New Zealand 2020 preview

New Zealand’s general election will be 19 September (grrr, they are holding it on Rosh HaShanah). Given the generally good record of the government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in handling COVID-19, at this point the question seems to be, how big will her win be? And how much will her two coalition partners suffer as Ardern’s party gets most of the credit?

Through today, there have been seven recent polls that have put Ardern’s Labour Party over 50% in votes. If this were to happen on election day, it would make for the first time since the mixed-member proportional system was first used (1996) that a single party won a majority of seats or votes.

The last poll showing the main opposition National Party ahead was conducted in February. The party has changed leaders not once, but twice, since then.

Obviously, with a majority, Labour would not need to take on coalition or support partners. However, it likely would want to retain its relationship with the Green Party and thus retain the latter in some decidedly junior position. That is, assuming the party clears the threshold. Even the polls that show Labour as far up as 60% (!) still show the Greens over 5%. So, it may be a close call, but they should at least remain in parliament. There seems to be only one poll in several months that has them below the party-vote threshold (mid-May, at 4.7%).

The other partner in the incumbent government, New Zealand First, is languishing far below the threshold in all polls. Its only faint hope for survival would be if it can take back the electorate (single-seat district) of Northland. The party’s leader, Winston Peters, won this seat in a by-election five years ago. The National Party won the seat back in the general election of 2017. Its candidate for the seat in this election, Shane Jones, is making his pitch for the seat.

For far too long we have tolerated substandard National Party representation for our Northland area. No power or influence. No bite and, in fact, not even a decent bark.

The just-linked NZ Herald article remarks that the by-election showed that “the government [then led by the National Party] knew so little about the North that it thought bridges were what everyone wanted.” Jones has said that most of the promised bridges were never built. (So, evidently they do want bridges, even if that’s not all they want.)

The episode is a nice reminder of how distributive politics can come into play in the MMP system. Despite effectively nationwide proportional representation, the district races are an opportunity for local factors to enter into the campaign. Nonetheless, it would seem a very tall order for New Zealand First to repeat in a general election what it pulled off in the by-election. With National crashing so badly nationwide, however, perhaps it is not out of the question that local National supporters could vote for Jones. The latter has emphasized that he could be in cabinet, while the National member would be an “obscure backbench MP,” continuing the alleged neglect of the region by both Labour and National. (Never mind that NZF is unlikely to be back in cabinet no matter what, if their votes are not needed, as they were after the 2017 election.)

Meanwhile, Peters has launched his party’s campaign with the rather odd slogan, “Back your future.” He is really pushing the idea that he is the only thing standing between New Zealanders and a radical government pulled further left by the Greens. It is about the best case he can make for a vote for his party. Given the overall competence Ardern has exhibited and the fact that the Greens would have hardly any leverage if Labour wins a majority on its own (or even if it is merely close to a majority), it is not a claim with much reality behind it. Still, the always colorful Peters has said that being in government has allowed him and his allies to block “woke pixie dust.”

The Greens are also looking for ways to differentiate themselves from both of their partners. Co-leader James Shaw remarked,

We’ve known for a long time, that the closer we got to election, the more likely it was that NZ First would start misbehaving.

…If you look at some of the difficulties that the Government has had over the last three years, a lot of them have come down to NZ First ankle-tapping them and blaming them for saying they can’t get anything done.

I know they like to say they are a force for moderation; it’s more like an agent of chaos.

Green MP Jan Logie has also called attention to New Zealand First’s opposition to the Sexual Violence Legislation Bill, which she is championing.

The Greens are also at work differentiating themselves from their senior partner, albeit with less divisive words, and a policy focus. For instance, they oppose Labour’s policy on charges to New Zealanders returning from abroad and needing to quarantine. (National supports Labour’s plan, so the latter can pass it without the Greens’ support in the current parliament.)

Peters and David Seymour, the leader of another small party, Act, have done their part to keep the campaign especially classy.

Act is enjoying a bit of a surge lately, from polling oblivion a few months ago to 5% in one recent poll and over 4% in several. It just might survive. Seymour currently holds an electorate seat. Because New Zealand’s MMP has an alternate threshold–five percent of the party-list vote or a single district win–there is a chance the party could elect more than one member for the first time since 2008 even if it remains below 5%. I’d think their odds are reasonably good, as some more ideological right-wing voters may see National has hopeless to form a government and vote Act.

The current government was a somewhat strange one when formed. Labour’s 2017 result was ten seats behind the then-governing National. Even with Green support the left-leaning post-electoral combine was two seats seats short of National (54-56). They needed New Zealand First (9 seats) to choose them over National, which of course it did. Now the government looks to be one more case for the common political-science finding that governing as a junior partner is perilous for a party’s electoral support. New Zealand First may be shut out of parliament altogether, and the Greens may be down a seat or two from their 8 in 2017 and facing a partner that possibly has a majority on its own.

8 thoughts on “New Zealand 2020 preview

  1. Thanks for the planting.
    I thought that giving charging for returnees as Labour policy on the basis of a Cabinet Paper was a bit keen. Looking like a version in line with Green stated policy will get in place before the election. Labour have only ever said that they were looking into it.
    https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/300067896/coronavirus-government-parties-approach-consensus-on-charging-returnees-with-narrow-scheme-likely
    There was much dropping out by sitting National MPs as leadership changes and general ruckus occurred.

    • That does tend to confirm my long-repeated hobby horse that, if voters want a majority government, they can get one – even under nationwide PR -by, you know, giving one party a – what’s that term again? – “majority of votes”.
      Absolutely nothing stopping them.

  2. It will be interesting to see whether there are a significant amount of split votes at this election, if these polls are indeed borne out. A 60-25 split on the SMD vote would seemingly make it hard for National to win many seats at all. Obviously, however, National district votes have no impact on the seat distribution (except if National were to win an overhang), and as such National MPs could theoretically campaign for district votes while still allowing voters to give Labour a landslide.

    Whether this does actually happen is a separate question. While at the 2002 election, which was the largest swing against a major party in the MMP era, the National list vote was 10pp higher than the SMD vote, this seems to have been partially because NZ First ran SMD candidates in less than half of all electorates. In 2008, there was no appreciable difference between list and SMD votes for Labour, but there was in 2011.

    • Thanks. That is indeed good.

      On Labour, I like this: “The party is still yet to release any substantial policy for the election… Without her own policies to promote, Ardern will be forced into spending the whole election just ruling out Green Party policies.”

      Classic “valence” campaign! Trust us because we are competent; and we are not extreme.

      Please remind me what the “waka jumping” legislation was.

      • I like this point, too: “Labour itself has plenty of MPs happy to let NZ First take the blame for killing progressive policies they themselves are uncomfortable with.”

        Yes, coalitions can be handy that way.

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