NZ general election: Centre-right support languishes

By Professor Richard Shaw
Director (Arts), Massey University

Next week, New Zealanders will go to the polls to elect the 53rd Parliament, and the 9th since we adopted proportional representation at the national level. But really the election kicked off on the 3rd October, when advance voting began.

Three years ago nearly a third of voters voted before polling day, and the expectation is that the figure will be higher this time round.  Yes, we do have a short electoral cycle, although given that we haven’t had a single term government since the 3rd Labour Government left office in 1975, it makes more sense to think of it as a 6 or sometimes a 9-year-long cycle.

Assuming that is so, the trajectory of the contest may effectively have been set well before polling day. So the state of play that applies right now matters. And at the moment the major question is whether we will wake up on the 18th October (or when final results are formally announced on the 6th November) to a single party majority government.

For the better part of the 20th century Lord Hailsham’s ‘elected dictatorship’ was alive and well in Aotearoa: single party majority governments ruled okay, regardless of the fact that since 1951 none of them had been endorsed by a majority of voters.

But manufactured parliamentary majorities have become a thing of the past since we adopted mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) – New Zealand's is  a modified version of the German system – which is why the strength of Labour’s polling has been so striking.

The Ardern factor

Before the most recent poll was released (the Colmar Brunton poll of 28th September) you have to go back to March 2020 – the point at which we went into full lockdown – to find a reputable poll that does not have Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s party in possession of a parliamentary majority.

The latest Colmar Brunton changes things up a bit though. It has Labour falling (just) short of winner-takes-all territory, and that occurs largely because the Greens are back over the 5% threshold, having languished beneath it for an uncomfortable couple of months.

The poll is a jolt of oxygen for the Greens, and also shifts the conversation towards the possibility of a green-red coalition – for which reason it might also prompt some National voters to decamp to Labour in an attempt to keep the Greens out of office.

New Zealand Opposition Leader Judith Collins (centre)
Judith Collins (centre) only became Opposition Leader in July. Pic: National Party

A sizeable handful of those who voted for National in 2017 intend on supporting Labour this time round. Well, less Labour perhaps than Jacinda Ardern – and less for policy reasons than for the Prime Minister’s leadership through the Christchurch massacre, the explosion of Whakaari/White Island and the pandemic – but the way you do that here is by giving your party vote to Ardern’s party.

Another way of looking at this is to step back from the specifics of parties and to look at voting intentions for party blocs. Averaged across the last three major polls the centre-left (Labour and the Greens) are on track to pick up 55% of the vote, while the centre-right (Judith Collins' National, the self-styled 'natural party of government', and the libertarian ACT party) are languishing on 39% support.

That leaves a wodge of people who are either undecided or who intend to vote for parties that are unlikely to make it over the threshold (either 5% of the valid part vote or one constituency seat, either Māori or general) into the House.

And in that detail lies a potential devil in the form of Billy Te Kahika, a blues musician-turned-conspiracy theorist who is standing in the Māori electorate of Te Tai Tokerau for the Advance New Zealand party.

NZ parliamentary candidate Billy Te Kahika
Billy Te Kahika's posts about COVID-19 on Facebook have seen a lot of traction. Pic: @BillyTeKahika

The standard menu of conspiracy theories has got some traction amongst some Māori – scepticism amongst indigenous people about the motives of governments is hardly surprising given the historic treatment of the former by the later – and Te Kahika has generated a good deal of noise on social media.

The prospects that he will win the northernmost of the seven Māori seats are negligible but can’t be entirely discounted.

New Zealand's next parliament

One last thing which won’t have escaped the attention of those with an interest in Nu Zild politics is the likely configuration of the next parliament. The popular case for MMP is built around multi-partism, and since its introduction the parliament has held as few as 5 parties (2017–2020) and as many as 8 (2005–2008; 2011–2014).

But underneath the waterline the two-party system has never really gone away. The combined vote share of National and Labour post-1996 (the first MMP election) has hovered around the 80% mark; the finance portfolio has never been held by a minor coalition partner (New Zealand First’s Winston Peters was Treasurer for a bit in the first post-MMP government but in reality National’s Bill Birch ran the books as Minister of Finance); and the policy agenda has been resolutely dominated by the two major parties.

That dominance will be reflected in the incoming parliament, which looks – a surprise electorate victory for the Māori Party in Te Tai Hauauru or for Te Kahika aside – as if it will contain just four parties: Labour and National with two satellite parties to their left and right respectively.

But the relationship won’t be one of finely balanced centre-left and centre-right blocs.

Jacinda Ardern has hugged the political centre very close, and while it would be foolish to conclude that Labour is on the verge of replacing National as the natural party of government, it has an enormously popular leader and enjoys high levels of trust from voters across the spectrum for its response to the global pandemic – so you wouldn’t bet your house against it.

Banner image: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addresses a forum in 2019. Source: Nevada Halbert/Flickr


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