Election 2020: the challenges facing the political parties

New Zealand’s next election has been set down, but there are still plenty of unknowns for incumbent and aspiring politicians alike to grapple with on the campaign trail, as Sam Sachdeva reports.

It seemed like the worst-kept secret in New Zealand politics, but one that nevertheless still had to be officially confirmed by Jacinda Ardern - Kiwi voters will go to the polls on September 19.

Ardern’s decision to follow her prime ministerial predecessors John Key and Bill English in announcing the election date early is no surprise, nor is the election date itself.

Chatter last year about a snap election allowing Labour to rid itself of New Zealand First ignored the fact that Ardern’s political instincts are small-c conservative, inclined towards risk-averse decisions and strategic orthodoxy.

Taking out school holidays, wintry weather and (for some reason) All Blacks tests, and September 19 was one of the few suitable Saturdays available - as well as the anniversary of New Zealand granting women the right to vote, something Ardern said was entirely coincidental.

Ardern also hewed closely to the traditional drivers of re-election in making the case for the current coalition, describing a government “grounded in stability, a strong economy and progress on the long-term challenges facing New Zealand”.

 Ardern also repeated her pledge of “relentless positivity” and against misinformation as outlined at last week’s Labour caucus retreat.

Some of the party’s supporters have taken that commitment to extremes on social media, verging on an adult reboot of Ardern’s childhood ‘Happy Club’ as they decry any negative phrasing from the Opposition, and there is a risk that robust but reasonable debate could be curtailed (something, it is worth noting, Ardern has said she does not want).

That is part of a more significant problem - the sense that much of Ardern and Labour’s positivity and grand plans are yet to be translated into tangible change.

Will New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and Greens co-leader James Shaw be able to assert their parties' respective identities without undermining the coalition as a whole? Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The election date announcement came before the Government’s big reveal on Wednesday of how and where a $12 billion infrastructure spending boost will be used, a useful piece of the puzzle but one that will take some time to turn into new roads, bridges or cycleways.

Of course, change doesn’t happen overnight, but at times there seems to be a notable disconnect between what Labour has promised and the speed at which it has delivered it (if at all).

Coalition partners the Greens and New Zealand First have their own problems to deal with.

The former will fear a repeat of the 2017 election, where Ardern’s ascendance and strength in traditional “green” areas like climate change carved away some of its soft support and factional scrapping within the party turned off voters.

For Winston Peters and company, the challenge will be holding onto or replacing the “blue-black” supporters angered by the party’s choice to choose Labour over National, as well as bucking the party’s history of failing to last more than a term in government.

Then there is the more practical issue of intra-coalition relations. There is a feeling in some quarters of the Beehive that Labour’s partners (specifically, New Zealand First) will be on their best behaviour until after the Budget is announced and their pet projects are secured, after which it will be on for all money.

Given the public disagreements and undermining of ministers we have already seen, that is an alarming thought.

National leader Simon Bridges was positive about finding potential coalition partners early in the parliamentary term, but there have been few developments on that front. Photo: Lynn Grieveson. 

At least they have some allies to bicker with. One of the biggest questions facing National has been with it since not long after Peters made his fateful decision - how will it reach a parliamentary majority without any meaningful support partners?

Simon Bridges’ bullish talk earlier this term of finding new political friends has amounted to little.

The “true green” Sustainable New Zealand Party has barely surfaced since its launch last year, chatter about a Lance O’Sullivan-led party has dissipated, and National MP Alfred Ngaro’s ill-advised flirtation with the idea of a breakaway Christian party was swiftly cast into the fiery depths.

While the Māori Party looks poised for a resurgence, its advocacy for an Ihumātao deal and an overhaul of the Treaty settlement process would suggest a deal with National is unlikely, while some supporters argue its previous coalition arrangement with the centre-right party was responsible for Marama Fox and Te Ururoa Flavell dropping out of Parliament in 2017.

The ACT Party provides a skerrick of good news, with David Seymour capable of bringing in one or two extra MPs should his party’s modest but meaningful polling bump hold.

Overall though, it’s unsurprising there is plenty of interest in whether or not Bridges will rule out a post-election deal with New Zealand First.

It may be that Bridges’ best hope is to rule out New Zealand First in the hope that any right-leaning supporters are suitably deterred, dragging the party below five percent and turning the election into a shoot-out between a Labour-Green combination and a National-ACT alliance.

On the one hand, taking Peters and his party off the table would remove one of National’s precious few routes to 61 seats; on the other, it’s hard to see how Peters could ever countenance working with Bridges’ party, at least in its current form, given his increasingly strident attacks.

It may be that Bridges’ best hope is to rule out New Zealand First in the hope that any right-leaning supporters are suitably deterred, dragging the party below five percent and turning the election into a shoot-out between a Labour-Green combination and a National-ACT alliance.

Bridges may take heart from the fact National’s numbers have held up unusually well compared with other three-term governments cast into the wilderness, as well as minor parties’ historical difficulties in surviving coalition government.

But Ardern can also point to history, with the last one-term government in New Zealand dating back to 1975 - and even that Labour loss was in large part due to the death of the popular Norman Kirk.

Then there are some wildcards whose impact will not be made clear for some time.

Will the Serious Fraud Office pursue any charges in relation to allegations of electoral fraud levelled against National, and what will come of authorities’ enquiries into the mysterious New Zealand First Foundation?

How will referendums on both cannabis and assisted dying affect the parties’ supporter bases, and will the advocacy on those issues bleed over into the general election?

We may have certainty over the election date, but there are plenty of questions to be answered over the next eight months.

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