As the long summer ends, what's
in store for grasshoppers?
Colin James's NZ Herald column for 17 February 2004
One poll does not a government make. But it can make a contest. National is back in the frame.
That gives us back the German model of two countervailing major parties, which is the logic of MMP, given our political history. The Scandinavian model of a dominant government and a fragmented opposition is losing lustre.
Two months ago incumbency seemed a ticket to re-election -- here, in the United States, in Britain and in Australia. Good economies make stay-put electorates.
But the Democrats have gained in the United States presidential race, even if still behind. The Tories have closed on Tony Blair. And in Australia Mark Latham has got John Howard rattled.
For the first time in his prime ministership Howard caved in to an Opposition leader's initiative. Two days after Latham said he would slash MPs' super-generous superannuation Howard backflipped into line.
Latham has proved a phenomenon no one expected. I have written of him here over the years as a restless, innovative thinker, exploring new dimensions of social democracy. Others have reported his volatility, his explosive temper, what some have termed instability.
But he has united a fragmented, fractious and near-defeatist Australian Labor party in a belief it can win. He has won media coverage to die for. Hitherto sceptical and scathing commentators have scrambled for explanations of his sudden metamorphosis in the leader's office.
Ten days ago Latham got his first poll showing a clear lead for Labor over Howard's Liberal-National coalition.
In Queensland long-run Labor Premier Peter Beattie -- till now a vote machine -- took large swings in many electorates in his election on February 7. That did not move many seats but it has set the next election up as a much closer contest. Third-term New South Wales Labor Premier Bob Carr, seemingly invincible a few months ago, is reeling from commuter train troubles.
Now in this country Don Brash has got poll figures that would produce a National-led government. He has done that in much the same time frame as Latham has.
Brash has done it by giving respectability to fears, frustrations and cultural insecurity across a wide swathe of the population. Winston Peters and Richard Prebble have scratched this itch in the past but without much success. Brash has authority, sounds reasonable -- and is fresh.
His senior colleagues sat in cabinets doing some of the very things he complains undermines equality before the law. They now shamelessly back the Brash line. But that is irrelevant. Brash wasn't there. He has believability none of them -- nor Peters nor Prebble -- could have.
For Peters and Prebble this is bad news. It is particularly so for ACT, since Brash's programme -- which is National's programme now, because he has the Latham-like authority a whiff of victory gives -- is pretty much ACT's programme (except on tribal foreshore property rights). Watch him on welfare -- he will again brandish his potent weapon, certitude. Watch ACT thresh about to get back in the game.
Labour thinks it has a counter: you don't just get Brash's Maori policy; you also get his economic and social policies. And did you not reject those in 1999?
Remember ACT in 1999: a hard line on the Treaty of Waitangi lifted it 2 per cent in the polls; then Rodney Hide said ACT would sell New Zealand Post and that 2 per cent melted away.
But is that a reliable parallel? What happens if the economy goes off the boil?
President George Bush is a problem for Helen Clark not just in his hardline foreign policy but in his economic policy. He has plunged the United States budget into deep deficit by slashing taxes (mainly for the best off) while boosting defence spending. Partly as a result of that, the country has a huge current account deficit, too.
That has driven the American dollar down -- with maybe more to come -- and dangerously undermined our exports by pushing our dollar up.
And what have we, the people, done? We have been grasshoppers. Through the long economic summer we have loaded up debt on our houses and spent the loot on cars, holidays and nick-nacks.
When summer ends, what happens to grasshoppers? Ask the ants who have toiled to prepare for autumn while the grasshoppers chirruped in a blissful haze.
Meantime the government, too, has basked in the long grasshoppers' summer, raking off some of the loot and playing benefactor while also playing prudent. Result: a thumping win in 2002 and, until now, a massive lead in the polls.
But now? This year the currency hedges unravel and the full force of the exchange rate rise hits exporters -- and in due course the overborrowed grasshoppers, unready for autumn.
Will the firm, assured ex-governor of the Reserve Bank be such a bogey then? Might not his attacks on Labour's reregulation, especially of the workplace, have some resonance? Might not the ant be back in fashion?
It is far, far too early to tell. But we can say the prospect can no longer be dismissed. That's Brash.