15 Oct 2020

Wealth, weight, winners and the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard

From Caucus, 2:00 pm on 15 October 2020

Whenever Sir Edmund Hillary was asked about whether he thought George Mallory might have beat him to the top of Mt Everest in the 1920s, he would point out that part of being a successful mountaineer was making it back down. Sports people are quick to tell you it doesn't matter if you lead for 79 minutes if you're behind when the final whistle blows. The National Party seems to have missed that memo, however. After the first half of the campaign went better than they expected, the wheels have started to fall off. In the past two weeks, Judith Collins has turned into something of a snowball, crashing down the mountain of this campaign.

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That's commentary on National's unravelling campaign strategy, not on the National leader's weight. Because who would be mad enough to make weight an issue in the final week of an election campaign, right? Who would insult people for not staying on top of their obesity, when they are trying to win an election? As it turns out, that'd be Judith Collins.

National tried for a big shake-up last week, opting to go negative, go hard and go late, you might say. Collins called Labour's Jacinda Ardern a liar on border testing and attacked the Green Party's proposed 1 percent wealth tax on freehold assets over a million dollars. But as the Caucus crew unpack in this week's podcast, it's backfired.

It felt like a desperate play, as most voters care more about keeping their job through Covid-19 and whether Nana will stay safe than some complex new tax for the 6 percent of richest New Zealanders proposed by a party that may or may not make it back to Parliament. But at first it got the desired result, as Labour said 'heck no' and the Greens said 'hell yes'. Doubt was raised and those middle class voters enamoured of Ardern and New Zealand's Covid response had reason to pause for thought.

James Shaw and Marama Davidson, Grant Robertson, Winston Peters, Jacinda Ardern, Judith Collins and David Seymour

Photo: RNZ

Then yesterday Jacinda Ardern staked her prime ministership on not introducing a wealth tax and the issue evaporated. As Guyon Espiner says, Labour potentially does best out of the wealth tax debate, showing voters who's in charge and taking the most controversial part of any potential Labour-Greens government off the table. The Greens benefit from more oxygen, a chance to mention their transport, oceans and poverty policies - solar panels on state houses, anyone? - and to remind voters of their key message: They will try to push Labour 'farther and faster'.

What's more, in voters' minds National has left the impression that Labour and the Greens are likely to win, because why keep going on about it if not?

And to cap it off, Collins declared that obesity was "entirely" a matter of personal choice; a "weakness" that shouldn't be blamed on the "system". Ignoring a chunky amount of science that shows genetic, environmental and social factors are all significant indicators of obesity, Collins insisted it was about personal choice.

Guyon Espiner, Lisa Owen, Scott Campbell and Tim Watkin host the Caucus podcast for RNZ. October 2020

Guyon Espiner, Lisa Owen, Scott Campbell and Tim Watkin host the Caucus podcast for RNZ. October 2020 Photo: RNZ

Espiner says it might be one of the dumbest things he's ever heard a politician say. As well as ignoring the science and making light of arguably New Zealand's second largest public health issue, it insults any number of voters who are struggling with their weight. As Lisa Owen adds, Collins has been targeting Pacific voters, who are over-represented in obesity statistics for all the above reasons. So this line is a turn-off.

When you look at the two main headlines Collins has attracted this week, the wealth tax attacks may have dominated discussion and be the more substantive debate. But the obesity comments may well have more political influence. The Greens' wealth tax is complicated. Many swing voters won't get their heads around the details of asset values of over $1m. But what they will understand as clear as day is when someone is blaming them for being overweight.

This all means that, talking about snowballs, National now has a snowball's chance in hell of forming a government next week. The key questions for the final leaders' debate tonight and Jacinda Ardern's appearance on Nine to Noon tomorrow, are around the shape of a Labour-Greens government.

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Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

Having ruled out a wealth tax, Ardern has now opened the door to further questions on what policies she will rule out, trade away or support. And that's a good thing; politicians' line that they can't talk about negotiation priorities until the voters have spoken is nonsense. There's no reason voters shouldn't have more information about what potential coalition compromises they might be voting for.

Caucus also looked at the highs and lows of the campaign, the politicians who have stood out, those who have hidden, volunteered some favourite policies and which seats to watch on election night. The final whistle - or the bottom of the mountain - is only two days away.


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