Greens launch and National's change in tack
The front page of this morning's online NZ Herald states in large letters 'Robyn Malcolm's vitriolic PM attack'. That this is accompanied by another article where Key is finally stating that he needs ACT for Epsom to govern and that the Greens are too socialist might be interpreted as National beginning to panic. Epsom is going to be close: National voters have not paid heed to the ACT/National electorate deal for Taranaki and there is a real sense that voters are not happy regarding Rodney's demise and the infighting that has followed. Brash's announcement to legalize marijuana may have just put the nail in the coffin for ACT voters in this well-to-do suburb, and despite Key sticking to the line that National voters are encouraged to make their mind up for themselves, Key's concession that the Greens may be too ideologically different to power-share in post-election coalition agreements is a stark change in the wind from the previous flirtations between the two parties. After all, it was just last week that Bill English said that he hopes the Greens get 10%.
This wind change, of course, comes on the back of Robyn Malcolm's opening speech yesterday for the Greens, which Key has described as a personal attack. As the Herald states:
The Greens' election campaign opened with a vitriolic attack on Prime Minister John Key and his Government from actor Robyn Malcolm who savaged what she described as his preference for photo opportunities over tackling environmental and social problems.
The Outrageous Fortune star MC'ed the Greens' opening in Wellington, as she did three years earlier, when "we ended up voting in a Government who've revealed their total lack of interest in leading us into the 21st century with any innovation, courage, or social integrity, despite what a nice guy he [Mr Key] seems to be".
The National Government had shown an "unshakeable and abiding love" of new roads and fossil fuels "and will gut any part of our landscape to get at them".
The Greens have been buoyed by polls showing them with 10 per cent voter support three weeks before the election.
The party yesterday showed it hoped to build on that by producing economic policy - including a move to reduce fees for Kiwisaver contributors' savings - to complement its environmental base.
The Greens this year opened the door to the possibility of a formal relationship with National.
But fronting the campaign opening in Wellington, Malcolm savaged Mr Key's performance.
National had demonstrated "a disregard for the 200,000 children living below the international poverty line", a "clear lack of understanding on how to support children's education", and a "dispassionate and punitive approach to those in our prisons," she said.
The Prime Minister and his party had "an inability to follow through on promises of any kind ... and now a determination to sell a percentage of our strong revenue returning assets".
But National would "make anything up for a Hollywood mogul should they happen to come down this way" - a reference to employment law changes made in response to Sir Peter Jackson's warnings his Hobbit films would not be made here.
New Zealand was "fast becoming one of the most inegalitarian and backward countries in the OECD" but "we have a leader who seems to be more interested in talking about his cats on the radio, being seen at the rugby and getting on the cover of the Women's Weekly".
"I thought that was my job," said Malcolm, who last year was at the forefront of opposition to National's plans to open conservation land to mining.
Backing the Greens' policies, she said Mr Key's faith in free markets "no longer works, it's outdated and old fashioned".
Is this really vitriolic or does it reflect the sentiment of many Green voters? Are they really in danger of losing votes with a statement like Malcolm's, as listeners speculated on RadioLive? I would argue that Malcolm's speech actually appeals to Green voters, reflecting the internal and voter dissent that was the result of the Green's announcement that they would work with any Government. This is certainly true of the Greens so far this term, and they have proved to be a very effective party in terms of getting Bills through the House while still in opposition (although perhaps not as effective as under Labour). Examples of this are of course the home insulation scheme and the cycleway, which cost $5.3 million and was meant to generate jobs for youth. I personally have little doubt that the Greens would be able to work within the confines of National, although in the longer time it could be suicide with their constituency given that the Maori Party's attempt to do so has led to Harawira eventually leaving to form the Mana Party, which looks set to split the Maori vote. I know a lot of previous Green voters who are white and middle class that will be voting Mana this election precisely due to the worries that Malcolm lays out (and before you all jump to conclusions, I have friends across the entire political spectrum representing all parties). While Malcolm's opening speech might perturb people that are National voters, it is unlikely to put off Green voters, particularly following National's pro-mining and fracking stance following the Rena.
Furthermore, the goal of 100,000 kids out of poverty clearly contradicts the National Party's stance on poverty. Key literally implied that the reason that we have an emerging gap between poor and rich on Breakfast this morning is because they are all beneficiaries, that paying them more does not help, and that this was 'first world poverty' which was not of concern (implying that poverty will only be a priority once we have starving, malnutritioned children on Parliament's steps). While this might appeal to those on the right of the spectrum, it is hardly something that resonates with Green voters. Key has clearly missed the reports from our food banks that many of their clients are now the working poor and people who would not usually seek out assistance, which has led to a nation-wide shortage in food.
The policies that the Greens have launched have been overall well received by commentators, in particular their policy on reducing bank fees for Kiwisaver by starting up a Government provider.
Reverting to the personal is probably a good move for Key here in characterizing the opening, however it is not going to sway Green voters. Playground tactics of feigning personal attack go far in New Zealand politics, and is a technique that is used by both National and Labour in the past to avoid speaking on issues that they do not want to cover. Clark, for example, used the technique successfully over Corngate and over the painting created by someone else she signed. There is something in our national psyche that prefers it when people are perceived as playing nice, and National have used this technique quite a few times over the last week or so to avoid talking policy (when Goff called him a liar and when Cunliffe said he wouldn't sleep with Collins). At the end of the day such a defense is rubbish, as even a quick viewing of Parliament TV or Twitter would demonstrate that jibes are part of the regular vocabulary of politicians when the future of their survival depends on their ability to successfully differentiate themselves from other parties. I say that this probably works to their advantage because National are facing an interesting schism in policy versus personality that will likely dictate the election. While Key rides higher in the preferred leadership scales than the leaders of many other countries, his policy on asset sales could only be described as overwhelmingly unpopular. According to a 3 News Reid poll, only 31% of voters overall said that they prefer asset sales to a Capital Gains Tax, with only 51% of National voters saying that they supported it. That's pretty slim for a campaign where this has been the divisive issue. As Gordon Campbell notes, the $400 or so million that Labour ended up being out by in their figures is probably a lot less concerning than the concession on TVNZ's Q+A on Sunday that the estimated figure of a $5-7 billion return on asset sales may be optimistic.
The extent to which National manage to negotiate this policy versus personality schism will determine the outcome of the election. As former UK Tory MP Matthew Parris says in a warning National should take heed of, "Personality puts a foot in the door of the consciousness of the nation. It gets you your first hearing. But if there's nothing to back it up, if all you have got is personality, then you will drift".