John Armstrong's opinion: To win, Judith Collins needs to pull off NZ's biggest upset since politics began

John Armstrong
Source: 1News

It is quite simple. To win next month’s general election requires Judith Collins do one thing. She has to pull off what arguably would be the biggest election-related upset since the advent of party politics in New Zealand in the 1890s.

To defeat Jacinda Ardern, Collins effectively has to defeat history. The odds on her doing so range between the minute and the miniscule.

When it comes to shock results of general elections, upsets are few and far between.

The most recent example is Mike Moore’s near victory in 1993 which saw Labour fall a couple of seats short of ousting Jim Bolger’s government.

Labour had been thrashed in the previous election, such that National had a 38-seat majority in the 97-seat Parliament.

While National was expected to lose some seats in 1993, the pre-election polls pointed to the governing party still enjoying a comfortable enough win, prompting Bolger to utter his famous election night rebuke of “bugger the pollsters”.

You have to back to 1975 to come up with a shock result which saw a change of government.

The shock was not that National won. The country’s sole polling company at the time picked up on the shift in support in National’s favour well before election day.

The shock was that Rob Muldoon, National’s leader, turned Labour’s 23-seat majority into a 23-seat majority for National.

To find a true upset, then you have to go back even further to 1928. That year’s election is remembered for the massive blunder which ended up anything but.

Speaking at an election rally, Sir Joseph Ward, the leader of the newly-formed United Party, made a promise that if elected, he would borrow 70 million pounds — roughly $7 billion in today’s money — to boost the sagging economy of the time.

What he failed to mention was that the money would be borrowed over a time span of 10 years. The newspaper coverage of his speech assumed he was promising to borrow and spend the whole sum in just 12 months.

Ward’s colleagues blamed the 72 year-old failing eyesight for his misreading his speech notes. The prospect of such a sizeable sum being injected into the economy captured voters’ imaginations, however.

The massive blooper was not corrected. United subsequently won enough seats to form a government. Ward became prime minister.

No-one would suggest that Collins follow Ward’s example. But National’s leader needs something special to kickstart her election campaign. Presumably that something will be showcased at National’s campaign launch later this month.

By then, however, the election might will be cut and dried — if it isn’t already.

A Labour victory had seemed a foregone conclusion even prior to last week’s release of the two latest polls commissioned by the country’s two free-to-air television channels.

The findings of the 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton poll and the Newshub-Reid Research reinforced the likelihood of a Labour victory on September 19.

National’s slump in support in the latter voter survey to 25 per cent had the party entering dog tucker territory electorally speaking.

National’s rating at 32 per cent in the 1 NEWS poll kept the party’s hopes of escaping Opposition alive — just. That is crucial.

Collins needs voters to believe that National has a chance of victory — even if only a remote one. Otherwise they may peel away from National.

That is why Collins adopted a “shoot the messenger” response to the Newshub poll, categorising it as a “rogue’’ despite her having no evidence to back up that claim.

What was more significant was the surge in support for ACT to five per cent in the 1 NEWS poll. The question is whether that minor party’s rise in the ratings has come at National’s expense as much as New Zealand First’s.

Without getting bogged down in the arithmetic of MMP, assuming ACT retains that level of support, National needs to be rating at 42 per cent at a minimum to have any chance of calling the shots in post-election negotiations on government formation.

It requires that support for Labour tumbles from its current high of 50 per cent-plus to around the 40 per cent mark.

To make things crystal clear, a National victory not only requires the main Opposition party lift its share of the vote by a minimum of 10 percentage points. It is also contingent to similar amount of votes simultaneously draining away from Labour.

That isn’t happening. It ain’t going to happen. That is the stuff of dreams. National’s continuing nightmare is the party’s daily awakening to a Groundhog Day which has Ardern ever ruling supreme.

It is a struggle to come up with a reason why there would be any such dramatic switch in allegiances during the 32 days to pass before advance voting becomes operative.

National’s MPs will want to believe that the horror show of recent weeks which saw members of the caucus tango with just about every political negative in the book is now already a thing in the past in voters’ minds, and, with a new leader, that the party can lift its pitiful share of the party vote in coming weeks to make National a real player rather than a pretend one,

Those aforementioned National MP’s need not worry. The election is not going to be fought on the scandalous foibles and failings of a couple of unknown backbenchers. The infighting and ructions at the senior levels will no doubt get mention, but not often.

The election will be fought on the adequacy and competence of the Ardern Administration’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rather than listing the myriad of reasons why Labour has got things right while National’s response to the virus has been muddled and confused, it is worth highlighting something which has so far attracted little or no attention.

For there to be a change of government, there has to be a strong and prevalent mood among the voting public pressing for change. It happens there is no such mood.

There is no belief that National could do any better. To the contrary, Ardern’s sky-high approval ratings suggest many of those drawn to National during the John Key era fear National would do a worse job.

There is an associated reason why Collins’ rescue mission is really mission impossible.

New Zealanders have long had a habit of granting a first-term government a second term in power. There have been only two single-term governments during the past 90 years.

Both were in large part the authors of their own downfall.

Given Ardern’s administration is everything that those two failures of government were not, there is even greater reason for assuming that her government will follow the historical norm and cruise into a second term.

There are a couple of obvious factors which might disturb the tranquillity of that transition.

There is the fear of the “second wave” of the Covid-19 virus striking and forcing authorities to impose a fresh lockdown, if only on a local or regional basis.

Then there is the pending end of the wage subsidy scheme and the triggering of mass job cuts across the economy.

Ardern and her ministers have moved heaven and earth to stop the first possibility from eventuating. You can bet your bottom dollar they will do likewise to lessen the political impact of the latter, coming as it will so close to the election.

As the election gets ever closer, however, the odds increase that any explosions in Covid-19 infections or job losses or both will be headaches for the new government, rather than the current one.

Given that, Collins’ cry of “game on” might more accurately be termed as “game over”.