Incumbency challenges confront National

But good fiscal management and robust growth could help

Venkat Raman –

If you were to think that General Election 2017 would be the second for Bill English as the Leader of the National Party, you could be forgiven. For, that was the year when National was at its lowest ebb and won just 27 seats, with Labour taking 52 seats, but still unable to form a government of its own.

Much has changed since then and National has jetted ahead, increasing its popularity and enhancing its political fortunes. The Party won 60 seats in the General Election held in 2014 with Labour languishing with 32 seats.

Polling Strength

Opinion Polls over the past few years have consistently shown National in the lead with its main opponent struggling to reach out to the people with a proper, well-founded policies and programmes.

General Election 2017 may prove to be different.

It could challenge National in incumbency factor and other issues, the foremost of which is to deepen the futuristic vision of the Party and inject young blood to ensure that the aspirations of the people are met by revisiting some thorny issues.

Although Mr English was stated to lack the same charisma and friendliness of his predecessor John Key, the new Prime Minister is growing in his job, understanding the multifaceted directions in which it takes and how he would be a constant source of debate and discussion. Most importantly, New Zealand is a major player in international politics and hence Mr English is the face of the Nation.

Political Mates

National may not have the luxury of a popularity wave that swept the Party to power in November 2008. Nine years in government always bring with them weariness, both for the incumbent Party and for the public. Ideas often run out of steam and long-standing MPs announce their intention to quit. Mr English was the choice of Mr Key as his successor, but even so, there were factions within the Party, the first seen since November 2006, when Mr Key became the Leader.

Mr English has announced that he and his team would fight hard to win every party vote to form a strong and stable government. However, as he conceded, the MMP system would force him to work with others through ‘Confidence and Supply Agreements’ that have worked in the past.

His preference is to continue working with current partners –  ACT, United Future and the Māori Party and has ruled out working with the Labour-Greens grouping.

“New Zealand First is an unlikely partner, however I am prepared to have discussions with them post-election depending on the makeup of Parliament,” Mr English said.

Campaign Issues

In his State of the National Address that he delivered on February 2, 2017, a day after he announced that the general election would take place on September 23 this year, Mr English signalled that the economy will be at the heart of his National Party-led government’s election campaign, and used his speech to unveil a law-and-order package.

Political pundits expect the government to remain in office for a fourth term, although the election will be tightly contested.

A fourth term for the centre-right National Party would be a near-unprecedented feat; only two governments have won four consecutive elections since the second world war. It will be even more of a challenge following the surprise resignation in late 2016 of Mr Key, who continued to enjoy high popularity ratings.

Economic management

Mr English is promoting his ‘social investment’ approach to reducing long-term welfare dependency in vulnerable communities. He has announced a new NZ$ 503 million law-and-order package, to be spent in part on increasing the size of the police force by 10% over the next four years. Recorded crime fell between 2009 and 2014, but has since begun to creep up again, and the package, which includes more personnel for rural and regional police stations and more special investigators, could help to neutralise opposition claims that budget cutbacks are partly responsible.

The government expects to post a third consecutive budget surplus in fiscal year 2016-2017 (July–June), and with the operating balance running slightly ahead of target, Mr English has some room to accommodate additional spending in the pre-election budget, which will be handed down in May. Such spending is likely to be targeted at areas where National is most vulnerable, such as health, education and housing.

The performance of Mr English is now under test.

*Photo: Members of Parliament and the National Party Board of Directors watch as their Leader and Prime Minister Bill English launches the ‘Electionlink’ of Indian Newslink at a special dinner hosted by Indian Newslink at Raviz Restaurant in Botany Junction, Auckland on Monday, February 27, 2017.

Picture by Ashok Kochhar

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