Matthew Hooton: Why Jacinda Ardern should call an early election

Author
NZ Herald,
Section
Opinion,
Publish Date
Friday, 5 April 2019, 3:37p.m.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo / NZ Herald
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo / NZ Herald

COMMENT:

Were an election held tomorrow, Jacinda Ardern would win in a landslide.

The sense of national unity and pride following Ardern's empathetic and decisive response to the Christchurch terrorist attack means she could be confident of securing a strong Labour-only Government in a two-party Parliament, with a demoralised National Opposition finally forced to confront its emptiness after a decade of John Key's hokey-dokey-ism.

Moreover, Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson must surely recognise current economic data is as favourable as it will ever be for them.

Growth of 2.8 per cent is still respectable and was reasonably well balanced across the economy but was led by retail trade and accommodation services, suggesting happy consumers and thus voters. Only economists care about the worsening current account deficit and net liabilities.

Unemployment remains well below 5 per cent and, at least in the December quarter, wage rises were five times above inflation. Milk powder prices are strong, while Auckland house prices have gently eased but not yet to the extent to scare homeowners. Falling interest rates will boost the property market in the months ahead.

Politically, the Coalition is still relatively stable, notwithstanding Shane Jones' ongoing provocative behaviour and NZ First reminding Labour who's boss by voting against the Canterbury Regional Council Bill.

Business confidence is again tracking against actual economic and political data after the usual wobbles following the election of a Labour-led Government.

National hasn't done anything that would make business feel any more comfortable with Simon Bridges and Amy Adams than Ardern and Robertson. Its policy development process hasn't progressed beyond wanting to work with Labour on some issues, supporting but urging slower implementation on others, and cheap slogans attacking the rest.

In contrast, both the economic and political environments will be much less favourable even by early next year.

The Reserve Bank's indication that its next interest rate move will be down presages storm clouds not on the horizon, but already overhead.

If there was an election tomorrow, Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern would win in a landslide. Photo / File
If there was an election tomorrow, Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern would win in a landslide. Photo / File

Partly, this is domestically driven. The bank highlighted reduced momentum in domestic spending, softness in the housing market and weak business investment.

Nevertheless, it is one of those endearingly naive Kiwi conceits that New Zealand's short-term outlook is driven by much more than the local weather and the international economic climate.

Robertson was perfectly entitled to highlight external factors when trying to inoculate the Coalition from blame for the downturn, citing slowing growth in Australia, Europe and China, rising trade tensions and tighter credit.

He might usefully add doubts about the sustainability of Donald Trump's reckless Keynesianism and the risk of economic disruption in the UK and EU.

The world also remains overdue for a major correction as in 1987, 1997 and 2007, and Ardern and Robertson both know what happened to the Lange-Palmer-Moore, Bolger-Shipley and Clark governments in the elections that followed.

Still, the likelihood of more difficult economic times is not even the strongest argument for Ardern to consider her options.

In 18 months, memories of March 2019 will have faded but the Coalition's multiple policy failures will remain.

Far from the 30,000 initially promised, KiwiBuild will have delivered fewer than 1000 new homes in the Government's first term. The Coalition will be unable to agree on a capital gains tax. There will be no upgrade of the China free-trade agreement given NZ First's adamant opposition to liberalising rules around Chinese investment.

Even on Ardern's signature issue of child poverty, the numbers will continue to head in the wrong direction unless, ironically, the downturn is so severe that the median wage falls.

Most decisive, Labour stands at huge risk of being injured by NZ First's death throes.

Almost every week, Jones gives Ardern a pretext to sack him, which would certainly precipitate a political crisis to justify the Prime Minister booking a Crown limo to Government House.

After getting the presumably popular Wellbeing Budget out of the way next month, Ardern might well be best to consider just that. The alternative is to see the economy falter, her Coalition unravel and National perhaps give Judith Collins a shot.

New Zealand prime ministers have been more averse than their Australian counterparts to calling early elections, perhaps put off by Sir Robert Muldoon in 1984 and Helen Clark in 2002. But Muldoon was always doomed that year, being unable even to present a credible Budget.

Clark's decision to go early after the Alliance split over Afghanistan would have paid off had she not been victim to one of Nicky Hager's far-left election-year attacks, on that occasion over her pro-science stance on biotechnology.

In March 1991, after his perfectly executed liberation of Kuwait by a coalition of 39 nations, George HW Bush achieved a favourability rating of 89 per cent, the highest in Gallup's history.

He was so popular no serious Democrat even sought their party's nomination. A year and a half later, in an economic downturn and unable due to political circumstances to progress domestic policy, he was beaten by the previously obscure Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, who based his campaign on the internal slogan, "It's the economy, stupid".

Unlike Bush, Ardern has the option of calling an early election. She would be wise to give it some thought.

- Matthew Hooton is managing director of PR and corporate affairs firm Exceltium.

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