Let's Do Them! All Jacinda Ardern has to do to clinch the 2020 General Election is frighten the bejesus out of the electorate by describing in the most graphic terms imaginable what will happen to all the positive beginnings her government has made if National is returned to power. Paint Simon Bridges, or, Judith Collins (if National are silly enough to gift Labour “The Crusher”) as wanton toddlers, hell-bent on smashing-down what all the other children are striving to build.
AS THINGS NOW STAND, NZ First cannot surge. This is a serious problem for all the parties making up the Coalition Government. NZ First has come to rely upon the last-minute surge in popular support which its leader skilfully engenders, and which, again and again, has carried himself and his colleagues over the 5 percent MMP threshold. The problem facing the Coalition in 2020 is that, hitherto, Winston Peters’ target: the object fuelling the popular resentment behind the surge; has been the incumbent government. Peters can hardly set about organising a populist surge against himself!
Unfortunately, for the Coalition Government, it is living through what might be called “The Populist Moment”. All over the world, voters are deserting the parties of the centre-left and the centre-right for political leaders and parties eager to denounce the failed orthodoxy of the political establishment. The era of post-war optimism, founded on a rising tide of prosperity lasting thirty years, is well and truly over. All the promises to re-start the happiness machine have proved hollow. The new god of Neoliberalism, which replaced the failed god of Keynesianism, has turned out to have feet of clay. Nothing works anymore, and somebody must be to blame.
Ordinarily, it would be Peters and NZ First positioning themselves front-and-centre in the blame game. As we lurch towards election year, however, we encounter a howling void where New Zealand’s twenty-five-year-old populist party used to be. It’s not as if there’s any shortage of issues for the populists to take up: immigration, affordable housing, freedom of speech, social and cultural engineering; all are crying out for a champion.
And that’s the only question. Is there a politician out there tough enough to pick them up and run with them?
Act’s David Seymour would like to, but he simply doesn’t strike enough voters as the right sort of person for the job. National’s Simon Bridges can also see the gap in the political market which Peters’ decision to throw in his lot with Labour and the Greens has opened up. Unfortunately, he just can’t decide whether his colleagues are ready – or even willing – to hare off down the populist path. It’s that indecision, ultimately, which disqualifies him from following in the footsteps of this country’s most ruthless populist politician, Rob Muldoon.
No other New Zealand political leader has produced a surge like Muldoon’s. In just 18 months he exactly reversed Labour’s huge 23-seat majority. The only other National Party leader who’s come anywhere close is Don Brash, who took National from its worst defeat ever and turned it back into a credible contender for power. There’s no doubt that National can do populism: what else were Muldoon’s dancing Cossacks and Brash’s Iwi/Kiwi billboards? What is much more doubtful, is the National Caucus’s willingness give Judith Collins a crack at it.
Which just leaves one more contender: the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern.
Is that even possible? Has an incumbent government ever successfully run a populist campaign?
The answer is an unequivocal “Yes.” All that’s required is an extremely popular leader (Check) and a poorly-led and vulnerable Opposition (Check). As Scott Morrison demonstrated across the Tasman: if these two prerequisites are in place; and if you have the self-discipline to stay on-message for the duration; then you can confound the pundits and snatch victory from the jaws of what everyone insisted was certain defeat.
All Jacinda has to do is frighten the bejesus out of the electorate by describing in the most graphic terms imaginable what will happen to all the positive beginnings her government has made if National is returned to power. Paint Simon Bridges, or, Judith Collins (if National are silly enough to gift Labour “The Crusher”) as wanton toddlers, hell-bent on smashing-down what all the other children are striving to build. Negative campaigning? Attack advertising? Of course! But in a noble and positive cause.
And the really exciting thing is that a huge part of the campaign need not be visible. If Labour in New Zealand is not too proud to copy the extraordinary social-media campaigning techniques perfected by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the recent European elections, then Jacinda should be able to avoid pretty much all of the blood-splatter.
If Labour can bear to eschew complexity, in favour of “Keep it simple, stupid!”, Jacinda will surge home.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 July 2019.