Heading into election year on a knife edge

After two years in office, Labour still cannot get its actions to match its talk, which only adds to making this year's election too close to call, says Peter Dunne.

As election year, 2020, gets underway there is a noticeable new spring in the step of the National Party. Buoyed by positive opinion polls at the end of 2019, and a mounting voter sense that for all its talk, the Labour-led government has in reality achieved very little, National could be forgiven for beginning to dare to believe that victory later this year is not just a possibility, but an increasingly achievable prospect.

However, the sober reality is that since the advent of party government under the Liberals almost 130 years ago, New Zealand governments have usually been re-elected for a second term, and often a third, and occasionally more after that.

Only twice in that time – Labour in 1960, and again in 1975 – has a government not been re-elected for a second term. 

So, leaving aside current political conditions, National will be bucking history if it is to be successful in leading a government after this year’s election. The historic odds lie with the Labour-led Government being returned.

Though this is not to say that a National-led victory is out of the question. Indeed, the closeness of the last election result means that the 2020 election race begins as one that is too close to call. As I have pointed out previously, current electoral mathematics alone ensure that.

The equation for Labour to win again means that it has to not only hold its vote at or above its last election level (something that incumbent governments struggle to do), but also ensure that the same happens for its two support partners (something that has never happened before under MMP). If one or other of them falls by the wayside – and remember, no government support party has yet crossed the 5 percent party vote threshold after a term in office – the Government is doomed.

National, on the other hand, need only hold its vote at its 2017 election level, and ensure a modest increase in the level of ACT support to get over the electoral line, and lead the next government. Add to that the recent electoral boundary changes which appear to favour National, and the election result is on a knife edge, before even the first vote has been cast.

The likely closeness of this year’s election inevitably raises the prospect of electoral deals and accommodations between major parties and their support partners to maximise the overall electoral advantage of their particular bloc.

However, the number of these is likely to be few in practice. In part, this is because of a recognition by the parties that voters as a whole are uncomfortable with such arrangements, even if they appreciate the need for them in certain circumstances.

Where there is an established incumbent MP from a minor party whose re-election could ensure the election of other members of that party, there is the prospect of such deals, especially if that incumbent’s re-election could be the difference between Government and Opposition. But those situations are rare, and no major party is going to risk a voter backlash from “gifting” a seat to a new and comparatively unknown candidate from a party not already in Parliament, with an established local MP, or without whom it has not had a prior working relationship. Therefore, any such accommodations will be limited.

Labour will probably do deals of some sort with the Greens and New Zealand First to bolster their chances of re-election, and National similarly with ACT. And that will be it.

Of course, elections are about much more than mathematics and political deals. They are an opportunity for a genuine contest of ideas around major policy issues.

Often one big idea dominates an election campaign. This year it looks set to be infrastructural development and investment. Simon Bridges has already proclaimed National as the party of infrastructure, and Labour is set to unveil a multi-billion dollar infrastructure spending plan in the next few weeks. However, when it comes to promoting their credentials on this front, both are likely to be hampered, rather than aided, by their previous records.

National will stake its infrastructure claim on completing the Roads of National Significance projects it rolled out when last in office, but which have been severely wound back by the current Government subsequently. It will be hoping to capitalise on the frustration many motorists felt as they were stuck in long queues over the summer period. But, overall, it still suffers from the perception that it equates infrastructure development solely with building more roads, and does not have nearly the same interest in other more environmentally friendly transport infrastructure developments such as rail or enhanced public transport, let alone more social spending.

National has to hope that as the year unfolds, Labour just keeps on doing what it has been.

Labour’s talk, on the other hand, ticks all the environmentally friendly boxes. But being successful in government requires more than just talk. Given its abysmal failure over its term in government on bringing infrastructure development on stream, its future plans, no matter how bold or expansive simply lack credibility.

For its flagship Kiwibuild programme to have been such a failure, especially at a time when New Zealand was building more houses than at any point in the last 45 years, was an utter humiliation. That was bad enough. But when the mounting delay to Auckland’s light rail development is considered alongside that it becomes clear that no matter how big it talks Labour is simply incapable of making its infrastructure plans work.

That is worse than bad, striking at the core of its credibility.

Labour’s wider problem in government is that after two years in office, it still cannot get its actions to match its talk.

In a column written just after this Government passed its six months’ anniversary in office, I commented that it had already taken on eerie overtones of the one-term third Labour government. To prevent succumbing to a similar fate I suggested then that, “There are a couple of lessons from the fate of the third Labour government that the present administration seems unwilling to confront. The first is that the politics of the grand gesture … have to be followed by actions of substance. Otherwise, the bold gesture begins to look like a hollow lie.” I further suggested that Labour needed to learn the, “… constraint of moving at a pace and direction the public feels comfortable with, and avoiding getting too far ahead of public opinion.”

Yet, nearly two years on, the Government seems yet to learn those pretty basic lessons, which makes the coming election more of a contest than it might otherwise have been. While electoral history still favours its re-election, there remains one other historical maxim that National can draw some hope from. It is still the case in New Zealand that governments lose elections, rather than oppositions win them.  

So National has to hope that as the year unfolds, Labour just keeps on doing what it has been.

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