Claire Trevett: Have Omicron and inflation given Nationals Christopher Luxon a winnable election?

OPINION:

The Government is quickly learning that a hard lockdown is in some ways a much easier response than the 24/7 Omicron scurry of trying to live with Covid without dying of Covid.

It is a morass of rules and micro management, and the Government has been caught short more than once.

The brouhaha around whether brides and grooms will have to wear masks if they get married under new mask rules is an illustration of how messy things compared to the days lockdowns were the answer to Covid-19.

It turned out that the masks at weddings thing was not accurate – although there was confusing information about it on the Covid-19 website which had to be changed.

But Ardern will be hoping that getting through Omicron without lockdowns will see the tide turn in her favour.

In 2020, Covid-19 ensured the election was a foregone conclusion. Ardern’s handling of it earned her the trust of voters.

It indisputably won Labour its historic 2020 election result, but the virus won’t do Labour any more favours.

The hangover has landed and it is pretty much all ugly now.

Ardern’s political advantage has crumbled with it. Labour has dropped from its 50 per cent election result in 2020 to 40 per cent in the last 1News Kantar Public poll, released on Thursday. That equates to almost 290,000 voters falling away.

At the moment, a lot of them are sitting in the undecided category and there is no real hurry to make up minds. That means they are up for grabs, and that the 2023 election is now winnable for National.

It is one thing for a governing party to have developed chinks in its armour and quite another for their rivals to be primed to take advantage of them.

But National’s new leader Christopher Luxon is circling, Mission Prime Minister on his mind.

He has already set his own target by referring to National’s 413,000 lost voters between the 2017 and 2020 elections.

That target is the party’s 2017 result of 44 per cent. It is no small task, but he has made a start. National was up to 32 per cent in this week’s poll – a gain of about 185,000 people since 2020.

After a summer of planning, early next week, Luxon and his MPs will meet in Queenstown to talk it out.

As with his predecessors, Luxon will undoubtedly be bedevilled by irritants, including MPs speaking out of turn or making idiots of themselves.

Harete Hipango has provided the first showcase. He has had to speak to her about rubbing shoulders with the vaccine mandate protestors, and her latest infringement was trying to glossy up her Wikipedia entry. That is at the lower end of the scale, but was nonetheless a flurry of distraction at a time MPs are under orders not to be a distraction.

The sniff of hope could help in that regard: if the polling is going in the right direction, discipline tends to follow.

Act will be another irritant for Luxon, purely by remaining a viable alternative.

The two parties are natural coalition partners, and Luxon’s main aim will be taking those voters that have softened on Labour. But National does want to be the much stronger one of the two and Seymour will not give up his gains without a fight.

Luxon has accomplices, and the most helpful of those is inflation.

The news on Thursday that inflation had rocketed to 5.9 per cent in the last quarter of 2021 would not have surprised anyone who has been to a supermarket or petrol station.

It is a gift wrapped in ribbons for Luxon and a nightmare for Labour.

In his response to the figures, there were echoes of National’s lines around the global financial crisis in the 2008 and 2011 election.

Luxon has started hammering away at the “big spending” Government and money being frittered away on “the nice to do stuff” rather than the “must do stuff.”

The latter is a direct adaptation of former finance minister Bill English’s “nice to haves” line when he was setting tight budgets over the 2008 – 2017 period to get the books back in shape.

National will hammer away at every cent Labour spends on things it considers the “nice to do” – warning of the consequences of having to tighten the belt later. Debt is becoming a dirty word again.

Inflation also lends itself to a debate about income tax: the Government is raking in far more in tax than expected. That is keeping the government books looking healthy, but it is also less money in voters’ pockets to help cope with rising costs – as Luxon pointed out. That increases the appetite for tax relief.

Labour’s defences will come in waves over the year. Some will be the Government starting to deliver on some of its sweeteners. The first was announced on Friday in the form of the light rail to the airport plan for Auckland and the signalling a decision would be made on the second harbour crossing in 2023.

Aucklanders may well take these promises with a grain of salt. The light rail plan has its critics, even within the Labour Party, and it has now been five years since Labour first promised it.

Aucklanders will also remember the short-lived Auckland cycle bridge, which the government judiciously dropped when it became clear people did not agree the cost of it was warranted.

It is still battling the delivery perception: the ongoing stain of KiwiBuild on its reputation.

Nor will National let up – Simon Bridges’ first response to the light rail plan was to talk about Labour announcing “dreams” rather than “delivery.”

Some of Labour’s war plan will also be the strategic retreat: the backdowns on the more unpopular reforms.

That started simply with the scrapping of that harbour cycle bridge. Others will be a matter of degree – the Three Waters reforms may be in for a shakeup but are unlikely to be scrapped completely. Other reforms on Labour’s checklist may also be pruned.

Ardern might not like it, but Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins will be acutely aware that to make changes you have to actually stay in Government. There is no point putting that on the line for the sake of changes that lose you an election and are then simply undone by the other side the moment you get kicked out.

Then there is Covid-19.

Ardern pointing to the “hard calls” she’s had to make on Covid-19 as a factor in her drop in the polls. She also said she did not resile from a single one of them.

In the balance is whether those “hard calls” will bear long term dividends for her, or not. Ardern will be hoping certainty around the border, due to be delivered in the next couple of weeks, and going through Omicron without lockdowns will put people in a more optimistic mood.

Bitter medicine might work, but people don’t necessarily like the one dispensing it. Luxon’s aim is to make sure of that.

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