The first televised debate between National Party leader Bill English and Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern has set the tone for the rest of the campaign. The defining moment came early on when moderator Mike Hosking challenged English and Ardern on their fiscal priorities. Juxtaposed on the stage were two distinct political philosophies.
“It’s not about throwing big money at every problem,” English declared. The question of tax evoked the most passion from him. As Minister of Finance, English balanced the budget and reduced Crown debt. He goes into this election making the case for personal tax cuts. National would give more money back to those who had earned it. Labour, he said, was proposing to take $1,000 a year from a meatworker in Horotiu to make university “a bit cheaper” for law students.
The rhetoric is consistent with the political traditions of the National Party. The dual virtues of hard-work and personal responsibility have been its lodestar for 81 years. Formed in a coalition of farmers and businessmen, National fashioned itself as a pragmatic conservative party during the 1930s. Its main opponent, the Labour Party, offered a more altruistic approach to government.
The late Professor Bob Chapman once described humanitarianism as a ‘lingering chord’ in New Zealand politics. It was that chord which Ardern struck in her first leader’s debate. “I refuse to stand by while children are sleeping in cars,” she affirmed to the nation. “I refuse to accept that we have the lowest home ownership rates in 60 years.”
Challenged on the issue of capital gains, Ardern stuck to her position of not ruling a new tax in or out. Labour would do what was necessary to end the housing crisis. Her emphasis was on values, not policy-specifics. Then came the most memorable line of the debate. “People can’t go shopping with your values!” English interjected. Families needed to budget for groceries. They needed to know what a vote for Labour would cost them.
But will uncertainty about household finances dissuade the Horotiu meatworker from voting Labour? Until now, the National-led Government has relied on its strong economic record to maintain the confidence of voters.
Recent scholarship by Jack Vowles, Hilde Coffé and Jennifer Curtin confirms the economy was the most salient issue in 2014. However, voters’ subjective judgements about the relative competence of leaders and parties mattered more than policy or ideological positioning. It was the classic ‘valence’ election in which there was no great ideological divide between voters.
The 2017 election could be very different. Rather than judging the parties’ relative competence at managing the economy, voters may look to their values instead. The choice for many voters could lie between tax cuts or the more equitable distribution of wealth. Will the lingering chord of humanitarianism rally them to Labour? Or do they prefer the rugged individualism of National?