Terry Barnes writes for the Australian edition of The Spectator, and advised Tony Abbott when he was a Cabinet minister in John Howard’s government. He is also a fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs.
It may not mean a lot to a British political establishment almost totally focused on the challenges of negotiating a successful Brexit, but on the far side of the world there’s a general election with ramifications not just for a post-Brexit Britain, but the future of politics in the Anglosphere.
New Zealand votes on 23rd September. The National Party-led conservative coalition of Bill English is being hotly challenged by a resurgent Labour party led by a telegenic and newly-selected 37-year-old, Jacinda Ardern.
A month ago, English and National led Labour in opinion polls by as much as 20 per cent, and English was far and away preferred prime minister to then Labour leader, Andrew Little, who was outpolled even by his deputy Ardern. Then, on 1st August, Little suddenly resigned in favour of Ardern, reckoning a change of leadership might keep Labour in the game. In sacrificing himself, his judgment was vindicated.
Labour’s fortunes transformed overnight. The personable and charismatic Ardern enchanted the media, so much so it gave rise to a phenomenon labelled “Ardernmania”. As the campaign started, a combination of adoring coverage, lucky breaks, and an implosion of the Green Party’s leadership allowed Labour to hoover up the Left vote. A fortnight out from election day, National and Labour are neck and neck, and media sensation Ardern is edging the highly-experienced but known quantity English.
While Ardernmania grips the New Zealand commentariat, English has been campaigning for a fourth three-year term based on a record of economic achievement that other Anglosphere governments can only dream of. A government in budget surplus. An unemployment rate of less than five per cent. GDP growth of four per cent. Turning New Zealand from a net emigrant country into a net immigrant country. Successfully-implemented reforms in the labour market and social welfare. A reputation for negotiating trade agreements so good that Theresa May has looked to English for advice, and seconded his negotiators. And all achieved with the huge fiscal burden of funding the massive reconstruction of the southern city of Christchurch after catastrophic earthquakes in 2010-11.
As in Britain, housing affordability is a big issue. An overheated housing market, especially in the largest city of Auckland, puts home ownership beyond many New Zealanders, and causes mortgage stress for thousands more. Nevertheless, in the wider economic picture these are consequences of an economy that prospered under the eye of English, first as John Key’s Finance minister and now as Prime Minister.
Labour, by contrast, emulates Jeremy Corbyn’s “you want it, so I’ll promise it” approach. Free university places. More public housing. More government intervention in the economy and society. Paid parental leave. More focus on clean, green energy. Funded increases in the minimum wage. Much more spending, full stop.
National, too, is making some big-ticket promises, particularly around transport and health infrastructure, but essentially is promising more of the same, as well as proven reliability in governing. This week, it initiated a heated debate about whether Labour can pay for its promises: in disputing a sweeping National claim about a NZ$12 billion “fiscal hole” in Labour’s costings, leading independent economists also expressed concern that while Labour could fund what they’re promising, it would be hard for a Labour government to meet its wider budget obligations as well.
In other words, Labour would have to tax more to spend more.
The biggest threat to National, however, is time. Since 1975, with a two-term Labour exception in the 1980s, National and Labour have taken turns at government on a three-terms-at-a-time basis. The 1990s switch from First-Past-The-Post to a German-style Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system has, if anything, entrenched regular role-swapping, and restless centrist voters switching sides make a fourth term a political Holy Grail.
Unsurprisingly, Labour is running hard on “time for a change” and Ardern’s fresh face, and latest opinion polls give her the edge. English, the middle-aged farmer and family man, in politics for over 20 years, is solid but unspectacular, while the media gives his opponent a lot of love. However, English is campaigning strongly, National’s vote is holding with a very good story to tell, and English and Key are highly respected not just for their achievements, but for their style of government. What’s more, the sudden shift to underdog status seems to be suiting English.
The one thing English isn’t doing but should, however, is stressing that the government’s solid economic performance is insurance against an uncertain future. A healthy budget surplus, low public debt and well-managed spending is future-proofing the country from external economic and political shocks. Voters tempted by Ardern need firm, but not panicked, reminding that they can’t spend with impunity and that they need their government to anticipate and brace for those shocks.
There is one further imponderable. Under MMP, coalitions need forming to ensure parliamentary majorities, and one crossbench party is the key for both sides. That is the New Zealand First party led by the populist, opportunist but very wily Winston Peters. Peters has no love for English, who helped expel him from the Nationals 20 years ago, but is coy about supporting Labour. Peters being Peters, he will wait to see the results on 23rd September and support whoever will best look after Peters, which he equates with best looking after New Zealand’s interests.
If the New Zealand campaign continues to focus on economics and fiscal responsibility, English and National should survive if Peters enters a coalition. But Labour’s Ardern-centred atmospherics, homing in on housing affordability and other National weak points, can achieve a victory unimaginable even a month ago.
The message for fraternal Anglosphere conservative parties about what’s happening in New Zealand, as with Stephen Harper’s Canadian government in 2015, is clear. No matter how good it’s been, a competent, well-led, centre-right government easily can fall to a feel-good yet old-fashioned big spending campaign from the Left where style trumps substance.
In Britain and Australia, let alone the United States, conservative governments are riven with deep conflicts of policy, politics and philosophy, let alone perceived competence. If a stable, unified, centre-right government like English’s can be threatened from nowhere, the outlook for its unstable, disunited and directionless conservative Anglosphere equivalents is bleak indeed.