Ta Da! It's Super Politics

Starting with the campaign launches, the momentum of the campaign has shifted sharply. Labour has seized the initiative, but can its surge last through to voting day?

Sunday’s two major party election launches presented a tale of two New Zealands, according to media who were surely truly blessed in being able to attend both.

National’s was overwhelmingly white and middle class. It involved karaoke-type singers crooning some old favourites. There was a big turn out in Sky City’s cavernous but soporific convention centre. The speakers used modern aids, like auto-cues, which impart polish but reduce spontaneity. Bill English fired things up but the script was dull, safe, wooden even. There was little spark. And no invention.

The second was brown and white, young and old. Labour’s supporting cast–Oscar Kightley, Elemeno P, and King Kapisi–register rather higher on the hip-gauge. The boisterous turnout was housed in an old style political gathering place–the Auckland Town Hall. Speakers eschewed auto-cues. Labour’s junior and senior wits, Darren Hughes and Michael Cullen, took it to their opponents before introducing Helen Clark, who, with no little style, added the grit and substance with a series of important announcements.

If the cosmetics of the two launches illustrate each parties’ pedigree, the substance reflected their strategic necessities for the campaign. Labour has to make up ground, being well behind in the rolling averages of published polls. It will, in rugby parlance, play a furious game at high pace. It needs to attack (witness its rush of policy announcements), while striking quickly at any weakness on the part of National.

National, as it maintains a commanding lead in the rolling poll, is looking to win the Treasury benches by playing it safe. Its campaign strategy, so far, has been to kick for the corners, not drop the ball, and pressure its opponent into errors from having to play catch-up.

In playing secure, however, National achieved precisely that which it was trying to avoid–dropping the ball with last week’s release of its economic package (as it prefers to label its tax policy).

Amid world financial mayhem, National sought to avoid giving Labour a chance to attack any ‘borrowing for tax cuts’, especially with budget deficits already forecast to surge. National, judging it to be a safer game than increasing borrowing, decided to fund tax cuts by making changes to KiwiSaver, among other things. No doubt it thought its adjustments would be greeted as minor tinkering. That is a (mis)calculation it might well rue. Certainly, if it loses this election, it will be able to trace the prime cause to last week.

The KiwiSaver decision is bad for National on a number of fronts. Firstly, National has some sad, bad history with superannuation saving schemes. In 1975, the third Labour government’s compulsory superannuation savings scheme was freshly in place. Muldoon’s landslide win turfed Labour from office and consigned the compulsory superannuation scheme to history’s dustbin. Those events resonated only slightly before last week, but National has sliced open a nasty old scar.

Secondly, and most obviously, KiwiSaver ranks as an unusually popular policy. Already, 800,000 New Zealanders have signed up–and most of them will be working, middle New Zealanders–the election’s key battleground. If the first rule of politics is ‘learn to count’, not far behind it is: ‘during elections, whatever you do, don’t upset a significant section of the electorate’.

It could also impact on National’s wooing of the grey vote. While KiwiSaver has no direct bearing on older voters already drawing their pensions, as a group they take a great deal of interest in these issues. They especially fret for how their children and grandchildren will fare in retirement.

Thirdly, it’s bad policy. As the Herald’s Brian Gaynor observed last year, if the 1975 compulsory superannuation scheme had remained in place, today it be worth around $240 billion. Much of those funds would have been invested into New Zealand businesses and innovation, creating jobs and retaining wealth here in New Zealand. Instead, our best businesses are being bought by the big Australian funds and others, and the economic results are obvious.

The New Zealand economy has long suffered from borrowing and spending rather than saving and investing. Doling out tax cuts while cutting KiwiSaver is exactly the wrong thing to do. National blithely claims people will save their tax cuts. With high petrol prices and living costs? On what evidence? Surely, only George Bush believes that?

Labour can’t believe its luck. Having snatched victory back from the jaws of defeat last election thanks to Brash’s campaign blunders, early signs are that National might be similarly error prone this time. The pressure has gone up a few notches. We know Helen Clark thrives under pressure. National holds the lead, but it’s game-on with three-and-a-bit weeks to go.