It’s been an in-between week in New Zealand politics – between the fall of both Andrew Little and Metiria Turei and before the final pre-election fiscal update and the rise of the ‘big policies’. But there's still been plenty going on. And a bit of argy-bargy.
Next Wednesday, what’s known as the PREFU is released by Treasury. That’s the Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Update, to give it its proper name. Labour won’t reveal its big policy – widely picked to involve education – until it knows the state of the nation’s books. While they’ll have it all ready to go, they need to be seen to be waiting so as to look like responsible managers of the economy. Equally, National has kept its campaign launch back until 27 August – four days after the PREFU – when we expect to see its big policy bid for a fourth term.
But has everyone been in hibernation while we wait? Heck no. Some have even come out of hiding.
While we’ve seen a lot of reheated policy announced – such as Labour again promising driving lessons for high school students and National re-announcing the $100m for mental health it first announced in Budget 2017 – battle lines have been drawn.
In this week’s Caucus podcast, Guyon Espiner says National has kept its powder dry for a week or so after Ardern’s rise to the leadership, but has now started to roll out attacks against Labour. First amongst those, #letstaxthis and the well-worn line that Labour is the party of new taxes.
Labour opened the door to that attack, when finance spokesman Grant Robertson revealed that a capital gains tax was back on the table in Labour’s first term. In 2015, Andrew Little as leader ruled out significant tax reform in a first term, promising to seek a mandate at the next election. Robertson, then Ardern, said if Labour’s tax review suggested a capital gains tax (which politics observers assume it will), they no longer feel the need to seek that mandate before implementing it.
Cue Steven Joyce calling Labour “dodgy on tax” and cries that Ardern will introduce new taxes on water, Auckland transport and now property. Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy even starred in a campaign video as the worried farmer having to find money for water royalties on top of all his other many bills.
But what Labour’s water and tax policies have in common is: David Parker. Lisa Owen says that Labour’s Harry Potter has been released from the cupboard under the stairs where Andrew Little had locked him. Under Ardern he’s back in a position of influence and re-floating policies he was key to formulating in the previous term.
Labour also had to deal with Chris Hipkins’ sloppy judgment over Australia Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s citizenship woes. While it reinforced that Labour still has some discipline issues to wrestle with, it also gave Ardern a chance to look tough in the midst of a tricky tans-Tasman spat. So something for everyone in that furore.
If National’s ‘tax and spend’ line sounded familiar, so did its new law and order policy: boot camps. While the plan it announced is certainly ‘boot camps plus’, with schooling, addiction treatments and whole family support, it sent a ‘tough on crime’ message to voters.
It allowed English to get on the front foot in a campaign that has been drifting away from him. But as I argued, National looks to be playing this campaign like the England rugby team. Knowing they don’t have much flair in its backline and its first-five (English) is more Jonny Wilkinson than Beauden Barrett, it’s keeping it right and hoping to grind it out. Meanwhile, the minor parties have been marginalised. For now at least.