So the Grinch comes for Labour in the form of a pre-Christmas poll as it battles the trifecta of a law and order disaster, a dire outlook for 2023 and more troubles with one of its key reforms, Three Waters.
The latest 1 News Kantar Public Poll put Labour down one at just 33 per cent, yet another slice off its support base which has been crumbling now for a year, but which Labour hoped had halted. It was followed up by a Curia poll in Hamilton West which had National’s candidate Tama Potaka with a convincing lead over Labour’s Georgie Dansey.
The Kantar Public poll was taken at a torrid time for Labour – but those torrid times seem to be coming with great frequency.
It was in the days immediately after the stabbing of Janak Patel following a dairy robbery in Sandringham - and before Labour announced its measures of funding for fog cannons and boosted penalties for drivers who flee police. It was also amidst the entrenchment debate over Three Waters legislation.
But the main headwind Labour was battling is the cost of living and the Reserve Bank’s rate hike and warning that 2023 will be even more dire than the dire 2022.
Almost two-thirds of voters are gloomy about 2023 – more than were gloomy at the height of the global financial crisis, when there was gloom aplenty.
The winners of that doom and gloom are the smaller parties: NZ First leader Winston Peters is within sniffing distance of getting back into Parliament, nudging up to 4 per cent, perhaps bearing dividends from his declaration that he would not go with Labour if the kingmaker in 2023.
It was Act rather than National which benefited more from Labour’s woe.
The stuff-up over Labour’s support for a 60 per cent entrenchment provision in the Three Waters legislation will also play against the party in Government. Labour’s main line of attack against National’s Christopher Luxon has been over his inexperience, contrasting that with the Ardern-Robertson steady ship.
Blunders such as not realising what you’re voting for in already problematic reforms – and having to go back to Parliament to fix it - will puncture that.
But Labour’s plight has not been a bonanza for National. Luxon did nudge up to 23 per cent as preferred Prime Minister while Ardern slipped to 29 per cent. That is her lowest since becoming PM and is the smallest gap between the two leaders since Luxon took over. He is now in her slipstream, just six points adrift. But National is still struggling to get into the 40s: it bumped up only one point to 38.
Luxon won’t be weeping. He would be Prime Minister on those results - but Act would have a very strong hand to play.
It’s a long time now since the heady days when Labour benefited from its handling of the Covid-19 response but remembering Covid won’t help it now. It is being absolutely hammered by the longer-term costs of it.
That will be probed by the Covid-19 Royal Commission of Inquiry announced today.
As is often the case, it is not what is in an inquiry that counts – but what is not in it.
The immediate attention went both on the timing of the review – to wrap up in mid 2024 – and on what it would not look into.
As for what is not in it, there are apparent efforts to try to ensure it does not turn into a blame game: while the general measures taken (the use of various restrictions, the MIQ system, the use of quantitative easing by the Reserve Bank to try to insulate the economy) will all be looked into, the actual decisions made will not be.
In case there is some blaming, the timing will have the effect of ensuring that it does not land just before an election – in particular not before the 2023 election.
Instead it will land in mid-2024 when there is likely still a year or so before the next election.
Ardern was clearly aware the timing would raise questions about whether the Government was shying away from being held accountable for any questions the findings raised.
The timing is probably a good thing – it has the effect of insulating it from politics to a certain degree, and allows time for the sober deliberation that is needed rather than the distraction of politicians mining it for blame bombs to hurl at each other in the heat of an election year.
It would also risk turning the election into something of a referendum on something that happened two years earlier, rather than the here and now.
There is plenty enough happening in the here and now without that.
The key question that all politicians should hope it will answer is whether the trade-offs were worth it.
Handling pandemics is more easily done when there is a low risk of either political gain or failure from the decisions that need to be made. That can happen more easily if there is a playbook.
Of course, when it is politicians deciding on the review and politicians who fronted the decisions now being scrutinised, politics inevitably enter into it.
Ardern’s announcement of the review included great mentions of how well New Zealand had fared compared with other countries.
Ayesha Verrall had also done her own review in advance of it: Asked to rank the response herself on RNZ, Verrall said it was an A or A+.
What both will be glad about is that it is at least in the rear-view mirror (for now).