John Armstrong's opinion: Despite lead in polls, National should be worried by Jacinda Ardern's recent 'double whammy'

John Armstrong
Source: 1News

National might be basking in the party's strong showing in the latest and last 1 NEWS-Colmar Brunton poll of 2019. But for how long? 

The main Opposition party's healthy rating in that particular voter survey - National registered 46 per cent of the party vote as against Labour's 39 per cent - won't last much beyond the opening weeks of the new political year if the calamitous circumstances in which the party has been plunged through no real fault of its own persist.

And there are good reasons why those circumstances might well be ongoing for quite some time to come.

Let's explain why.

Given that two consecutive 1 NEWS polls have registered a seven percentage point margin between the two major parties and in National's favour, Simon Bridges might be excused thinking that though National cannot yet taste power, it can at least scent it.

National's rating, however, may be more of a function of what Labour has been doing wrong as much as what National has been getting right.

Plagued by its dreadful handling of sexual assault allegations laid against a staff member and stung by Bridges' now constant refrain that the Prime Minister is "all talk and no delivery", Labour has looked a distracted beast in recent months.

No longer, however. The latest 1 NEWS poll was conducted prior to last weekend's Labour Party conference. That gathering of the party faithful will likely go down as a watershed moment.

In one swoop, Labour spiked National's heavy artillery. It has done so by focusing on bread and butter matters, while simultaneously capitalising on a heaven-sent opportunity to shift the goal posts in the ongoing debate over economic policy to its advantage. 

Jacinda Ardern will likely get much of the credit for landing a double whammy of such proportions on the old enemy. Labour should give equal thanks to the fact that it has a political operator with the acumen and perspicacity of Grant Robertson.

The Minister of Finance's fingerprints are all over what looked to be a meticulously-planned and perfectly-executed gambit which utilised the platform of Labour's annual get-together for maximum impact.

One former party apparatchik was on record this week as describing Labour's weekend manoeuvres as displaying "tactical genius".

That is a verdict with which it is difficult to disagree.

What was additionally of note was the episode's revealing of just how ruthless and bloody-minded Ardern-led Labour is willing to be as the election draws ever closer.

That hard-headedness was evident in Ardern's response to Bridges' mocking of her proclamation that 2019 would be her Government's "Year of Delivery".

The suggestion - to borrow the clever quip voiced by National's finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith - that Ardern's administration is "first class at announcements, but third rate at delivery" cuts straight to the core of government.

The potency of that notion resides in the fact that it contains more than an element of truth.

Labour cannot afford such a supposition taking hold - if it hasn't done so already.

The party's answer has been to remind voters of the multitude of thing that have been delivered.

Labour's efforts to persuade voters that it has actually done lots have varied from the mundane - such as communicating directly with voters via mass mail-outs of party-produced propaganda - to the bizarre - such as tweeting a video of Ardern trying to cram as many of the accomplishments of her two years in power into two minutes.

It hasn't worked. That is likely down to a basic fact of political life. When it comes to gaining attention, one hundred success stories will never beat a single failure. And especially when that failure is of a scale of the KiwiBuild debacle.

Last weekend witnessed the application of what Labour hopes will remedy this ongoing headache. 

This panacea won't silence Bridges. It will likely lessen Bridges' bite.

Ardern's message to her tormentor is simple: if you want delivery, you'll get delivery. Truckloads and truckloads of it.

Hence last Sunday's unveiling of Ardern's promise of a one-off payment of between $50,000 and $200,000 to the country's 2050 state schools.

The handouts come with the strict proviso that the money is spent on either urgently-needed repairs to school property, such as replacing leaky roofing or on deferred maintenance, such as modernising existing, but outdated classrooms.

The distribution of the $400 million package will be determined by the number of students on a school's roll. The only departure from that basic formula will be that schools will get a minimum of $50,000 and a maximum of $200,000. 

The formula is clearly designed to stop parents from grizzling about how their school is missing out. 

Indeed, the Government has released a list which shows exactly what each school will be getting as their payment.

Such communication is vital in making what Labour is doing on a national level relevant to parents and teachers at the local level.

You don't have to delve too much into the detail of the package to discover just how much the politics are the dominant determining factor in its construction and implementation.

Indeed, so much so it veers close to infringing public service neutrality.

The Ministry of Education has instructed schools that "in the first instance" they should select projects from their existing 10-year property plan that can be initiated "soon" and "delivered" in the next six to 24 months.

Those of suspicious mind will argue that such statements indicate the ministry is doing the Government's bidding.

That won't trouble Labour's conscience - or what remains of it.

The party wants concrete results - and pronto - which it can wave in front of voters when the election campaign gets underway in the latter months of next year. 

Despite the fact that the package will most likely be funded by borrowing and despite it giving every impression of being an election bribe, the package has received an overwhelmingly positive reception.

Labour fought the last election on the premise that voters wanted Budget surpluses to be expended on fixing the country's dilapidated social infrastructure rather than another round of income tax cuts courtesy of National.

The near-unanimous applause for the schools package suggests that premise still holds. That bodes well for the main course of the Government's huge boost in infrastructure spending, which will be dished up by Robertson; Sunday's package was merely an appetiser. Should the choice of projects announced next week prove to be as politically tasty, National is going to have an awful lot to worry about.

If the above is not sufficient to give Bridges nightmares, Saturday's announcement at the conference by Robertson should surely have done so.

In what was the other half of the aforementioned double whammy, the Finance Minister finally did what simple logic had dictated for months that he should do - namely, making the most of historically low interest rates and borrowing big to fund much-needed infrastructure projects, such as the school's package, while simultaneously providing an economic stimulus to recharge a slowing economy. 

Robertson very deliberately bided his time until those urging more borrowing had snowballed in terms of both number and degree of influence to an extent that ensured an overwhelming consensus on the need to borrow to fund the infrastructure rebuild.

The chorus baying for what that long ago would have been regarded as fiscal heresy is now coming from every quarter across the economy and from the Reserve Bank downwards.

The Cabinet's decision to heed those calls has left National isolated. Trying to pick off Robertson on grounds of fiscal laxness risks picking a fight with just about every major player in the economy.

The Finance Minister will still have to tread cautiously.

"Debt" has long been one of the dirtiest words in New Zealand's political lexicon. That won't change overnight.

Nevertheless, the economic policy ground rules have suddenly shifted from under National's feet, if not forever then at least for the foreseeable future.

National's economic orthodoxy is now out of fashion.

"Borrow and spend" is no longer an insult. 

The Opposition party's argument that the Government doesn't need to borrow more money if it just stopped wasting the taxes on poor quality spending sounds out of touch and disconnected from the prevailing new paradigm. 

National's quandary was best illustrated by Goldsmith refusing to rule out borrowing for infrastructure projects "as long as it is quality spending within reasonable bounds".

Make of that what you will. Without further elucidation, such generalities are meaningless.

More crucially, National's long-standing and electorally fruitful charge that Labour cannot be trusted to do what is right for the economy is a charge that is going to be much more difficult for National to pin on Its main rival come election-time.

Loosening the purse strings will no longer be a fiscal crime. The question will be by how much - at which point the great bulk of voters will switch off.

It is not just the "right time to invest" - as Robertson describes his willingness to borrow large. It is also the "right time" for Labour to get the "National are better economic managers" monkey off its back once and for all time.