Just eight weeks ago, National appeared to be cruising to victory with a well-respected leader riding over the top of a meandering opposition. Now, all bets are off after the Greens accidentally unleashed a Jacinda-quake that could give Winston Peters a genuine choice between a waning National and a revitalised Labour. Bernard Hickey surveys a series of unfortunate events that has transformed the political calculus ahead of the election in 44 days.
The unfortunate events
The Government appeared as recently as June 19 to be sleepwalking to a fourth term, albeit probably propped up by Winston Peters' resurgent New Zealand First, who it seemed would have few realistic options for a coalition partner come the night of September 23 other than Bill English's National Party. John Key shocked the nation on December 5, resigning to hand over to English, in part because he thought it would be easier for English to do a deal with Peters. In retrospect, it all seemed perfectly orchestrated to win National at least another three years in charge of the Beehive.
A strong economy allied to Andrew Little's failure to connect with the public seemed to have locked National onto a track towards its target of around 47 percent of the vote, which would be enough at a squeak to repeat its well-worn formula of the last nine years of governing in tandem with ACT, United Future and the Maori Party. Any lower would require help from Peters, but his choices seemed limited given the weakness of Labour and his well-known disregard for the Greens and being part of a three-way Government.
A chill wind from Gore
The series of unfortunate events started on June 20 when Newsroom revealed English's involvement in the Todd Barclay affair. For a few hours on that Tuesday, English's reputation as a straight-shooter came under serious attack after he could not recall whether Barclay had told him about secretly recording English's long-time electorate agent Glenys Dickson. English's vagueness about what he told Police about the conversation with Barclay was not credible. Within hours he had thrown Barclay under the bus, but the damage was done and the sore had started to fester.
It is still festering with Winston Peters probing English daily over the 450 texts English sent over a year to Dickson, and then deleted. English's fumbling with the story through late June only served to emphasise his relative lack of the political nimbleness and ruthlessness that kept Key in power and popular for eight years.
Metiria's gamble on July 16
But the biggest surprising and unfortunate event (for the Greens, National and New Zealand First) was Metiria Turei's July 16 speech to the Green Party's annual meeting where she used her own experience as a single mother to call for a much less punitive welfare system and a 20 percent benefit hike. She said she had lied to Work and Income about the number of flatmates she had because she and her daughter couldn't afford to have her benefit cut.
"I knew that if I told the truth about how many people were living in the house my benefit would be cut," she said in that speech. "And I knew that my baby and I could not get by on what was left," she said.
Summarising, she said: "Today’s announcement is very personal to me. I’ve thought a lot about what I was going to say. Nobody wants to be defined by a lie. Nobody – whether you’re a politician or a solo mum."
They were fateful words, but not for the reasons she expected. Initially, the speech galvanised a debate about the welfare system and emphasised the poverty-fighting part of the Green platform, winning over some of Labour's more left-leaning voters. The Green share of the vote jumped around five percentage points to as high as 15 percent, which drove Labour down from around 30 percent to closer to 25 percent.
That act of political cannibalism, unintentionally, cost Andrew Little his job. Little's lightening-fast resignation and the equally efficient, clean and triumphant elevation of Jacinda Ardern was equally unexpected. It is shaping up as the biggest and most consequential political surprise of 2017.
'Were you really that poor?'
Then came the inevitable probing and challenging of Turei's story.
The father of her child was from a well-off family and Turei herself acknowledged the support of her family, the father of her child and his family as well.
Journalists and political opponents sensed something didn't quite smell right, given the support she got from her extended family. If only she had told the whole story and left no loose ends, then she would still be the Green Party co-leader. Instead, it emerged last Sunday that she had fraudulently registered to vote in the house occupied by the father of her child and that her mother had been a flatmate at various points while she was on the Domestic Purposes Benefit.
This catalysed the underlying concerns of those on the greener end of the party who were wary of the push into Labour's territory around poverty alleviation and reform of the welfare state. Turei's crusade was a long way from the Green core of climate change and water quality and scuttled any vague hope of a 'blue-green' alliance that might give the Greens some scintilla of leverage in any coalition negotiations. The resignations of Kennedy Graham and David Clendon drew back the veil on the internal tensions unleashed by Turei's personal gamble.
Support from a grandmother
She staved off the inevitable for nearly two days, but it was always a matter of 'when rather than if' once the clean facade of Turei's poverty story started to crumble.
The coup-de-grace came from an unexpected place. RNZ's Checkpoint with John Campbell sent questions to Turei on Wednesday afternoon about her time on the benefit, citing members of her extended family.
A relative of her daughter's father had told RNZ that the child's grandparents had provided significant support to Turei while she was on the domestic purposes benefit and said her story of poverty was at odds with what they had seen. The family member had said it was "galling" and "outrageous" to hear Turei talk of her dire situation of poverty forcing the welfare fraud when she and her daughter Piupiu were being supported by the grandmother of her child and did not need to commit the fraud. The grandmother is former North Shore Mayor and Labour MP Ann Hartley.
Turei then rang Checkpoint to say she would be stepping down, although she rejected the suggestion she was supported financially by the Hartley family.
"I have always said I did have really fantastic support from friends and family and that Piupiu's family really supported me especially when I was in law school with things like you know, child care, stuff like that. Like the sort of stuff that you would expect. But I was entirely financially responsible for myself and my daughter," she told Campbell.
Shortly afterwards, she emerged to give a news conference on the black and white tiles outside the debating chamber in Parliament to announce that resignation.
She said the scrutiny on her family had become intolerable.
"I can deal with the political scrutiny. I’ve been doing that for a very long time now, but that scrutiny of family members and broad family members is unacceptable," she said.
"I made the decision actually in travel between meetings in Wellington today, that the right thing to do for my family and the party was to step aside."
A Jacinda 'quake' in the polls
That decision came shortly before Newshub published the results of a Reid Research poll taken over the last week, covering the period that included Jacinda Ardern's elevation to the leadership of the Labour Party and the new revelations calling into question Turei's mid-July story about welfare poverty.
The Reid Research poll found Green support fell 4.7 percentage points to 8.3 percent, while Labour support rose nine percent to 33.1 percent. National support fell 0.8 percent to a 10 year low of 44.4 percent. The NZ Herald reported that a poll by UMR for the Labour Party had found Green support had almost halved to 8 percent from 15 percent over the last two weeks, while Labour's support rose from 23 percent to 36 percent. National rose to 43 percent from 42 percent in the UMR poll, while New Zealand First support halved to eight percent.
But the biggest shift was in the preferred Prime Minister support levels in the Reid Research poll. Ardern rose 17.6 percentage points to 26.3 percent and was just below Prime Minister Bill English on 27.7 percent. Winston Peters fell 1.9 percent to 10.0 percent.
"I do think if I continue as co-leader I will hinder the success of the kaupapa, and the kaupapa is to change the government and make sure the Greens are at the very heart of that new government," Turei said.
"That’s what I’ve been working 15 years for," she said.
In the end, Turei realised her carefully crafted gamble had backfired in the most spectacular fashion, enabling a resurgence of the Labour Party and delivering a body blow to a party she had worked to build up as an MP since 2002 and as leader since 2009.
Ominous signs for National
Eight weeks on from that calm on June 19 before the storms of late June, July and early August, National and Bill English now face an unpredictable and unsettling six weeks of campaigning.
A weakened English faces nagging questions about his involvement in the Todd Barclay affair. He also faces an energetic and so-far disciplined Opposition leader in Jacinda Ardern who is resonating for now with an urban electorate frustrated with nine years of soaring housing costs, congestion and not-just-in-time infrastructure investment.
Ardern's explosive start in the polls has only confirmed the fears of those in the Government that English lacks his predecessor's political skills in the cut and thrust of an election campaign against an equally popular opponent. Key had to beat a hardened and popular leader in Helen Clark, who was Ardern's inspiration and earliest boss.
Soft Green and National voters looking for a change of Government are now listening to Ardern and Labour in a way they weren't when Little struggled to lift the phone, let alone put it back on the hook.
One feature of this latest round of polls was the almost-as-sharp drop by New Zealand First in the polls. The UMR poll had support for Peters' party almost halving to eight percent from 15 percent. It fell 3.8 percent to 9.2 percent in the Reid Research poll and Peters' preferred PM rating fell 1.9 percent to 10 percent, well less than half of Ardern's support.
There is clearly a large chunk of the electorate who had once comfortably voted for National or the Conservative Party who are shifting around. In recent months they went to New Zealand First, but seemed happy in the last two weeks to jump on another bandwagon of change in Ardern's Labour.
If the Jacinda effect carries through into early September and Labour is able to consolidate its support in the mid to high 30s, then National has a problem, particularly if the as-yet-unfinished fallout from Turei's resignation further damages the Greens. Voters will not be allowed to forget that the Green caucus hounded two of their own out in support of Turei just a day before her resignation. The Party even gave a fresh endorsement to Turei on Tuesday evening.
The permanence of the electoral damage for the Greens will depend on whether voters see the rest of the party as culpable for Metiria's mistake (given it backed her to the hilt and expelled her critics), and just how ruthlessly Ardern goes after soft Green voters. Shaw's approach will be crucial in the coming days.
'Single malt Winston?'
Where once it could be reasonably certain that Peters had few real choices other than National, English now has to reckon with the chances of Peters eyeing up Labour as a partner with a share of the vote approaching 40 percent. If Peters is able to hold on to 10-15 percent then a change of Government is more than a possibility. That is National's waking nightmare.
English will hope that the apparent chaos on the centre-left scares voters enough to opt for stability. That certainly worked in 2014 when Kim Dotcom was proclaiming moments of truth on stages with Hone Harawira and David Cunliffe was failing to fire with the public as Labour Leader. There were hints of this 'flight to quality' effect in the latest round of polls. National's share of support in the UMR poll rose one point and English's rating as preferred PM rose 1.7 percent in the Reid Research poll, although National's support did edge down to a 10 year low in the Reid Research poll too.
National's sleek rowing skiff powered past a chaotic dinghy in 2014. This time around the public has the alternative of a genuinely popular Jacinda Ardern allied to a known quantity in Winston Peters and the less-than-scary visage of James Shaw.
The decks are now cleared for a real contest and National's hopes of a cruise to victory are dead in the water.