John Armstrong: Why next week might be the most crucial in the election campaign

John Armstrong
Source: 1News

Opinion : Beware Jacinda. Beware. Here’s Judith. As astute as is her judgement and as accurate as is her foresight, the Prime Minister needs to keep checking her rear-view mirror to check for trouble looming behind her as much as trying to anticipate problems ahead.

It is a common feature of election campaigns that they love an underdog— especially when the result appears to be a foregone conclusion as currently is being judged the case.

That is the message the Prime Minister should take from what — to put it mildly — has been a pretty unsatisfactory week for her Government by her high standards.

In marked contrast, it has been a very good week for the Leader of the Opposition of just 38 days.

The sizeable segment of the country’s voters unfailingly loyal to National’s cause could be excused asking the party’s MPs why they hesitated for so long before finally though reluctantly installing Judith Collins as their leader.

After a relatively sluggish start to her tenure — largely as a result of having to deal with scandal and internal ructions in National’s caucus — Collins is now barnstorming New Zealand’s domestic political stage in typically self-assured fashion.

She has wasted little time in stamping her trademark “take few if any prisoners” style of politics across the many aspects of the only issue that really matters at the upcoming election— ridding New Zealand of Covid-19 and blocking its re-entry.

Her “tough times need tough measures” stance has National now very much in sync with the increasing public impatience with what Collins and her colleagues have slammed as the Ardern Administration’s “ad hoc and hotchpotch” handling of the pandemic.

Collins’ tactical nous is vividly illustrated by the contents of National’s revised border policy released on Thursday.

The document zeros in on the flaws, failings and, most importantly, the gaps in Labour’s six-month offensive against Covid-19 which has the praiseworthy, but devilishly difficult to achieve objective of eliminating the pathogen.

In regard to the gaps, just observe the policy’s making use of contact-tracing technologies obligatory for all overseas arrivals and border-facing workers.

The policy rewrite is consistent with Collins’ hallmark of refusing to shy away from what is controversial but which is deemed necessary to be implemented if a policy is to be successful in its purpose.

In that vein, witness the policy’s requirement that international travellers — including New Zealand citizens and residents—would have to provide evidence of a negative Covid-19 test before flying into this country.

In the short time she has been running the show, she has had to steer National out of what has been — with the notable exception of Sir Robert Muldoon’s egregious attempt to cling to power following defeat in the 1984 general election — the most scandal-filled and disgraced-laced period in National’s history.

National was guaranteed to incur a voter backlash following the shambles and shenanigans of the latter weeks of Simon Bridges’ leadership, the Todd Muller interregnum and early days of Collins’ leadership.

That backlash was most apparent in the last Newshub-Reid Research poll which had backing for National plunging to just 25 per cent.
Collins challenged the veracity of that voter survey, decrying it as a “rogue”. That was a massive gamble on her part.

Had the 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton poll published shortly after the Newshub one replicated the latter, Collins would have looked very silly.

But it didn’t. National registered at 32 per cent. It was a respectable showing given the circumstances. But it still left the party trailing way behind Labour and without a seeming hope of returning to power in the upcoming election.

The pertinent question now is whether the Prime Minister’s decision to delay the election for four weeks will make a material difference to the outcome.

A week ago, you would likely have replied in the negative.

In the wake of the discovery of a case of community transmission of Covid-19, the public mood was understandably one of quite major disappointment that the virus had not been eliminated coupled with the fear that the resurgence of the pathogen could see it run rampant as has happened in the Australian state of Victoria.

There was consequently widespread acceptance accompanied by an equal measure of reluctance that the Government had no other choice but to place metropolitan Auckland under partial lockdown for a second time.

Over the following days, that consensus has been seeping away albeit so far slowly.

Unsurprisingly, the business sector has hardened its stance against so-called “yo-yoing” in and out of lockdown.

The wider public’s willingness to abide by the strictures of the various levels of alert warnings is similarly waning. Tolerance of those flouting the rules is similarly dissipating.

Ardern’s coining of the phrase “team of five million” was a crafty ploy on her part to tap into the latent patriotic sentiment which resides in the populace.

The idea was to build a strong sense of national unity which would stifle criticism and leave the Opposition isolated and struggling to gain traction. It worked — but only briefly. The notion that the management of the pandemic ought to be a political no-go area has faded.

It was not strong in the first place. It was never going to be enduring once Collins became a major player in the ongoing verbal stoush regarding how best to handle the pandemic.

Nevertheless, Collins’ attacks on Ardern have been uncharacteristically tame so far. That has been quite deliberate. Timing is everything in politics. To attack Ardern during the early stages of the battle to eliminate Covid-19 was to risk being pilloried for undermining the campaign to vanquish the virus.

That was Bridges’ error.

To attack Ardern while she was being heaped with plaudits would have been as counterproductive as it would have been stupid.
The past week or so has witnessed a potentially significant change in circumstances to National’s advantage.

This election is like no other. It involves matters of life and death— literally. Voters are frightened for themselves and their families.

Tolerance for mistakes and errors of judgement by the powers that be is thus rock bottom.

This month has seen the surfacing of quite mind boggling revelations regarding serious lapses in the Covid-19 testing regime and problems with the managed isolation and quarantine facilities.

Collins is well aware that narrowing the yawning gap between the two major parties in the opinion polls requires the public lose faith in Ardern’s capacity to keep people safe.

In that respect, it is quite conceivable that this week’s decision whether to lift Auckland out of lockdown may turn out to be the most crucial of the whole election campaign even though there is still the best part of two months to go before Election Day dawns.

The question remains as to whether the four-week delay in the holding the election will alter things in terms of who governs.
Ardern has huge stocks of political capital which has her in huge credit at the Bank of Credibility.

It will take a great many gaffes on her part to burn off that advantage. That isn’t going to happen.

If Collins continues to get on a roll, she will very possibly stem the drift of normally National-aligned voters to ACT. She may well kill off what remains as the remnant of voter backing for New Zealand

So watch out David Seymour. Watch out Winston Peters. Here’s Judith.