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100 days to freedom from tyranny

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An election like no other: with 100 days to go, can Jacinda Ardern maintain her extraordinary popularity?

Jack Vowles, Professor of Political Science, Victoria University.

New Zealand’s 2020 general election will be like no other in our history.

It comes in the wake of a remarkable government-led act of collective solidarity that has sacrificed businesses and livelihoods in the cause of protecting those who would have been most vulnerable to COVID-19: the old, those with health conditions, disadvantaged people in crowded housing, Maori and ethnic minority communities.

By a combination of luck and good crisis management, the elimination policy has worked. New Zealand is among the first COVID-hit countries to return to near normality.

In the process, the popularity of Jacinda Ardern and her government has soared. The initial response to a crisis of this magnitude tends to raise support for governments. But in New Zealand the increase has been stratospheric, raising Labour’s support to levels as high, if not higher, than for any party since the advent of the Mixed Member Proportional electoral system.

In countries where the policy response has been poor and the virus untamed we can expect to see governments lose their lustre. But this is much less likely in New Zealand. Only a small minority of New Zealanders doubt the need for the government’s strong policy response or the evidence of its success.

Nevertheless, with June 10 marking 100 days until the election we can expect to see Labour’s wide lead in the polls erode. The questions to ask are: by how much, and for what reasons?

Labour competence has won over conservatives

Research conducted by the New Zealand Election Study identifies two ideological dimensions behind party choice. The first is the balance between state and market in public policy. It’s a perennial debate between left and right that (despite claims to the contrary) hasn’t gone away.

The second is based on other values: a liberal desire for freedom to pursue one’s own choices versus a conservative desire to maintain social cohesion and conformity with traditional community norms.

While these dimensions are semi-independent, on balance liberals are more likely to be on the left, and conservatives on the right. Conservatives greatly value strong leadership and naturally tend towards the National Party.

Those with conservative values who lean to National, but not strongly, are those most likely to have joined the Labour camp in recent polling, a hypothesis borne out by recent COVID-19 psychological research. This showed a higher level of patriotism post-lockdown, “along with higher levels of institutional trust in science, government, police and health authorities”.

The government has led an outstanding example of social cohesion. Provided Labour can continue to project an image of competent command and control over a crisis that has not ended, many of those conservatives may remain with Labour, perhaps for longer than a single election.

Will voters blame economic shock on the government?

In the depth of the crisis, attacks on the government were, for the most part, tempered. As the crisis has ebbed, however, criticism has become more acceptable. The National Party (having changed leaders in response to plummeting polls) is increasingly attacking the government’s competence. That the target is Labour’s cabinet rather than Ardern herself helps explain the challenge National faces.

Meanwhile, the unity of the coalition is dissipating as New Zealand First seeks to raise its profile and retain its parliamentary seats (which current polling suggests are at risk). The image of competent control is under attack from that direction, too.

The state of the economy by mid-September will be the other key variable. It’s true that governments can stand and fall on the performance of their economies, but not always.

There are two schools of thought among those who study economic voting. The sceptics argue that voters are myopic, if not entirely blind – they will blame or reward governments for externally generated downturns or upturns for which the government cannot reasonably be blamed or given credit.

The downstream economic damage caused by COVID-19 will therefore ultimately be sheeted home to the governments in office at the time, regardless of their performance.

Other researchers argue that voters are capable of extracting a “competency signal” from governments and can therefore tell the difference between what a government cannot control and what it can. In particular, they can assess the effectiveness of the government’s response to an unexpected shock.

Detecting a competency signal demands a great deal of ordinary voters. A complex mixture of party campaign strategies, political commentary, general media coverage and talk about politics within families and workplaces affects their ability to make well-founded judgments.

As always, the cues and impressions that feed people’s perceptions over the coming weeks will shape the election outcome.

Is history a guide?

The first Labour government was elected in 1935 after the depression of the 1930s. It governed effectively and established a system of social security that briefly led the world.

Its reward was a relatively long period of government and a wave of respect and affection for Labour’s first prime minister, Michael Joseph Savage. His framed photograph could be found on the wall of many working-class homes well into the 1960s.

The extraordinary events of the past few months have set the scene for another potential reward for exemplary leadership – an outcome deeply feared by Labour’s opponents. Potentially, it could lead to another long period of Labour-led governments and the crowning of Jacinda Ardern as one of New Zealand’s greatest prime ministers.

Or not. If a week is a long time in politics, 100 days is an eternity.

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18 COMMENTS

  1. IHMO, we buggered. Unless the economy absolutely tanks, and soon, we’re in for another three years of this circus. And Labour will have a bigger share of the pie, possibly with no Winston. Maybe this is what it’ll take to break this country out of it’s state of perpetual apathy. I fear we’re going to get the government we deserve.

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    • No saggy, some are going to get the Government they deserve, we will have to put up with it. Unfortunately it is the we that will have to do the paying.

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    • Like I already posted elsewhere, the stuff-up with releasing those 2 untested women with Covid, who then drove from Auckland to Wellington, doing huggies with a friend on the way, thereby likely starting a new Covid outbreak, will ensure a National win in September, with even soft-cock Seymour likely to slip in. So relax!

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  2. I blame the economic shock on Adern herself. Made some bad calls, like shutting butchers shops etc. ACT’s policy of allowing businesses to be open if they were safe was the way to go. Trouble is the economic ruin will be propped up until after the election, which will be bought, it will be a bad Christmas, however, as the real pain will set in around then.

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  3. The Election will be much,much closer than people think.
    There is simply no way in hell 40% of National voters have haemorrhaged to Labour because of Jacinda’s ‘Amazeballs earrings’ and ‘cool dancing’ on the internet….

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    • I have said that from the time the first of those 3 polls came out CO , and I still say i,t BUT Curia’s polling must have been saying something similar otherwise why did they roll Bridges ? The whole thing does not make much sense.

      BTW. I similarly cannot believe that ACT are only at the level the polls say.

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      • “otherwise why did they roll Bridges ?”

        Simply they panicked. Muller, Kay and their handlers are like Labour plotters when Shearer was showing failure as leader and the knives were drawn by his colleagues who could see their place at the trough was under threat.

        Personally I doubt the polls results are as bad as they were portrayed for National and Simon Bridges as leader.

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    • She’s of the ‘Red’ (Labour) tribe, which is the wrong tribe. National are the ‘Blue’ tribe’, and us Kiwis are a tribal people. No different from tribes of Africa, PNG, Brazil etc. Tribe is what matters, not policies, promises and so on.

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  4. A super majority for the Long face will give us Socialism and ruination, She will be unable to control herself, what we’ve seen in the last 3 years will pale into insignificance compared to what will happen in the following 3.

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  5. If she should rolled, what do you think would happen and when?
    Even if she wins, she’ll be gone Christmas next year!

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  6. The Labour Pardy has run out of unicorn glitter to roll dear leader in. What is left is contaminated by incompetence and failure of her ministers to achieve anything concrete.
    The economy is tanking and like drowning sailors clinging to a lifeboat with a hole in it Cindy and Grant are growling at stressed and desperate company directors who are following NZ laws of insolvency and closing their business accordingly. But we paid you money to keep staff employed and you are letting US down.
    FFS.

    God help NZ if these incompetents win the election.

    Vote Act 2020 ☑️

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    • Goofy is hoping that Twitfords folly light rail will restart after the election!
      He’s dreaming!

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  7. Vote for change?
    The trouble is that it does not matter who people vote for all that can be expected is MORE OF THE BLOODY SAME.

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  8. This despicable nation of authoritarian communists will elect this hideous corrupt psycho. We are a Bankrupt totalitarian socialist state.

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  9. Did you see in the media the other day how keen kiwis were to dob in people!
    Would do the stasi proud!

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