13 Aug 2020

'Didn't that escalate quickly?'

From Caucus, 2:00 pm on 13 August 2020

Campaigns suspended just as they began. Election day in doubt. And - following the 'words beginning with C' theme from last week's Caucus podcast - heated debate over conspiracies and constitutional conventions as Covid returns to the community. This week in politics has been a disaster for Election 2020; you might even call it a cluster%$&!.

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Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield getting tested for Covid-19 coronavirus

Photo: RNZ / Logan Church

The announcement Tuesday evening of four new cases of Covid-19 in the community stopped the election campaign in its tracks. With advance voting due to start in 23 days, the prime minister now faces a tough decision. Delay or stay the course towards September 19? Given parliament wasn't dissolved this week, Jacinda Ardern retains the discretion to change the election day at will. But practically the Electoral Commission will need time to adapt and in the interests of fairness she will need to consult with all parties in parliament.

Politically, it's in Labour's interests to stick with September 19. As Scott Campbell says in the podcast, the longer uncertainty goes on, if transmission spreads, and as the economic damage grows, the riskier it gets for the governing parties and Labour in particular.

For now, Ardern has the daily podium of power, what is effectively a party political broadcast, which gives Labour a distinct advantage over other parties. With uncertainty in the air, voters may be more reluctant than ever to change governments. Incumbency is her friend. For now.

But if community transmission takes a turn for the worse and our largest city stays locked down for a long period, the public mood could quickly change. Either uncertainty over the source of transmission or a source that can be blamed on the government puts at risk Labour's comfortable lead in the polls. As Lisa Owen points out, Labour could employ a 'low target' strategy, waiting it out until election day. Now, there are so many moving parts it doesn't have the control it had a week ago.

While it's National's leader Judith Collins raising questions about Ardern's daily press conferences so close to an election and the advantage they offer, Ardern herself may want to be far from the press galleries searing questions as the days go by.

On that other side of the fence, a delayed election could be a boon for National. Judith Collins has a mountain to climb and the longer she gets to climb it, the better. Moving it to late November, closer to Christmas, will put pressure on vote counting and coalition negotiations. So next year may be better than.

But if National wins more time and attention, it may want to do better than seeding conspiracy theories, as deputy leader Gerry Brownlee did yesterday.

National Party deputy leader Gerry Brownlee 21 July 2020

Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Brownlee said it was "very interesting" Ardern had been to a mask factory and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield had had a Covid test the day before a new outbreak of community transmission was confirmed. The implication could not have been clearer; the government had prior information that it held back from the public. It's a tactic that reeks of game-playing amidst a pandemic and that's a high risk game for any Opposition. As Owen says, if Brownlee wants to raise those questions he needs to bring evidence to the table. Campbell says any party wanting to look like a government-in-waiting needs to show some restraint.

National also needs to show better discipline than it has during the Auckland Central candidate selection. Emma Mellow won the context to stand in the seat for National, but the spotlight was taken off her by 'Merv', who called the Marcus Lush Nights talkback show to ask how National's Manurewa candidate Nuwanthie Samarakone was also competing for the Auckland Central nomination. Media reports have alleged Merv was in fact National Party board member Roger Bridge, trying to wound Samarakone with friendly fire. 

It reminds voters of National's internal culture issues and factions and puts Collins in a tight place. While she tried to insist it was a matter for the party's board, not the parliamentary wing of the party, she herself is a senior member of that board and won't be able to avoid further questioning.

National Party's Auckland Central candidate Emma Mellow

National's Auckland Central candidate Emma Mellow Photo: SUPPLIED/ National Party

It certainly makes Auckland Central an uphill battle for Mellow in what could be a tight three-way race with Labour's Helen White and the Greens' Chloe Swarbrick. While the Greens have never got more than 23 percent of the party vote in the seat, Swarbrick is well-known on the inner city campuses and could benefit from a high turnout around the cannabis referendum.

In Auckland Central, as in the general election, the hamster is running fast in the wheel and the government's handling of Covid remains critical in every sense of the word.

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