This week’s Budget is the first big set-piece opportunity of the election season.
After the unsatisfying muddle of recent weeks, the Government needs it to generate some momentum.
In Auckland last Friday, Finance Minister Grant Robertson focused on storm recovery, rebuilding and infrastructure investment, saying “we are in this for the long haul as a partner”.
Robertson said: “As we move to the rebuild phase and consider the future of severely-affected land following the floods, hard calls are going to have to be made... It will require a partnership - for making decisions, and how we finance these decisions.”
Labour is trying to emphasise its approach in government as being a positive, reliable and experienced facilitator for dealing with the country’s challenges.
This is as the party is pushing a contrasting line about National being negative.
It’s not a bad seam to mine, given Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ better favourability ratings in polls over Opposition leader Christopher Luxon, and the question of why National isn’t faring better given the hard economic conditions over the past year.
There’s something there to dig in the apparent wariness in the electorate about National as a government and Luxon as a leader.
Unlike other countries’ elections, New Zealand’s campaign is not awash with public data on the deep detail of voters’ views about different leaders and issues - material beyond how topics rank in order of importance.
For instance, a Fox News poll in the US last month outlined very high public levels of support for seven different gun control measures, from 61 per cent in favour of banning assault weapons to 87 per cent supporting background checks for gun buyers.
A CBS poll in the US this month asked Republicans what they wanted in a candidate: 85 per cent said “challenges woke ideas”; 66 per cent said ”opposes any gun restrictions”; 61 per cent liked ”says Trump won in 2020″; and 57 per cent ticked ”makes liberals angry”.
People here would be interested in the reasons why voters prefer Hipkins to Luxon, what they think about tax reform, Te Pāti Māori’s likely kingmaker role, public transport changes and other details.
Opposition parties will need to shift from attack mode and focusing on what they’re against, to offer some optimism and a sense of where they would lead. To get over the line, National still seems mostly reliant on general dissatisfaction with the country’s direction and Labour tripping up and losing goodwill with voters.
Robertson’s pre-Budget speeches have previously laid out a narrative of reassurance in continuity. Highlighting the “infrastructure deficit” of the past, he promised steps to fund investment in the infrastructure rebuild after the storms and “future national resilience projects”.
Whether people have the patience for looking ahead amid the frustrations of cancelled buses, repeat floodings, and high prices is the question. National has the easier pitch of “if you’re sick of this, vote for something different”.
The Government always has the advantage of pulling the levers of power, and Robertson needs to find something to tilt the ground his party’s way.