Next year’s nailbiter of an election

It could be less than a year until the election hoardings go up, and the 2020 election will be like no other we have seen, writes Peter Dunne.

At most, the next General Election is less than 60 weeks away. By law, the latest date the next election can take place is 21 November 2020. In reality, it is likely to be earlier than that. Practical reasons – like completing the government formation process before the Christmas break – mean that the most likely timing is somewhere in the six week period from mid-September to early November.

The Prime Minister’s confirmation earlier this week that she intends to follow the practice restored by Sir John Key of naming the election date early in the year, rather than holding it to her chest as a closely guarded secret as others have done, has focused attention that no matter whatever date is settled upon (October 16 or November 7 maybe?) the election cycle will soon be upon us.

Indeed, if the Prime Minister opts for a mid to late September date, it is already less than a year until the election hoardings go up, and the campaign gets underway.

But whatever the date and the circumstances, the 2020 election will be like no other for a number of reasons. The result and aftermath of the last election has ensured that all the main parties will be fighting history next year.

For Labour and National the prize is obvious – the opportunity to lead the government for the three following years. Yet, for the smaller parties the prize is no less pressing, but considerably lesser in stature.

Their principal challenge is simply to survive.

No small party that has supported either Labour or National in government since 1996 has crossed the 5 percent party vote threshold at the next election. Some (the Progressives, ACT, UnitedFuture, the Maori Party and New Zealand First in earlier times) have survived because they held an electorate seat at the time, and thereby crossed the threshold, but is not a luxury New Zealand First or the Greens currently enjoy.

For both of them, as things presently stand, failure to reach 5 percent means they would be out of Parliament altogether.

For the Labour-led Government, that would be disastrous. Between them, New Zealand First and the Greens hold 17 of the Government’s 63 seats in Parliament. Their removal by failing to cross the threshold would make Labour’s re-election task nigh impossible.

While it would pick up some seats as a consequence it would be most unlikely to pick up the minimum of 15 it would need to remain in government, assuming of course it was to hold all of its current 46 seats. Even the failure of just one of the parties (New Zealand First most likely) to gain 5 percent would make Labour’s task very difficult – it would need to pick up most of the previously allocated New Zealand First seats and then hope the Greens scored at least their number in the present Parliament to have a chance of carrying on in government. 

Those stark realities alone raise the possibility of Labour having to cede electorate seats to its partners (Wellington Central, which it holds, perhaps for the Greens and Whangarei, which it does not hold but has a strong vote in, to New Zealand First) but that would be extremely politically risky for all three parties given that they have piously railed against such arrangements in the past. The current Government has even talked of its intention to remove the one-seat threshold altogether, although that talk has fallen eerily quiet in recent months.

For National, on the other hand, that scenario is far more attractive. Again, assuming it were to hold all its current seats, regain Botany, and see ACT over the line again in Epsom, it would need to win just four of the nine current New Zealand First/Greens seats to be able to form a government.

Even if the Greens survived, and just New Zealand First fell out, National would be in the stronger position of the two main parties to lead the next government. It would need to win just four of the nine seats currently allocated to New Zealand First. All of which makes Simon Bridges’ continuing failure to deliver the potentially killing blow of ruling New Zealand First out of his electoral calculations altogether even more puzzling, especially since New Zealand First is so integral to Labour’s re-election prospects.

While, ultimately, electoral mathematics will be the biggest determinant of the shape and colour of the next government, the performance of the parties will also be a significant factor. Here, again the scales tip a little in favour of National, not because in any way it has done anything to capture the public imagination or suggest it is ready and capable enough to return to government, but simply because elections are referenda on the performance of the government of the day, not the weakness of the Opposition. Labour’s improbable success at the last election should be obvious enough proof of that.

This Government is probably our most idealistic since the Third Labour Government of 1972-75, which similarly struggled to convert its bold ideas into practice ... and was dumped unceremoniously at the next election.

In that regard, the omens are mixed for Labour. On the one hand, the Prime Minister’s popular appeal is a strong factor in the government’s favour. No other contemporary politician can match her ability to empathise with and positively engage with the electorate at large. Indeed, it is difficult to find a comparison with any other political leader of the mass communication age, and allusions back to Michael Joseph Savage and his time are hard to sustain.

Yet, as a recent Australian television interview showed, the facade of empathy and warmth can crack quickly under pressing scrutiny, a point National strategists will not have overlooked, even if they presently have no weapon of their own with which to pursue it.

Where the Prime Minister’s and the Government’s vulnerability is greatest is in the area of performance. This Government is probably our most idealistic since the Third Labour Government of 1972-75, which similarly struggled to convert its bold ideas into practice (think housing, the New Zealand Superannuation Scheme, the Maximum Retail Price Scheme, the Standard Tertiary Bursary) and was dumped unceremoniously at the next election.

Now, what was supposed to be the current Government’s “Year of Delivery” has become its “Year of Excuses”, with the failure of Kiwibuild, rising unemployment, rising housing waiting lists, rising child poverty and more people on benefits.

The Prime Minister’s now plaintive explanations that it will take “several more Budgets” to turn these statistics around may or not be true, but they have the chilling air of failed expectation around them, which is unlikely to play well with voters lulled to believe these were all matters that would be easy to resolve if the Government was prepared to just show some kindness, and reverse the hard-hearted inaction of its National and even Labour predecessors. Previous experience suggests those voters so lulled in 2017 may not be anywhere near as tolerant in 2020.

All this is why the 2020 election will be so fascinating, and the lead-up to it so intriguing. Whatever its outcome, and it is far too early to make any predictions, a number of existing norms will be shattered. And our MMP system may emerge stronger for that.

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