By Steve Maharey

The rule of thumb is that governments lose elections, oppositions do not win them. History tells us this is, for the most part, true.

But a party wanting to be the government cannot afford to just sit around and wait for the prize to fall into its lap. They have to, in the words of former Prime Minister David Lange, "polish the lino".

The polishing begins by showing the government has had its day. Problems need to be pointed out, weaknesses probed, hopeless Ministers exposed and policies shown to be failures. Voters will start to think it must be time for a change.


The next step is to offer a clear alternative. This must include credible policies, people who look like they can run the country and a leader who voters want to listen to.

With the lino coming to a high sheen, it is time to show the Government the door. This means reminding voters that the incumbent Government is no longer fit for purpose, that there is an alternative, and running the kind of election campaign that gets people to the polls.

Do all of this and it is time to put the craft beer in the fridge.

What makes this election so intriguing is that this is not what the opposition has been doing, yet there is every possibility of a change of Government on the 23rd of September.

Over the past nine years the National-led Government has been able to get on with the job of governing largely untroubled by the opposition. It hasn't been all smooth sailing because they had to deal with a Global Financial Crisis (well done), earthquakes (OK), the Pike Mine disaster (the jury is still out) and many other events that were not mentioned in anyone's manifesto. (Note to all aspiring governments - most of what you will do has not been thought of yet).

Meanwhile the main opposition party, Labour, preoccupied itself with changing leaders. Smaller parties tried to fill the vacuum left by Labour - and failed.

Just a few weeks ago, the state of the parties suggested that National would go through the election campaign concerned only with the need to get its vote as close to 50 per cent as possible to avoid having to give too much to Winston Peters.

Then, overnight, the situation changed. Labour leader Andrew Little resigned and was replaced by Jacinda Ardern who immediately connected with the media and voters. Labour saw its poll rating rise into the high-thirties and its leader equal Bill English in the preferred Prime Minister stakes.


There are more theories as to why this happened than I have fingers and toes. But the one that I think makes sense is that while the opposition was not doing the job of polishing the lino, the National Party was doing it for them.

The National Party has never been a party of change. It is, as the political scientists say, there to administer. The momentous events of the past nine years made them look like they were doing something when they were not. As a result, New Zealanders find themselves facing an underperforming economy, stagnant wages, low productivity, growing inequality, a housing crisis, environmental degradation, stretched public services, creaking infrastructure, concerns about the level of immigration - and no plan to deal with massive changes like climate change, the future of work or the new world order built around Asia.

To be fair, no government solves all problems. But after nine years in government the list is supposed to be a little shorter.

In the absence of an opposition pointing out the problems and providing an alternative, National felt safe enough to go to the polls offering New Zealanders more of the same.

This strategy seemed sensible earlier in the year. Now, not so much.

The next four weeks will be a head-to-head competition between the two major parties.

The others will be relevant after the election when a coalition is formed. National can "win" (meaning the chance to talk to support parties) if they can convince enough voters to stick with the status quo. Labour can "win" if they can convince enough voters that change is possible.

Given that this choice will only have been on offer for 45 days by September 23rd, it is not going to be possible to fill in much detail. The election looks like coming down to one simple deciding factor - leadership.

Do voters want Bill English or Jacinda Ardern? The status quo or change. We will know very soon.