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What does National’s new team mean for the party, Labour and the electorate?

New Zealand’s most predicted pre-election event finally happened last week: the rolling of Simon Bridges was never a question of if as much as it was of when.

With polling down to 30 per cent and just 14 weeks to go before Kiwis cast their vote, the knives that have been out for some time now found their target and Bridges was gone by lunch time last Friday.

Bringing in a relatively little-known MP as new leader so close to the election brings in a sense of de ja vu from the run up to the 2017 election when Jacinda Ardern was pitchforked to the Labour Party leadership just weeks before voting day.

National has followed that very same playbook except that the leadership change at Labour was a lot more civil and graceful, with Andrew Little quietly stepping aside to make way for Ardern – unlike a rather defiant Bridges who appeared to be in denial of the big, bold writing on the wall until the straws were drawn.

So, what can we expect in the weeks ahead? Here’s our take on the effect the new leadership will have on the political spectrum and the electorate:

The National Party

Muller will undoubtedly bring in a breath of fresh air after the previous leadership that proved to be ineffectual to the point of detriment. The newness and relative unknown-ness of Muller will raise expectations and positivity of beginning with a clean slate among National’s supporters. The next opinion poll will definitely see National gaining points at the expense of Labour.

While warm fuzzies from supporters might be a great start, the weeks ahead will need careful strategic planning, careful and credible messaging and managing perceptions especially while battling with an adversary like Ardern who is at stratospheric popularity levels, is a near-perfect balance of EQ and IQ, and whose political ruthlessness is cloaked in a most down-to-earth demeanour.

For starters, to his credit, Muller has duly praised Ardern’s management of the Covid-19 crisis and made a few positive noises, unlike Bridges who seemed to have been unable to read the popular support for Ardern that cut across the political spectrum.

As if to balance that plaudit, Muller has said there are few heavy lifters in the Labour Party capable of rising to the economic challenges that the pandemic has thrown up and will continue to for months, if not years, going ahead. That is a good observation to air – one which few would disagree with. Other than Ardern and her Finance Minister Grant Robertson, one would be at some pains to come up with a convincing list (the Minister of the extremely critical Health portfolio did himself and his party no favours during the alert level 4 lockdown by breaching the rules and was largely invisible during the rest of the crisis).

Muller has also taken care not to ruffle too many feathers in his first shadow cabinet reshuffle on Monday, restricting it to no more than a slight preen. He has moved Paula Bennett down the list ranking and denied Bridges’ request of the foreign affairs portfolio while bringing Nikki Kaye to the top. Barring those, any other changes have been minor.

As well as the advantage of his newness, Muller’s long and successful experience in the private sector and rural New Zealand will bring back the sense of credibility about financial nous and knowledge of the entrepreneurial world to the National leadership – something that has been missing since the departure of Sir John Key and later Sir Bill English.

The Labour Party

National’s previous leadership posed little challenge to Labour, especially after its dream popularity during the pandemic. But that changed on Friday last week.

Labour has a more formidable adversary in Muller. One who has the knowledge, the experience, probably the goodwill of large swathes of the private sector and a considerable chunk of provincial New Zealand backing him.

Unlike Bridges’ politically reckless pre-empting of working with New Zealand First earlier this year, at the very get-go Muller said he would leave the door open for the wily Winston Peters, though the stand announced by Bridges still stood and any change would be after due process within the party.

Peters, who has a long history with Bridges at the hustings, had pointedly and repeatedly predicted that the National leader would be rolled before the election. Now with him out of the way, it’s a question of time when the two parties will warm up to each other with Peters now able to keep his options open trying to get the juiciest pound of flesh from whoever he negotiates with.

According to the latest poll, Labour would be able to govern alone and that it is a position it will now hope to retain, especially with a whole new opportunity that has all but opened up for its coalition partner New Zealand First. The Greens too have responded swiftly to the changes at National, giving Chloe Swarbrick a bigger role in the party.

Should National improve its rating in the next few weeks, a National + NZ First + Act coalition would be a real threat to Labour + Greens.

But the halo that Ardern has rightly earned for her management of the pandemic is unlikely to fade away quickly enough to hand any significant advantage to National.

The perception of economic recovery over the next few weeks will be key. Crucially for Labour, because of the lack of depth in its talent pool, that might pose a challenge. National has already anointed Kaye in a specialist Covid-19 portfolio role that will coordinate several other ministries. That definitely demonstrates resolve.

The electorates

Politics is all about perceptions. Were there a ‘political ideology slider’ with a heart at one end and a bag of dollars at the other, one party would appear to be closer to the heart graphic while the other would be closer to the dollar sign – at least from the point of view of most ethnic voters.

The Labour coalition’s 2019 budget brought wellbeing centerstage, earning much praise for the government committing funds to long-standing underfunding on societal issues including health. It did that while still maintaining a surplus. This year’s pandemic has wiped out that surplus and created a $200billion debt that will burden Kiwi taxpayers for years.

From here on, the key to winning the perception battle is demonstrating the most credible strategy to keep Kiwis in jobs, bringing back the economy back on the rails while at the same time keeping Kiwis safe and Covid-19 free. It’s a tough task by any stretch of imagination.

A credible economic recovery plan, well-targeted spending and an assurance that tax levels will be left alone at least in the near future will be key to winning votes. Both major parties will have to bring in a balance of heart and money: Labour will have to work particularly hard on the economic aspects while National will have to do the same on the social side of the ledger. Muller is clearly conservative while Kaye is more liberal. It will be interesting to see how well this duo will work in forming policy.

Though Muller’s shadow cabinet appears to have more women than Labour’s, its top is still almost completely pakeha, betraying a lack of ethnic diversity. That must play on National’s mind – Kaye has already made a faux pas in incorrectly describing Paul Goldsmith as Maori, when he is not.

The kerfuffle that was caused around Muller’s Trump campaign cap – which he plans to display in his office as National’s new leader – was avoidable optics for the new incumbent and sparked heated social media spats on topics of Trumpian politics, ethnic divisiveness with a strong conservative undercurrent from apparent supporters of Muller’s use of the cap.

It might well be dismissed as a minor distraction in his first week. But for some it could as well be a strong whiff of what might be coming.

Saving and creating jobs, putting the economy back on the rails and keeping Kiwis safe will undoubtedly be the main issues in this election. But also expect inclusivity, diversity, the environment, climate change as well as a raft of other liberalistic flavours to spice things up in the coming weeks.

First appeared on 26 May 2020