After the dire 1News Verian poll put Labour down at 29 per cent on Monday, Labour’s finance spokesman Grant Robertson pointed to strategy guidance from the television quiz show, The Chase.
He noted Bradley Walsh’s two keys to success in that show: you only need a few pushbacks and a full house (the full team of contestants) to take home the money.
Labour’s full house has lost a room or four in recent months but Labour has hope the building putty will now hold and there will be opportunities aplenty for pushbacks in the seven weeks left.
It was some relief a mini-pushback was delivered almost immediately.
For the first time in a long time, it was not Labour that spent the week talking about its personnel problems.
Instead it was National Party leader Christopher Luxon, who was suffering the pain of having made a rod for his own back, and it was Act Party leader David Seymour, who was suffering the pain of his chickens coming home to roost.
This will have come as relief to Labour leader Chris Hipkins because it was timed perfectly for his post-poll declaration on Tuesday that he was “fighting back!”
Hipkins had first declared himself the underdog – the Eric the Eel of New Zealand politics, if you like – and then issued his fighting words.
The troubles on the other side send a faint signal to his fretful caucus that such fighting talk might not be just empty bravado.
A further morale booster was delivered on Friday when Labour’s internal polling landed, taken a bit later than 1News. That is understood to have Labour at 32 per cent and National at 34 – with the Greens on 11, Act on 10, NZ First at a healthy 6 and Te Pāti Māori on 4. NZ First would be the likely kingmaker.
That poll was circulated more widely than usual around Labour, due to the more heartening news it contained. It allows people to convince themselves that the 1News poll was a snapshot in time rather than the end times.
It could also mean we are simply in for a volatile time in the polls, as in 2017, or that one or the other is wrong.
It is enough to give Labour some heart that not all is lost, and the personnel issues in National won’t hurt that.
It is unlikely voters totally believed Luxon’s moral high horse routine when he assured them the resignations and sackings of Labour’s ministers would not happen under a National Government, they would be absolute paragons of good behaviour.
However, it is not helpful to have that highlighted quite so soon.
Luxon was dealing with two issues.
One was MP Tim van de Molen, after the Privileges Committee found him in contempt for threatening behaviour to Labour MP Shanan Halbert. He is stripped of his portfolios, and joins Sam Uffindell and Barbara Kuriger in the Luxon naughty corner.
The second was MP Michael Woodhouse deciding his list ranking was such an insult he’d rather opt out and leave Parliament altogether. Woodhouse also highlighted, whether indirectly or not, that he believed he had come a cropper to Luxon’s push to get more women into Parliament.
It is a risky move shoving a sitting MP into a marginal list position.
However, it should not have come as a surprise to anybody that women got some help on the party’s list.
Luxon is a businessman. He publicly identified a problem: the woeful proportion of women in his caucus. He set a KPI: an eventual hope for a 50-50 gender split. He set a way to get to it: using the list process to make up for any shortcomings in the electorate selections.
He was not subtle about any of this. Yet for some reason, now Luxon appears reluctant to admit to it, refusing to say women were a factor in the list ranking at least six times on RNZ on Monday.
Those issues meant Luxon did not get much airtime to promote his policy of the week: scrapping the newly endowed universal free prescriptions and using the money to pay for a better range of cancer treatments.
It could also mean he has now two MPs with a bad case of the sulks in his camp.
Act leader David Seymour’s problems included both himself and news two candidates with some interesting views online had dropped off the Act ledger. Those views related to vaccine mandates and Jacinda Ardern.
Seymour’s response amounted to a “good riddance” which some might deem a bit rich, given back in the day Seymour was more solicitous of anti-mandate views than most.
National will be hoping such situations result in some of Act’s votes heading back to National. However, it may not impact on Act’s support because nobody had heard of them and a large bulk of the support is built around Seymour himself.
Seymour has assiduously painted himself as a voice of reason who assiduously prosecutes issues that matter to voters.
So Labour and National have both watched on with interest as Seymour has dug in and dragged out the saga of his wee “joke” about sending Guy Fawkes to the Ministry of Pacific Peoples.
His reluctance to apologise or even concede he could have come up a better-worded joke is baffling enough. However, it is less baffling than his reluctance to shut up about it.
In question time again this week, Seymour dedicated an entire question to trying to get Hipkins to admit he had mischaracterised Seymour’s comments as being about an entire ethnic community, rather than about the ministry itself.
The joke is bad no matter who he meant, and he has now dedicated a lot of time and effort to explaining the punch line.
For at least this week, National and Act have hit pause on talking about things voters care about, for the sake of talking about the goings on in Select Committee Room 3 and the nuances of Seymour’s sense of humour.
There has been much scrutiny of past polling and situations where parties have managed to change the direction of their polling in the last weeks of a campaign, and how they have done it.
Hipkins has started by saying Labour will now put more effort into trying to highlight the “dangers” of a National–Act cocktail, and maybe a twist of NZ First.
Whether this depiction of big bad right-winged monster will actually hit home among the voters is debatable.
But it does have the effect of forcing Luxon to face questions about just what he would be happy to accept from Act. It also forces him to face repeated questions about whether he will rule out NZ First.
Thus far, Luxon’s approach to these questions has been the selective use of the hypothetical excuse. Any question he doesn’t want to answer, he dismisses as purely hypothetical.
That won’t stop the questions coming: there will be a fresh flurry after Hipkins sets out his own preferences and rule-outs for a future Labour government, including where he would see Te Pāti Māori and the Greens. That is less fraught exercise for him than it will be for Luxon.