As this year’s election campaign got underway the Prime Minister described it as the ‘Covid-19 Election.’ Her subliminal hope was obviously that voters would take the opportunity to reward the government, and the Labour Party in particular, for the generally well-regarded response to the pandemic to date, rather than focusing too much on Labour’s uneven performance in so many other areas over the last three years.
What she had in mind was something more akin to a coronation than an election.
As it has turned out, her initial assessment has been absolutely correct.
So far, there has only been rare criticism of the government’s Covid19 response.
No innovative strategy
Yet, at the same time, all the political parties, including her own Labour Party, have avoided too much focus on how much New Zealand has already been changed by Covid-19 and what further future changes will be required as we recover from its ravages.
Instead, they have all just looked through their established prisms to offer their own ideas in just the same way they always have done. None of them has offered any innovative strategy for the future, despite this being a time like no other in crying out for bold and insightful pathways forward.
All the parties’ offerings thus far seem no more than “same old, same old” merely dressed up in 2020 clothes. It is therefore perhaps little wonder that the campaign overall has been an uninspiring series of missed opportunities so far.
Spending under the pandemic
On the back of the unallocated $20 billion Covid-19 fund set aside in this year’s Budget Labour has been able to make a number of spending commitments, although many of them look like promises it was keen to fulfil anyway, rather than specific initiatives to help New Zealand recover from the pandemic.
The Prime Minister has managed to make a spending announcement virtually everywhere she has gone so far during the campaign. A school upgrade here, a new community theatre there, or an upgrade to local health services – all no doubt worthy projects in their own right – but projects all the same that a government would normally struggle to fund all in go. Covid19 is the excuse, certainly not the reason.
But using the Covid-19 response funding in this way hardly helps create a sense that the Labour Party has a detailed plan to grapple with the changes the virus forced upon our society now and in the years ahead. Rather, Labour’s plan amounts more to a being a “piggy bank” (albeit a very generous one) than a decisive strategy. Nowhere, has any Labour spokesperson provided any indication of how and when all the money borrowed so far will be repaid.
Normally, it could be expected that the Opposition would challenge the government head-on about this and raise all the usual questions about how all this largesse can be afforded, let alone the quality of some of the expenditure being proposed.
But this election, the National Party has been understandably too focused on trying to recover its own “mojo” after a disastrous few months, including now having to explain away the blunders in its economic and fiscal policy costings, to make any serious impact on what the government has been doing.
While it has talked repeatedly of having a “plan” to deal with the post Covid19 neither National’s leader nor any of its senior spokespeople have provided any substantive detail of what that plan actually entails.
ACT and Greens are the same
Traditionally, ACT and the Greens have been the parties most likely to produce big policy ideas at election time. This year has been no different, although, with the exception of the Greens’ wealth tax proposal which has little to do with Covid-19, much of both parties’ approach has been a regurgitation of previously stated long-held ideas, which will have come as no great surprise. Again, neither seems to have placed any special focus on what New Zealand will and should look like post Covid19, seemingly confident that their standard policy prescriptions are fit for all circumstances.
NZ First parlous
New Zealand First is on a different plane altogether. Their parlous situation does not give them the luxury of bold new policy initiatives. Rather, they seem to be fighting an uphill battle just to regain enough of their voters from the last election to have even a chance of getting near the threshold for representation in the next Parliament.
In this regard, the release of the Serious Fraud Office’s report on its investigation of the New Zealand First Foundation may well prove to be the final, fatal blow to the party’s prospects and future.
Meanwhile, after all the weeks of campaigning so far, we still have no clear sense of any of the parties’ sense of priority and details for the post Covid-19 recovery.
There is clearly no Plan B – relying on short-term quarantines and hopi9ng for the eventual arrival of a vaccine are currently that both Labour and National can offer.
Beyond that, there is talk of more borrowing, more short-term support programmes and subsidies, but no specific details from any party of what New Zealand will look like in two or three years’ time, and what social and economic changes we will be confronting as a consequence.
No reason to vote early
This weekend, advance voting begins. So far, none of the parties has provided me with any compelling reason to rush out and vote for any of them or their candidates.
Like many New Zealanders, I want to know where our political leaders think our country is headed over the next few years and what steps they see need to be taken to achieve those ambitions.
However, with the election just two weeks away from this weekend, it is hard to see any of them providing that thinking, or the consequent obvious lack of election enthusiasm that has been so widely reported being overcome.
Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led governments between November 1999 and September 2017. He lives in Wellington.