Judith Collins is safe as National leader, at least until it looks like she might become Prime Minister.
That is not altogether fanciful. Over the next 12 months, median voters face a world of pain as interest rates, inflation — or both — rise steadily. ANZ expects six interest-rate rises by the end of next winter. With 80 per cent of mortgages either floating or fixed for under a year, households carrying record debt could see their monthly interest payments double. Meanwhile, export volumes are already maxed out and returns will fall as the dollar rises.
Jacinda Ardern may think this is unfair, given that she presides over one of the world's only Covid-free economies, now enjoying full employment and rising wages. But voters have banked all that, and the old bogeyman of her regime's utter inability to deliver anything except sermons is back.
The slow vaccine rollout and recent lessons from New South Wales and Victoria mean New Zealand is just one community Delta-variant case away from Ardern announcing an emergency Level 4 lockdown. We come close whenever a case is picked up by day-12 testing, just two days before international arrivals are released from MIQ.
This is a numbers game. The more people who arrive, the greater the risk of a Delta outbreak. Whatever intentions Ardern announces to placate separated families and labour-deprived businesses, she dares not lift the cap on arrivals until the vaccination programme delivers population immunity. That won't be until next year.
Meanwhile, all the failures on housing, poverty, transport, greenhouse gas emissions and crime keep compounding.
Unable to do anything meaningful on the things that polls suggest New Zealanders care about most, Labour gets tied up on issues like its failure to define exactly what will become illegal under its hate speech and gay conversion therapy laws, poorly thought through announcements like the Auckland cycle bridge and light rail debacles, and debates over whether farmers and tradies should pay the same taxes on their utes and SUVs as Parnell mums.
Much of this comes down to naive ministers with no experience outside party politics signing off idealistic schemes proposed by bureaucrats without thinking through the practical implications, or who might provide political opposition in defence of their interests.
For example, it seems not to have occurred to Justice Minister Kris Faafoi that voters expect him to be able to say what hate speech and gay conversion therapy are before agreeing offenders should be imprisoned for up to three and five years respectively.
Likewise, Transport Minister Michael Wood appears surprised Aucklanders want more than pretty pictures before supporting his multibillion-dollar light rail scheme whose construction would disrupt the city for at least a decade, for a purpose he is unable to articulate except to say it would be "city-shaping". Central city retailers and others along its route can surely concur — in the same way Germans could agree contemporary Dresden was "shaped" by Bomber Harris in 1945.
More cynical Beehive strategists could be forgiven for hoping for a big dramatic Delta lockdown, to again sideline business-as-usual issues, allowing Ardern to resume her Boudicea shtick, with sidekick Ashley Bloomfield.
There is no doubt the Beehive has been spooked by polls suggesting Labour has lost nearly one in five of its 2020 supporters — some to the Greens but others across the political divide.
The polls not only shatter Labour's dream of a second term as a single-party Government. Worse, they justify National and Act describing their opponent as Labour-Green, with the Greens' top-ranked MP, Marama Davidson, a putative Deputy Prime Minister.
Labour's declining poll numbers have prompted its adults to retake charge. Ardern is promising to be nicer to farmers. Finance Minister Grant Robertson has kyboshed Wood's bizarre cycle bridge. Sir Michael Cullen is surely acting with Robertson's tacit approval in his crusade against Wood's light rail.
The funds that might have been wasted on these unworldly projects beloved of the Grey Lynn liberal elite look set to be diverted to Robertson's more rational priority of tunnelling under the Waitematā Harbour plus expanding dedicated public-transport routes to the swing voters of West Auckland, including buses and rail. Both the tunnels and the West Auckland links could be pursued without causing City Rail Link-type disruption during construction.
Such corrections may be enough. But if the vaccination programme is finally complete next year, if there are no more dramatic lockdowns and if life returns to something like normal, politics will revert to issues like unaffordable housing, rising interest rates and grocery bills, poverty and inequality, and worsening crime.
Labour may be more trusted than National on all these issues now. But that has less to do with confidence in Labour than with National's unmatched ability to stay relentlessly off-message and preoccupied with various culture wars of interest mainly to Trump-admiring bloggers.
Act's polling surge is a reward for it moving beyond niche issues and focusing on the mainstream concerns that would normally belong to National, including David Seymour's "honest conversations" campaign around housing, infrastructure, expanding MIQ and preventing crime, which saw Act MPs visit nearly 50 towns and often overlooked suburban communities during the parliamentary break.
Already, National and Act combined are within striking distance of Labour and the Greens. While Collins' net negatives are approaching the probably never-to-be-matched record set by Simon Bridges last year, National is still polling twice as well as Act, meaning she and not Seymour would be Prime Minister.
For as long as Collins becoming Prime Minister strains credibility, she is safe as National leader. This weekend's expected purge of the party's board should satisfy National activists' immediate bloodlust and send the necessary message to voters that they accept last year's verdict.
But as soon as National appears to have a more plausible chance in 2023, Bridges and John Key's preferred combo of Christopher Luxon and Nicola Willis will come into contention. Bluntly, neither the grandees of the Key era nor a majority of National's current caucus wants Collins to be Prime Minister.
Doubtless, Collins would judge this to be just as unfair as Ardern would her party's recent fall in support. But no one said politics was fair. Collins risks the same fate as poor old David Shearer. Only when Labour went up in the polls in 2013 and seemed to have a chance of ousting National and Key did David Cunliffe and his supporters finally make their move.
If history repeats, National will need to hope 2023 works out better for Luxon or Bridges 2.0 than 2014 did for Cunliffe.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.