Comment

The sadness of a support partner as the axe looms

History seems to suggest New Zealand First will be "bundled out of Parliament" in a few short weeks, while the Greens are also facing the 'support partner' curse, writes Peter Dunne

In the wake of recent public opinion polls there has been a lot of speculation about what the results portend for the Labour Party’s two support partners, New Zealand First and the Greens.

Both are currently languishing in the polls – New Zealand First especially so at around 2 percent, while the Greens are hovering around the 5 percent threshold – and the record of support parties in crossing the threshold after a term as a government support partner is not good.

As neither currently holds an electorate seat (something both are chasing furiously at present) failure to cross the threshold would see them both out of Parliament, with potential implications for the structure of the next government.

While the opinion polls may fluctuate over the next little while, the best guide to the likely performance of both New Zealand First and the Greens in the coming election is to look to their past performance.

Over the eight elections to date under MMP, New Zealand First’s performances have varied from a high of 13.35 percent of the party vote in 1996, to a low of 4.07 percent in 2008, the year the party dipped out of Parliament altogether.

After its 1996-98 stint in coalition with National, New Zealand First’s party vote in 1999 slipped to 4.26 percent, just below the 5 percent threshold, but it survived in Parliament because of Winston Peters’ thin 63 vote majority in the Tauranga electorate.

In 2002, the year National’s vote share slipped to its nadir of 21 percent, New Zealand First’s vote share rose to its second highest point ever, 10.38 percent, only to fall back to 5.72 percent in 2005, when National was much stronger. Also, it lost its backstop Tauranga seat that year, making the party’s future fortunes solely reliant on its party vote.

After supporting the Labour-led government between 2005 and 2008, the impact of a funding scandal, and being ruled out as a potential governing partner by the National Party then on the verge of regaining office, New Zealand First crashed out of Parliament altogether in 2008.

The party clawed its way back to Parliament in 2011 with 6.59 percent of the party vote, rising to 8.66 percent in 2014, although still ruled out by National as a potential partner.

... there is maybe some worth to the awful phrase too many vacuous commentators are parroting at present about never writing Winston Peters off.

In 2017, when National was more equivocal about working with New Zealand First, the party’s vote share slipped slightly to 7.2 percent, though enough given the combination of other results to put it in the box seat when it came to government formation negotiations. New Zealand First took the opportunity to avenge its 2008-2014 rebuffs from National and formed the current coalition with Labour.

This election will be New Zealand First’s third following a term in government. On the basis of its past performance, it can be quickly concluded that New Zealand First is going to be bundled out of Parliament in just a few short weeks.

While that still seems the most likely outcome, it is not yet a given, meaning there is maybe some worth to the awful phrase too many vacuous commentators are parroting at present about never writing Winston Peters off.

The party is mounting a strong campaign to secure an electoral lifeline through winning the Northland seat and thus crossing the threshold. The lifeline is likely to be very thin.

On current polling New Zealand First is probably only good for about three seats anyway, and its Northland candidate, Shane Jones, is a polarising figure who has never yet won an electorate contest. Add to that a likely strong local National campaign in favour of its incumbent MP, Matt King, almost certainly spearheaded by the popular Far North Mayor and former long-term National MP, John Carter, and Shane Jones’ task becomes even more herculean.

A more pressing factor which could assist New Zealand First to survive is how well National does.  If National polls poorly, New Zealand First, as happened in 2002, will be the likely beneficiary.

With some polls indicating a similar possibility this year, New Zealand First could gain ground from any National meltdown.

However, two factors militate against this. The first is the Collins factor – National’s new leader is more likely to appeal to more conservative rural and provincial voters, the ones that could peel off to New Zealand First, so reducing that risk. And second, those New Zealand First 2017 voters who thought they were giving National a partner by voting for the party in 2017, and now feel betrayed are likely to go back to National.

When all this is added to the generational change factor that the 2017 election highlighted and contrasted with the lack of any sign of regeneration within New Zealand First’s leadership, it remains a reasonable conclusion that New Zealand First will not survive the 2020 election.

While they are polling more than twice the level of New Zealand First, the Greens are facing an equally challenging situation, albeit for different reasons. The Greens have been an unambiguous and consistent potential partner for Labour since first contesting an election separate from the Alliance in 1999. Yet, perversely, that appears to have counted against them.

In 1999, the Greens won the Coromandel seat and secured 5.16 percent of the party vote, but the results were not confirmed until after the counting of special votes, too late for the Greens to have any meaningful role in the coalition negotiations between Labour and the Alliance.

In 2002, Labour opted to work in government with UnitedFuture, not the Greens. Similarly, in 2005 Labour went with New Zealand First and UnitedFuture, rather than the Greens.

Even in 2017, despite a formal pre-election memorandum of understanding with Labour, the Greens still ended up in third place, although they did become a party of government for the first time. Overall, though, the Greens’ steadfast backing of Labour has at best been only grudgingly acknowledged by Labour.

An additional worry for the Greens is that, historically, they have done better in opinion polls than in elections, meaning that their actual support could already be below the threshold.

The Greens’ best years were 2011 and 2014, recording party votes of 11.06 percent and 10.7 percent respectively. These were the years Labour was at its weakest – going through four leaders before settling on Jacinda Ardern just before the 2017 election. Even in 2017 – before the spectacular Turei own goal over benefit cheating and the rise of Ardern – the Greens were polling nearly 15 percent, while Labour was plummeting. In the subsequent surge for Labour,  the Greens survived with 6.27 percent of the party vote.

This year, the Greens like New Zealand First, are fighting the reality of support partners failing to make 5 percent at the following election. Current polls show them dangerously close to that point.

An additional worry for the Greens is that, historically, they have done better in opinion polls than in elections, meaning that their actual support could already be below the threshold. Moreover, in recent elections a significant portion of their support has come from overseas voters.

Here is where reality paints a grim picture for the Greens. The pattern over the years shows that the Greens do best in elections where Labour is weakest. This year, thanks to Covid-19, Labour is at its highest level since the advent of MMP, which has to be extremely bad news for the Greens.

To make matters worse, the international praise accorded the Prime Minister is likely to see Labour being the main beneficiary of overseas votes this time round, not the Greens.

Labour previously has preferred not to have the Greens in government if it can avoid it.

That is why the battle for Auckland Central becomes important. It could be the Greens’ lifeline back to Parliament.

Chloe Swarbrick is a formidable local Auckland candidate and Nikki Kaye’s retirement and National’s subsequent problems in selecting a replacement candidate could well have helped her. With a strong Labour candidate running as well and showing no signs yet of any sort of electoral accommodation, this electorate contest is likely to receive plenty of attention. National will be making a special effort to retain it, and should be favoured to do so, but at this early stage it is currently looks probably too close to call.

If the Greens survive all this, it may not be enough to keep them in government. Labour may well secure an outright majority and decide that while it welcomes the Greens’ ongoing support, it no longer needs them formally alongside it in government.

The Prime Minister has been coy on this point to date, but as history has shown, Labour previously has preferred not to have the Greens in government if it can avoid it.

That leaves the Greens fighting two almost contradictory battles – on the one hand, to make sure they cross the threshold and survive, but, on the other, to make sure at the same time that Labour does not get an outright majority and so needs them.

Difficult days lie ahead.

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