National's 'right track' strategy for Election 2017

The rights and wrongs of National's election strategy will come down to three main points... and coalition partners

For eight years now, the right/wrong direction polls have consistently shown that the majority of New Zealanders believe their country is on the right track. The November 2016 Roy Morgan indicator has the right direction at 65 percent.

In contrast, during the latter years of the Clark-led government only 40 to 45% of the public believed the country was going in the right direction.

It is an accepted truism in politics that voters will change the government if the majority of people believe their country is heading in the wrong direction; we vote governments out, not oppositions in. This poll was a clear indicator that in 2016 American voters were going to change their government.

So what does this mean for our upcoming election? Well, the right direction/wrong direction poll certainly indicates the National will be the largest party following the election, and probably by quite a large margin. But with the MMP electoral system, National is only guaranteed to form the government if National gets a majority of seats, which implies at least 47% of the vote.

Why do people believe their country is headed in the right direction? There are three clear reasons, first, by any reasonable measure, good economic times; second, a steady and unified government; and third, a sufficient willingness of the government to address social and other concerns.

From where I sit on the North Shore, which encompasses 10% of the New Zealand population, things look pretty good. The economy is buoyant, there are plenty of jobs, new housing is surging ahead, and many people are buying new cars and other expensive consumer durables.

The North Shore community is optimistic. Now of course all six electorate seats in the north west of Auckland are held by National, so perhaps it does not entirely represent New Zealand. However, on my travels around the country over the last six months, this sense of satisfaction seems quite a broad theme.

There are exceptions. Much of Northland still looks pretty depressed, for a variety of complex reasons.

Still, many people, including those who support National, see problems crying out for government action including housing, deprivation (especially for children) and the environment, with a particular focus on clean rivers and lakes. The issue is whether these things are large enough for people to change their vote. Voters have to make the calculation whether it is worth risking the certainty and predictability they already have with the unknown prospect that a new government will actually solve the problems they are concerned about.

This is where the incumbent National led government has its main opportunity, particularly when a majority of voters think their country is already going in the right direction. In short: A message of “why put it all at risk?”

Obviously the government has to show it can deal with the issues that concern voters. National cannot look complacent. But in dealing with voter concerns it cannot do so in a way that endangers the qualities of moderation and predictability that have been the hallmark of the government.

The biggest danger facing National is if voter perception changes; that is, there is a change in the right direction/wrong direction poll. If this becomes negative then National will no longer be the preferred party of government. We are now, perhaps, only nine months to the election.

While there's always uncertainty about the future, particularly as the new United States administration beds in, the prognosis for National is good. It seems unlikely there will be a significant economic reversal in the next few months. The growth is now been sustained for some years. Even the diary slump barely affected it.

This puts National in a very healthy position. It seems certain that National will be the largest party after the election, and if 2011 and 204 is any guide, perhaps being very close to forming a government without the need for coalition partners. National as the largest party and quite likely with better than 45% of the vote will clearly be in the best position to actually form the government.

But other parties will have to agree. This is the rub.

MMP provides the element of unpredictability. During the 20 year history of MMP there was always been a need for coalitions to form the government. How coalition politics might play out for this election will be a subject for another article.