New Zealand’s corona-shaped election
15 Oct 2020|

With just days to go until New Zealand’s general election on 17 October, the polls strongly suggest Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Labour party is on course for a second term. The bigger question is whether Labour will get the votes it needs to rule alone.

It has been a strange, drawn-out affair, one that began with a false start. Ardern originally picked a 19 September election date, but an outbreak of coronavirus in Auckland in August led to calls from opposition parties to delay the vote. A four-week postponement made it an unusually long, listless campaign, with socially distanced party launches and elbow bumps replacing the usual hugs and handshakes. Whatever their political convictions, on Saturday evening a fatigued New Zealand public will let out a collective sigh of relief.

Unsurprisingly, the election has been dominated by the global pandemic and its economic impact. Labour initially rode high in the polls, receiving plaudits for its ‘go hard and go early’ response to the virus. Finance Minister Grant Robertson turned on his money printer, with a wage subsidy and stimulus spending cushioning the worst effects of the border closure and nationwide lockdown. Even when shortcomings in border management and testing came to light, and the health minister was fired, the government seemed able to ride out the critics. Ardern dominated the media landscape, eclipsing not just the opposition National Party, but also her coalition partners, the Greens and New Zealand First.

For its part, National struggled to land punches. Leader Simon Bridges was flayed for being too critical of the government’s response and—unforgivably—suggesting Australia was doing a better job of handling the Covid-19 crisis. As National’s polling dropped, Bridges was rolled by the relatively unknown Todd Muller. Muller lasted just 53 days before stepping down, admitting the pressure of the role had taken its toll. In turmoil, National turned to party veteran Judith Collins to stabilise the ship.

Collins outperformed expectations in the leaders’ debates, but her message of a ‘strong team’ and superior economic management hasn’t been helped by persistent leaks and a NZ$4 billion miscalculation in National’s Covid-19 response plan. The party hasn’t been able to make serious inroads into Labour’s support. Instead, it has bled votes to the right-wing ACT New Zealand party, which has supplemented its longstanding free-market policies with a new-found enthusiasm for gun owners’ rights. ACT, a one-man band in parliament since 2011, looks on course to have as many as 10 MPs.

The Green Party has had its own election travails, with co-leader James Shaw apologising to the party after approving NZ$12.7 million in government funding for a private school. Despite that, the Greens look likely to get back into parliament, although there will be a few nerves on election night; polls show them hovering just over the 5% threshold. If ACT surges and the Greens fall below 5%, a slim path to government might open up for National.

The biggest casualty of the election, however, looks to be Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters’ populist NZ First party whose nine MPs decided the outcome of the last election. Dogged by a political donations scandal, the party has lost voters both left and right. Peters has defied the pollsters before, but his party languishes at around 2%, which would leave it out of the next parliament altogether. That would spell the end of a remarkable political career for the 75-year-old Peters and, with no heir apparent, likely means the end of NZ First.

That won’t have escaped the notice of the foreign policy and national security communities in Canberra, who have been happy to have Peters as foreign minister and his NZ First counterpart Ron Mark in defence. NZ First pushed for investment in new defence capabilities such as the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and the C130-J Super Hercules, and is widely seen as the driver of a tougher New Zealand line on China. But as my colleague Robert Ayson has noted, foreign and defence policy has hardly warranted a mention in this election.

Would the election of a Labour–Green government mean New Zealand is about to make a sharp change of foreign policy direction? Don’t bet on it. A focus on the Pacific will continue, along with an emphasis on climate change and working with multilateral institutions. Concerns about a more assertive and authoritarian China are increasingly shared across the political spectrum and embedded in a range of policy measures, even if New Zealand chooses to express those worries in careful language. And if Joe Biden wins the White House on 3 November, that will make ties with Washington much less complicated, at least in the short term.

But if Peters isn’t returned to parliament, foreign affairs will be different without him. As an NZ First minister, he has played a special role—articulating the government’s most pressing foreign policy and security concerns while also providing it with a useful degree of ambiguity, even deniability. It’s hard to see how that will be easily replaced.

The prospects for defence look more challenging. With a large Covid-sized hole in the government’s coffers, some of the projects in last year’s defence capability plan would struggle to generate enthusiasm no matter what the make-up of the new government is. Mark has spent a lot of the past three years trying to convince his coalition partners that the defence force was worth funding because of the contribution it makes to ‘community and nation’. Did he succeed? We won’t need to wait long to find out. A defence assessment is currently in the works and a full defence white paper is due next year.

As polling day approaches, Ardern seems to have the momentum. With almost 1.2 million early votes already cast—close to half the likely total—the possibility of some last-minute black swan event intervening seems remote. It remains to be seen if Labour can secure a big enough win to govern on its own—a feat never achieved before under the country’s mixed-member proportional electoral system—or if it will need the support of the Greens. Either way, New Zealand’s long Covid election looks likely to return an incumbent prime minister but a different flavour of government in Wellington.