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Dunne Speaks: Fixing Potholes Vs. Leading The World

September’s Ipsos poll ranked inflation, housing, healthcare, crime, and the economy as the major issues New Zealanders are currently concerned about. It also showed National rates more favourably than Labour on all of them but health.

Those findings partly explain two extremely contrasting political announcements this week. National announced its “Pothole of the Week” campaign to draw attention to deteriorating roading infrastructure, and Labour unveiled plans for farmers to meet the cost of their agricultural emissions from 2025, the first scheme of its type in the world.

Some might scoff that this gulf between the announcements speaks volumes for the relative vision of the major parties, but to do so would be missing the point. Both announcements were deliberate, with a clear to eye to the election next year.

For its part, National is trying to consolidate its position as the party that will get the country back on track after two-terms of Labour-led government. It knows from the polls voters are already seeing it as better equipped on most of the key issues and it is trying to lock-in the back-to-basics approach centre-right candidates used so successfully in the recent local body election campaign. Corny as it may appear, a gimmicky approach around fixing potholes is an effective way of reinforcing that perception, as well as putting many National MPs in constant and direct contact with many local communities.

Labour can hardly try and “me-too” National on this score without inviting the criticism of why they have allowed roading infrastructure to deteriorate so badly during their time in government. Nor can they afford to sneer too much at National’s new preoccupation without looking arrogant and out-of-touch with basic community concerns.

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A bold announcement about farmers being required to meet the full cost of their emissions therefore makes perfect sense for Labour. The contrast with finding and filling potholes could not be more dramatic, playing to the narrative of Labour’s self-proclaimed wide, international vision, compared to National’s dullness. It is significant that the Prime Minister fronted the “world first” announcement, drawing on her international reputation and status, to subtly remind New Zealanders once more she is now a well-recognised world leader. And, as the farming sector is not normal Labour voting ground, it is a politically low-cost exercise as far as Labour is concerned.

More broadly, it is a first move in setting up the sort of campaign backdrop Labour will be seeking. Given its steadily falling ratings on most of the key issues of domestic policy, Labour will be wanting to shift the focus back to the Prime Minister’s safer ground of promoting “aspiration” ahead of actual achievement. It knows the Prime Minister is at her best when talking about what could be, rather than confronting the drab reality of what is going on, on the ground.

So, Labour’s aim over the next year will be to keep the focus on bold, future-centred policies and ambitions, that allow it to be portrayed as visionary and forward-looking. In so doing, it will be able to dismiss National as uninspiring and pedestrian, preoccupied only with the here and now, with no real sense of purpose for the country’s future.

On the other hand, National’s approach will seek to paint Labour as living in a deluded dreamland – beltway Wellington, if you like – quite out of touch with the reality of rising costs, housing shortages, unsafe communities, and declining opportunities that is affecting households across the rest of the country. National will argue that the economic and social recovery from the pandemic requires not just a more disciplined approach to government spending that Labour is incapable of, but also a reset of many basic priorities. National will try to position itself as the hard-headed, but soft-hearted, pragmatic alternative the country needs to get back on its feet once more.

Labour’s challenge is exacerbated by the reality that its support partner, the Greens – already rating better than it on climate change and environmental issues – will always outdo it on the boldness and aspiration fronts. National’s issue with its support partner is the opposite – ACT’s stand on so many issues means it is a little easier for National to appear solid and reliable, if somewhat uninspiring.

The most worrying thing for Labour is that the Ipsos poll, consistent with other polls, shows approval of its handling of the major issues has been in steady decline throughout 2022, while support for National has been rising. Until that trend changes, visionary announcements of themselves may not be enough to turn things around for Labour especially if National’s back-to-basics campaign takes hold.

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