The rise of the Act Party is putting National in a difficult position this election as it tries to find a balance between holding on to its right-wing base while also trying to appeal to moderate voters in the centre.
Pick up a paper or flick on the morning radio these days and you’re more likely to see David Seymour than Christopher Luxon leading the latest opposition attack on the Government or putting forward a new policy. It’s been a rapid rise from being the lone MP for Epsom to the “real” Leader of the Opposition.
We’ve seen this situation play out before when Labour was in Opposition. In the 90s, it was NewLabour then the Alliance, with Jim Anderton often making the most effective alternative to National. In the early 2010s, the hapless David Shearer was outshone by the more aggressive Russel Norman.
When a major party finds their minor party “ally” making the running, it’s a difficult position to be in.
National worries that if they win fewer votes than Labour (as in the latest poll) their claim to lead a government will be weakened. And, the more of the right-wing vote that goes to Act, the more power Seymour would have in a National-led government.
But if National concentrates too hard on fighting Act for votes, it risks losing moderate centre voters.
So National swings back and forth as it tries to please both the Act-curious voter on the right and the Labour-National swing voter in the centre:
· Attack bilingual road signs to please the right; try to back down the next week.
· Form a centrist housing accord with Labour; back out of it as leafy suburbs look to Act.
· Promise to scrap free prescriptions and public transport to placate fiscal conservatives; backtrack when that goes down like a lead balloon with suburban mums.
· Make a cross-party deal to reduce agricultural greenhouse emissions; turn their back on it when farmers start supporting Act.
· Pledge to cut climate spending to pay for tax cuts for landlords; but tell climate-aware centrists that they’re still serious about climate change.
No wonder Luxon seems to spend as much time making backflips as he does trying to get taxpayer-funded Teslas. He’s trying to appeal to two very different groups of voters and making announcements that please one will inevitably annoy the other.
National’s polling is only making this issue more pressing. In May, National averaged 35 per cent in the polls to Labour’s 34 per cent, compared to six months earlier when the gap was 37 per cent to 32 per cent. In the same period, Act rose from an average of 10.5 per cent to 11.6 per cent, meaning National is being squeezed both from the middle by Labour and from the right by Act. Meanwhile, Luxon’s personal popularity continues to spiral.
Unfortunately, National has reacted to this pressure by deciding they need a scapegoat and, sure enough, it’s Māori they’ve decided to target.
Whenever any policy mentions Māori, you can be sure that National and Luxon will be out there opposing it. Doesn’t matter if it’s Matariki public holiday or Auckland doctors using an evidence-based system to try to make the health system less discriminatory. Luxon literally told journalists “I don’t care” when the doctors’ system was explained to him.
All National sees is another chance to tell Pākehā that Māori are getting “special treatment” under Labour in an effort to garner some votes.
It’s bloody sad that we’re in 2023 and a major party still thinks race-baiting is the way to win elections. But it didn’t work for National under Brash 18 years ago, and the polls suggest it isn’t working for Luxon.
On current polling, a Luxon-led government would mean Seymour has a veto over every decision and a third of the ministerial portfolios.
And, unlike National, Act has laid out a costed plan:
· Two billion a year in tax cuts to the top 2 per cent and landlords.
· Tax increases for the lowest earners. Not leaving enough in the kitty to meet health and education cost pressures.
· Cuts to superannuation, climate funding, tertiary funding, Winter Energy Payments, KiwiSaver, First Home Grants, science and research, and more.
· Asset sales and no more savings in the Superannuation Fund.
In a National-Act government, where National’s policy platform consists of a handful of vague statements scribbled on the backs of napkins and Act’s platform is a comprehensive list of policies to enrich the already wealthy while kneecapping everyone else and abandoning the fight against climate change, who’s going to have more chance of pushing their agenda through?
If Luxon was heading a Cabinet where one in three ministers were from Act, which of Act’s extreme policies would he have to sign up to?
Until now, Luxon has refused to say which Act policies he would adopt, but he will need to find answers in the coming weeks. Get ready for some extreme tightrope walking.
Shane Te Pou (Ngāi Tūhoe) is a commentator, blogger and former Labour Party activist.