This weekend, the battle between the two Chrises will begin in earnest.
From today, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins will ram on his Labour leader hat and put the Prime Minister hat on the sideboard for occasional use only.
He and National leader Christopher Luxon will fight it out to be the one to claim it from that sideboard on October 14.
There are already signs that fight could have some messy bits.
Both leaders will take to a stage in Auckland this weekend for the formal campaign launches. Hipkins will hold Labour’s today, and Luxon will hold National’s on Sunday.
Hipkins is expected to deliver a further cost of living announcement – and that area will be the dominant one in the campaign.
National has already plonked its big cost of living move on the table, in the form of its $14.6 billion tax cuts package, with a side dish of Labour-esque boosts to Working for Families. The latter was presumably because it could not afford to make the universal tax cuts more generous.
That policy package is set to be the front line for the initial stages of the campaign.
It is National’s biggest weapon.
What that means is Labour will now invest as much energy into trying to blow that up as it will into promoting its own offerings.
The tax cuts policy is a big risk to Labour. The risk is that people will look at the headlines only.
Labour’s job is to try to force them to look at the fine print as well, and in particular what they might lose to pay for them.
It has taken heart from the initial anecdotal reaction of voters to the tax cuts in vox pops on the streets and focus groups. That has been lukewarm as people register the $20 a week they will get and deem it nice, but not much to pay the bills with.
If voters are indeed underwhelmed by the amount, then it leaves room for Labour to dent the shiny promise.
The biggest hope there is around its affordability. Labour’s own GST off fruit and veg was widely panned by economic experts, muting its reception among the public. Now the same experts are questioning whether National’s proposed taxes to pay for the tax cuts will make as much money as they seem to think.
One of Labour’s biggest hopes will be that voters will think it’s simply not worth it for the overall cost, at a difficult time.
National has left itself no room to move on the tax cuts. It announced them before the pre-election opening of the books on September 12 and gave a cast-iron guarantee it would not change the offering, even if those books were very dire indeed.
What that could mean is that National then has to justify spending that much on tax cuts that are barely enough for a 1kg block of cheese a fortnight – and explaining how it will pay for the rest of its policies.
The bigger risk to Labour and Hipkins is that the election will not come down to a policy at all, but rather to a vibe for change.
Hipkins has obviously identified that as a risk, given his now frequent references to what a National-led government might look like. In fact, he has been fighting against that very same vibe since he took over in January by pitching himself as enough of a change.
Hipkins has made his strategy obvious: he will boast about what Labour has done and remind people of the situations it has had to deal with, despite National’s attempts to pretend Covid-19 and floods did not happen.
He will set out what Labour wants to do next. And he will try to convince people that a National-led government is no good. It is a combination of both negative and positive.
While Hipkins’ predecessor, Dame Jacinda Ardern, ran on a “relentlessly positive” mantra, Hipkins is making it obvious that he has no squeamishness about going negative, at least where he thinks it is warranted.
This week began with some cynicism on that front in Hipkins’ speech on Sunday, in which he announced he would not be picking up that long spoon to dine with the devil again and ruled out any governing arrangement with NZ First.
That cynicism was not so much in Hipkins’ announcing NZ First was off his dance card for 2023: that was an attempt to seize some advantage out of it, given NZ First had already ruled him out.
It was a direct match to Luxon’s equally opportunistic decision to rule out Te Pati Maori, after it had ruled him out.
But in ruling NZ First leader Winston Peters out, Hipkins also ramped up his attempt to scaremonger about the prospect of what a National – Act – NZ First government might do.
His description of a National Government has morphed from a “coalition of cuts” into a “a coalition of cuts, chaos, and fear”. It would be, he claimed, a government that was inexperienced and untested. He was using the same lines that National had used to try to stall Ardern in 2017.
He is also giving National what he clearly considers to be a taste of its own medicine – in 2017 and 2020, Ardern faced repeated claims that she would end up adopting a wealth tax because it was the Green Party policy.
So Labour is now blithely conflating Act’s policy with National’s on social media - claiming they would bring back student loan interest (Act’s old policy was to restore interest, but it dropped that in 2020), and military-style firearms (Act is not a fan of the register or clamping down hard on legitimate firearms users).
Hipkins’ decision to bring abortion into the morass of things already circling in the election debate was even more cynical.
Nobody is campaigning on abortion law reforms, apart perhaps from the likes of Vision New Zealand.
Luxon has specifically stated he would not move to change the current abortion system. He has said he would resign if he broke that promise.
Yet Hipkins chose to point to the conservatives in National’s lineup, claimed its candidate selections meant the election would deliver more of them, and claimed they did not stand for women’s rights.
It was an attempt to make abortion at least a little bit of an election issue, or at least relevant in people’s assessment of the leadership of Luxon versus Hipkins. It was to remind women voters in particular just where Luxon stands on the issue, no matter how much Luxon might want it to be put to one side.
It further pushed for the women’s vote on social media, highlighting the number of white male candidates on National’s side - a post that was removed because of what the party said was an “uploading” issue (suspected to be a copyright concern).
From here on in, both National and Labour are likely to hone in more on the economic debate – it is by far and away the issue that is raised with them the most.
When Finance Minister Grant Robertson was setting out his new moves to trim Government spending by $4 billion on Monday – a response to high inflation and dropping Government revenue – he was asked if the Treasury forecasts were likely to show the surplus was moving further into the distance.
Robertson noted that the forecasts were more an art than a science. He could have added that the more recent ones had been verging on abstract expressionism, with generous use of the red paint, rather than the realism style he might want.
The same could be said about playing the negative card in an election: it is an art more than a science and sometimes a very messy one.