New Zealand Election: Ardern remains on course for victory – but can Labour govern alone?

By Richard Hansen

NEW Zealand’s General Election this year is unique in many ways.

Temporally, it is only the fourth time in New Zealand’s history has a general election had to be delayed and on all of those occasions it was due to a World War.

Originally pencilled in for September 19, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her governing Labour party decided to delay the election by four weeks amidst rising COVID 19 cases which forced a localised lockdown of Auckland and a move back to Level 3 restrictions for the rest of the country.

Parliament will be dissolved on September 6 as the campaign kicks off in earnest.

What remains to be seen is how the delay will affect the upcoming campaign, voter turnout and whether this will help or hurt the government’s chances of re-election.

Aucklanders – some 40 per cent of New Zealand’s population – are currently not allowed to gather in groups of more than ten, while the rest of the country is restricted to groups of 100.

This will dramatically affect the ability of all parties to campaign in a traditional way.

It may also affect turnout, especially amongst older voters and perhaps even dip below the low point of 69.6 per cent seen at the 2011 general election.

The delay is unlikely to have any significant impact on the fortunes of Labour and National, analysts have claimed.

Luke Malpass argued in Stuff: “It is hard to see that this month’s delay will materially change the polling, unless new and significant mistakes and bungles are revealed.

“The New Zealand electorate tends not to be capricious. If voters trusted Government’s handling of the issues last week, there is no obvious reason why anyone will have changed their minds.”

However, moving the election date from September 19 is not without risk – but it leaves the government with several fiascos to answer for.

The border breach which reintroduced community transmission and the lack of testing are the very reason New Zealand’s much-hailed recovery has stalled – because the government has failed to deliver what it said it had.

Up until recently it made frequent reference to 100 days Covid-free. It called this the Covid election, there would be barely any policy because it had eliminated the virus.

The government gave itself a pat on the back for being the only developed country in the world to be entirely Covid-free and the world watched with jealousy as 45,000 Aucklanders were able to pack into Eden Park for the first match of the newly reformatted Super Rugby Aotearoa.

But now that community transmission has appeared again, the government must own its failures as well as successes.

The government is lucky that while they are dealing with major health and economic crises, National are dealing with internal crises of their own. They are on to their third leader in since May and do not appear to be in any shape to form a government.

While Ardern has been almost universally praised internationally for her government’s response to the Covid crisis, she has not been without criticism at home.

The government has often referred to New Zealand’s response as a “team of five million.”

Bernard Hickey of Newsroom was quick to remind readers in a tweet of the realities in which the government has chosen to manage the health and economic crisis.

The government decided early on in this crisis unlike others including Australia, parts of Europe and the US not to pump government cash to citizens directly, but rather target cash at businesses.

This has meant that New Zealand’s renters, as well as the unemployed and the working poor have not received the tens of billions of dollars printed by the Reserve Bank.

Many of these people represent voters from Labour’s heartland and it remains to be seen whether this will translate into a loss in support.

With early voting due to start soon, the legitimacy of the election was likely to be questioned if the original September 19 date remained, especially because a number of political parties – especially National – have suffered from the government soaking up all the attention in their management of the health crisis.

Shifting the election by four weeks was a relatively easy task for the PM, given that the date had not yet been officially actioned by the Governor-General but merely been pencilled in.

In choosing October 17, Ardern has opted for the ‘Goldilocks option’ – as three dates were suggested to her by the neutral Electoral Commission and the middle ground between each suggestion by political party leaders.

Keeping the election date early, when her own party is polling sky-high would have looked like self-interest. By pushing it out, she appears magnanimous and conciliatory.

Yet it remains to be seen whether the delayed election create more room for Ardern’s Labour party to fall in the polls.

After all, the government now has more time to experience problems with their management of the health crisis, as well as an economic recession that is expected to be more advanced by the time the new election date arrives.

The most likely outcome – with National rudderless and unable to provide any credible opposition – is a landslide victory for Labour, who will be just as assured in October as it would have been a month earlier.

Betting markets suggest that Labour has a 93 per cent chance of re-election and these numbers have not moved significantly on the announcement of the new date.

What remains to be seen is how the upcoming campaign and the governments’ fortunes surrounding their continuing Covid response affects the minor parties.

Mixed member proportional representation (MMP), has been used in New Zealand elections since 1996.

It is a mixed electoral system in which voters get two votes: one to decide the representative for their single-seat constituency, and one for a political party.

Seats in parliament are filled firstly by the successful constituency candidates, and secondly, by party candidates based on the percentage of nationwide or region-wide votes that each party received.

Political parties draw up their own party lists and in order to have candidates elected to parliament, they must receive at least 5 per cent of the overall party vote.

This has more often than not led to coalition-style governments since it’s introduction and is a good way for voters to keep “checks and balances” on the system especially since New Zealand only has one parliamentary chamber.

Now NZ First and ACT are currently hovering around the 5 per cent MMP threshold and Bryce Edwards suggested in the Guardian that “a shift of a few percentage points highly possible and could still make a huge difference

The extra month of campaigning might not change the fact that Labour looks almost certain to be governing after election day, it may end up affecting whether they will need either of their current coalition partners to stay in power, or if they can finally achieve the historic first of being the first Labour government to govern alone since the introduction of MMP.

Opinion articles featured on Redaction reflect the views of their author, not those of the publication as a whole. Only Editorials display the opinions of our management.

Featured Image: Ulysse Bellier @Flickr

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