campaign. The theme will again have a social, economic and environmental focus like last election's "Jobs, Rivers, Kids".

War chest/donations: Funding is already 30 per cent higher than the total amount for the 2011 election - believed to be more than $1 million.

Candidates: The Greens have 49 confirmed candidates, all of whom will run for electorate seats except MP Gareth Hughes, who will focus on the youth vote. The party list runs to 39.

Major policy announcements:

• Create a single electricity buyer to negotiate lower bills

• Create a $120m Green investment bank to encourage eco-friendly innovation

• Restart state-subsidised housing insulation

• Extend free GP visits

Maori 3/10

Co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell says the party is struggling to gather resources to cover the huge Maori electorates, but is no worse off than other elections. Most candidates are confirmed, including some fresh faces to replace two outgoing MPs, but the campaign theme and policy still need work.

Key players:

Ken Mair (campaign director)

Campaign:

Likely to be a low-budget campaign focused on the Maori seats, with some candidates on the general roll to encourage the party vote.

War chest/donations:

The party is struggling with resources to cover campaigns in the geographically huge Maori electorates. It has hosted a $5000-a-head dinner which offered access to Prime Minister John Key, but this was a one-off and most fundraising is on a smaller scale. Candidates will fund their campaigns out of their own pockets.

Candidates:

Nominations have been confirmed in the five Maori electorates. The party is expecting to choose at least two more candidates to run in general seats.

Major policy announcements:

• None. Expected to unveil policy at campaign launch and 10th anniversary event next month.

Conservative *

Leader Colin Craig says the party is "way ahead" in its campaign compared to 2011, when Conservative formed seven weeks before the election. It still has to confirm all candidates and some policy, but already has 6000 members.

Key players: Chief executive Christine Rankin heads the team.

Campaign: The party is using three unidentified advertising agencies and has adopted the motto "Stand for Something". Its campaign will focus on hardline law and order policies, the introduction of binding referendums, scrapping the ETS and "one canoe for all" (no new Treaty claims, scrapping Maori seats, repealing foreshore and seabed legislation).

War chest/donations: Conservative plans to spend $1.5 million on its campaign, most of it from Mr Craig's donations. The party has also received one public donation of $100,000.

Candidates: Mr Craig will announce which electorate he will run in at the end of the month. Just two other candidates have been confirmed, in South Auckland. The party will run candidates in around 50 electorates.

Major policy announcements:

• None.

Act 6/10

Leader Jamie Whyte: "I took the leadership in an election year and I feel we've been campaigning from the start. I feel we're pretty well prepared. I'm quite comfortable we've got it all planned out, we're in good shape."

Campaign team: Richard Prebble (campaign director), Brian Nicole (campaign manager). Campaign committee includes: Dr Whyte, David Seymour, former National Party Epsom electorate chairman Lindsay Ferguson and US Republican Party pollster Gene Ulm.

Campaign: Planning to run a "presidential" style campaign built around Dr Whyte. Will also be positioning itself as "a bit bluer" than the "Labour-lite" National Party.

War chest/donations: Has already received about $200,000 in large donations this year including $100,000 from long-time patron Alan Gibbs.

Candidates: The party has selected 24 electorate candidates out of 50 it plans to field but is only seriously going after Epsom.

Major policy announcements:

• Has already announced three strikes for burglars, an alternative Budget with a focus on low flat taxes, and a toughening up of employment laws. Campaign will feature major policy around greater private sector involvement in health.

Internet-Mana coalition 5/10

Internet Party leader Laila Harre: "This party has been built very rapidly with a total on focus on preparing for this year's election. We've got the advantage of being focused on little else but the disadvantage of building our volunteer base as we go but I feel very confident that we've got volunteers, systems and professional staff working together in a very effective way."

Mana leader Hone Harawira: "We're aiming for three MPs but we'll be happy with four".

Key players: The two parties have formed a joint campaign committee including internet Party campaign manager and entertainment industry figure Michael Tucker.

The committee includes the party leaders, along with Mana party director Gerard Hehir, John Minto, the internet Party's Vikram Kumar and Anna Sutherland with some input from Kim Dotcom.

The internet Party has its own campaign committee including former ministerial press secretary and PR veteran Mark Blackham, and Mana has dedicated teams for the key Te Tai Tokerau, Waiariki and Ikaroa Rawhiti electorates.

Campaign: Internet-Mana hasn't engaged an ad agency with necessary design and marketing work in house with a focus on online, social media as well as postering.

War chest/donations: internet Party founder Kim Dotcom's commitment of over $4 million has already generated headlines but the party claims it is talking to other potential large donors. Mana already had the $25,000 core advertising funding in place for its three key electorate campaigns. But internet Mana has allocated additional funds to support those campaigns.

Candidates: Mr Harawira, Mana president Annette Sykes and Ms Harre have been confirmed as the top three on the combined party list.

The internet Party is set to announce its party list in a week's time. Mana will this week select remaining electorate candidates focused on capturing party votes in South Auckland.

Major policy announcements:

• The two parties are holding a series of meetings to formulate a joint policy platform and already have a number of policies in common such as a crackdown on the GCSB, and free tertiary education.

• Ironically, the joint policy platform is unlikely to include cannabis law reform which the internet Party favours but Mana does not.

NZ First

Who knows. The party failed to provide any detail of any value.

Leader Winston Peters: "Two words - we're ready".

Key players: Winston Peters. Others were not interested in being publicly named.

Campaign: No outside ad agency engaged but the party will hire people with the necessary expertise for media production duties.

War chest/donations: Money has never been a big thing for NZ First and it has never been the beneficiary of big donations, the party says. It will ask members for more financial help via a direct debit system, details of which were leaked to the media last month. It says it will be more frugal with that money than any other party.

Candidates: Selections and the party list ranking process are going to plan.

Policies so far:

• KiwiFund - a state run KiwiSaver Fund

• 25 per cent of mining royalties to go to regional development projects

• Three free GP visits for SuperGold cardholders each year

• Winter Power discounts for senior citizens,

• Limits on speculation in residential properties by foreigners and foreign companies.

• Buy back state-owned power companies.

United Future

No longer registering in most polls.

Key players: Campaign director to be confirmed soon.

Campaign: Broadcasting allocation has dropped by $30,000 to $77,000. Advertising agency not yet chosen for campaign. Theme is likely to focus on three key areas - flexible superannuation, income sharing and a new education initiative.

War chest/donations: Donations have fallen compared to 2011, partly because organisations which gave regularly to all parties have been scared off by the John Banks recent trial in which he was found guilty of knowingly filing a false return.

Candidates: Peter Dunne is the only confirmed candidate, running in the Ohariu seat he has held since 1984. Between 15 and 20 candidates are expected to be announced, all of whom will run for electorate seats.

Major policy announcements:

• Making superannuation flexible by allowing people to take a smaller allowance at 60 or larger allowance at 70

• Reducing income tax for families with children (through income sharing)

John Armstrong's ranking of election readiness for parties with representation in Parliament.

- NZ Herald

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