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Has there ever been a more exhausting, less inspiring election season?

Between Covid, the cost of living crisis, multiple natural disasters, and a steady stream of government scandals – which themselves have led to worsening partisanship hackery and increasingly toxic discourse – even writing about politics right now feels exhausting.

Other exhausting activities have health benefits, like living longer or breathing easier, but engaging with this election has often felt medically indefensible. Side effects have varied between us, but no one seems to feel better.

Part of the blame for this fatigue sits with Labour, which seems determined to lose the election. It might seem surprising to lodge that accusation at a party that’s had such a difficult year, but it’s clear the public is tired of Labour’s genre of dramatic self-destruction. 

‘The sausage roll of policy’: Chris Hipkins, Grant Robertson and some sausage-filled cheese rolls on Budget Day 2023.

Sunday’s re-announcement of a GST exemption for fruit and vegetables, already announced by National deputy leader Nicola Willis, hasn’t helped.

As Newsroom’s Marc Daalder put it, removing GST from fresh produce is “the sausage roll of policy – popular, sure, but uninspiring. It’s a sugar hit and when the voters come down, they’ll see how un-nourishing it all is.” The government’s own finance minister has called the policy a “boondoggle”, which is Wellington technocrat for “pretty dumb, eh”. 

It’s a populist play that isn’t internally popular within Labour itself, and brings with it a whiff of desperation during a time when the party desperately needs a cohesive narrative around what kind of leader Chris Hipkins will be in a second term. 

It’s also basically already te Pāti Māori policy, which adds an element of futility to the whole announcement. A policy poached from one party, then leaked by another, doesn’t exactly shout “visionary thinking”.

Green co-leaders James Shaw and Marama Davidson arrive at a 2017 election night event. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images; additional design by Tina Tiller)

Two announcements on the same day last week represented two very different strategies to winning an election as a left wing political party. 

The Green Party announced a “Dental For All” policy that would cost around $1.7b a year. At the same time, Labour announced it would spend $45b on a series of crossings, in one city, across one harbour, for the benefit of the Far North and a little less than a quarter of Auckland. 

The Greens can campaign across the country on bold, if potentially unachievable, policies like its dental plan. They won’t swing voters away from Act or National, but they will attract a chunk of disaffected left-wing voters tired of their ambitions for the country being ritualistically sacrificed on policy bonfires. 

The Greens and Te Pāti Māori have slowed the momentum on the left, which will achieve little in terms of a change of government but will give each party far greater power around any unlikely negotiating tables to form the next government.  

Labour’s response to this was a return to “bread and butter” politics, meant to refocus and re-energise the party towards a “more of what you like, less of what you don’t” sort of populism. But instead it seems to have sucked the energy out of their campaign. 

This kind of failure in the battle for the middle should have National riding higher in the polls than it is. But the opposition party faces its own challengers.  

To the right, Act is promising large-scale changes to the public sector, including mass job cuts, disestablishing several government agencies and a hard line against the man who in their eyes is responsible for the current situation: Winston Peters. 

‘The most appealing thing National can campaign on to a fatigued electorate is stability.’ (Photo: Hagen Hopkins / Getty)

National is not offering fundamental change – its announcement of more roads made that pretty clear – but it can campaign on providing a stable government with a united caucus. 

It may lack the sort of big statement policy that commentators like to build narratives around, but maybe that’s OK. The most appealing thing National can campaign on to a fatigued electorate is stability. Luxon’s caucus has been relatively leak-free, disciplined even. 

The working relationship between Luxon and Seymour also seems relatively drama-free so far, but all this stability and discipline will be out the window if Luxon courts the true “coalition of chaos” that is present-day New Zealand First. 

As Stuff’s Charlie Mitchell reported over the weekend, NZ First’s current pool of candidates includes numerous disaffected ex-supporters of various “freedom” parties, whose only uniting force seems to be that Labour is bad – and that the man who made Labour’s successive governments possible is the solution. It’s confusing logic, but excess fatigue and mainlining YouTube rants about the World Economic Forum will do that to you.

A New Zealand first coalition should have been ruled out by Luxon already, but it hasn’t (maybe he’s been too tired?). This dithering has left some wind in Peters’ sails, that he’ll almost certainly use to take votes off Act and, to a far lesser degree, National itself. 

The sense that no one particularly wants to win this election is also partly down to National. If National wants to turn an ascendant Act on its right while also appealing to the middle voters yearning for a return to quiet competence, it needs to promise a respite. That means permanently switching off the endless dirge that is Peters’ political career by ruling out ever working with him. If not, it’s more of the same with a different uniform.

The old adage is that a change is as good as a holiday. In the depths of winter, after a caustic year where politics has felt unsettling and unhelpful, it’s not yet clear when that change will arrive. 

A holiday feels an exhaustingly long way away. 

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