Keeping Their Eyes On The Road: The Coalition Government's re-election depends crucially on the dominant themes of the 2020 election remaining firmly rooted in the practical concerns of the majority. If, however, the National Party Opposition can wrench the electorate’s attention away from the Coalition’s bread-and-butter priorities, then everything will be made significantly more difficult for Labour, NZ First and the Greens.
2020’s GENERAL ELECTION will differ from 2017’s in one vital respect – it will not be about “the economy, stupid”. This poses serious problems for the Coalition Government.
The unlikely pairing of Labour and NZ First would not have happened had the dominant themes of the 2017 election not been inequality, homelessness, child poverty and pollution. Fluid public concern surrounding these issues had congealed into a broad political consensus that “something must be done”. This, in turn, had led to a blurring of traditional electoral boundaries. It was this blurring effect which encouraged a party of the populist right to reach out to a party of the centre-left and, more surprising still, accept the participation of radical greens in a new government.
The re-election of this unlikely electoral alliance depends crucially on the dominant themes for 2020 remaining firmly rooted in the practical concerns of the majority. Is the gap between the rich and the poor widening or closing? Are people better housed than they were in 2017? Have first-home-buyers been given the hand-up they were promised? Has the percentage of kids living in poverty gone up or down? Are New Zealand’s rivers and lakes more – or less – swimmable?
Positive answers to these questions – and the absence of too many distracting alternatives – should turn the Coalition Government’s re-election into a slam-dunk. If, however, the National Party Opposition can wrench the electorate’s attention away from the Coalition’s bread-and-butter priorities, then everything will be made significantly more difficult for Labour, NZ First and the Greens.
Unfortunately for the governing parties, the 2020 election shows every sign of being defined by the politics of distraction.
For this, the governing parties have no one to blame but themselves. They were the ones who decided to put euthanasia, the legalisation of cannabis, the decriminalisation and liberalisation of abortion, and the reform of New Zealand’s justice system on the political agenda. All of these issues are distinguished by one over-riding political characteristic: their capacity to polarise the electorate. The very outcome which this curious, composite government should be straining every political sinew to avoid.
The National Party and its allies have lost little time in girding their loins for this fight – one much easier to win than a battle against consolidating the material gains of the voting public. Already, the conservative lobby-group, Family First, is pouring over the poll results supplied to it by Curia Research, the agency directed by National’s long-time pollster, David Farrar.
Family First have noted the white-heat generated by all aspects of the transgender issue and, thanks to Curia Research, now know how New Zealanders feel about some of the most sensitive questions associated with transgender politics. More importantly, Family First has hard evidence that the gulf between the attitudes of NZ First and Green Party voters is vast. The potential to destabilise the government by driving the transgender issue to the front of the electorate’s consciousness is, correspondingly, huge.
Curia’s data also makes clear how divided the centre-left’s electoral base is on the transgender issue. If the Right is able to goad the identity politicians of Labour and the Greens into displaying a series of extreme responses to the transgender issue, then the potential for alienating a significant number of socially conservative Labour supporters is considerable.
The likelihood of the activist left perceiving this danger is, however, remote. Of more significance to them will be the fact that upwards of a third of voters are happy to have transgender issues canvassed within New Zealand schools. They will, rightly, celebrate the sheer numerical dimensions of the tolerance and solidarity on display. Of less interest to these activists will be Curia’s finding that a clear majority of citizens are opposed to teaching children that their gender, far from being biologically fixed, can be changed.
The exploitation of the political sensitivities associated with the transgender issue will only be the first of many diversions as the politics of distraction unfolds between now and the general election. At most risk of electoral injury will be NZ First, whose deeply conservative electoral base will experience ever-increasing levels of personal and political unease as Labour and the Greens advance their ultra-liberal social agenda.
If, by 2020, National is able to convince NZ First supporters that Labour’s and the Green’s priorities are no longer theirs, then it will win.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 18 January 2019.