Earlier this year, as prices started to seriously rise and incumbent governments the world over started to tug nervously on their collars, a Labour party insider put it to me very simply: “If petrol is three bucks a litre, we lose the election.”
Those of us who write about politics professionally don’t like to accept that the whole colourful drama of parliamentary life can be so easily swept aside by other circumstances, but it is largely true. Oil price shocks generally see incumbent governments turfed out – see NZ Labour’s Bill Rowling in 1975, US president Jimmy Carter in 1980 or this rigorous study of more than 200 elections in 50 democracies. It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re leftwing or rightwing – once people start to feel as if they can’t lead the lives they lived one year ago, they start blaming whoever is in charge. This goes a way to explain why the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, still beloved overseas, faces the very real prospect of losing government next year.
This doesn’t mean that incumbent governments should all just pack up and go home – no rule in politics is eternal – but it does give you an idea of why Ardern and the UK’s Rishi Sunak essentially pursued the same policies to ameliorate rising inflation: a cost of living payment plus a cut in petrol taxes. These are buckets of water while the house is burning down; you don’t stop to ask what colour the bucket is.
Personalities and individual actors do matter in politics. Former National leader Judith Collins could never get herself out of the hole she dug her party into during the 2020 election, with wild comments about obesity, chaotic leaks and invitations for Ardern to sue her. Even as the country started to sour on Ardern and the Covid response during the 2021 Auckland lockdown, it was impossible to imagine her as a prime minister, so people decided to imagine Act’s David Seymour instead.
But Collins’ successor does not face the same issues.
Christopher Luxon, the former Air NZ CEO and walking LinkedIn post currently leading the National party, has not had a great few weeks.
First he was caught out by the media for posting a video on his Facebook suggesting he was that day visiting heartland New Zealand when he was actually on holiday in Hawaii. Then this week he has had to flipflop both ways on a promise to keep health and education spending increases above the level of inflation – first uncommitting himself to this promise, then recommitting himself to it. This bad patch follows an awkward period for Luxon after the overturning of Roe v Wade in the US, when his personal views on abortion were put under intense scrutiny.
For some on the left, this collection of news stories represented a long-awaited puncturing of Luxon’s balloon. Labour activist Shane Te Pou wrote a few columns suggesting Luxon was irremediably damaged and the party would be thinking about switching to his deputy, Nicola Willis.
Gaffes like this are not unimportant. They are what you can naturally expect from a guy who hasn’t been in parliament for two full years yet but has the kind of self-belief most New Zealanders have beaten out of them before puberty. They represent the media hardening against Luxon, refusing to run the simplistic line that tax cuts would fix global inflation without challenge. And they do seem to have had some effect on his personal ratings in the polls.
But National is still ahead of Labour in recent surveys, something that was almost inconceivable a year ago. Worse for Labour is that the centre-right bloc of National and Act remains ahead of the centre-left bloc of Labour and the Greens – although a surge for Te Pāati Māori in two recent surveys makes that interesting.
Luxon is not making the kind of mistakes that are going to return Labour to its halcyon days of dominance. The party is polling at almost twice what his predecessor managed and raking in donations. His parliamentary office is well run despite the straitened resources of an opposition this small – a crucial factor in making the media take you seriously.
Meanwhile, Ardern’s government is struggling to set the narrative, even with its absolute dominance in parliament. Its biggest and most consequential policies, like Fair Pay Agreements and the huge reform of the health sector, are too complex for voters to see much immediate gain from them. Genuine achievements like the path to citizenship in Australia, extremely low unemployment, and trade deals overseas get little attention from a public worried about paying their bills.
Does this mean that Luxon’s gaffes are immaterial? Not quite. Almost every mixed-member proportional election is close. 2023 shows every sign of being a tight race. In those circumstances, with presidential-style debates that the media feast on, a few badly placed lines can lead to days of lost momentum.
But this is a fixable problem for Luxon, whose deputy leader has a deep comms background and has role-played as Ardern in debate prep before. Ardern, on the other hand, faces few good options to make New Zealanders feel rich again. At least gas isn’t quite three bucks any more.
Even if inflation eases, it will likely do so accompanied by high interest rates, an economic condition that absolutely gets cut-through with the middle-class suburban swing voters who decide every election. Ardern is good, but she has real limits, especially in a country that sees her every day, not in the occasional pastel-coloured Instagram story.