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David Seymour and Winston Peters. (Image: Tina Tiller)
David Seymour and Winston Peters. (Image: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONPoliticsOctober 7, 2023

Act and the nightmare scenario

David Seymour and Winston Peters. (Image: Tina Tiller)
David Seymour and Winston Peters. (Image: Tina Tiller)

NZ First is surging. David Seymour’s party is slipping. And you’d forgive him for being furious.

“This,” David Seymour told a delirious crowd at his election night party three years ago, “is our 2023 election campaign launch.” It wasn’t just a rhetorical flourish. The Act Party has largely been in campaign mode since: developing policy, sharpening the message, tirelessly blatting out press releases, travelling the country under the “Real Change” banner. 

It is hard to imagine, therefore, how infuriating it must be aboard the Act bus to watch New Zealand First mount a comparatively fleeting, dramatically less substantial campaign and, in the home stretch of the campaign, lurch suddenly, terrifyingly into their rear view mirror.

Just a few weeks ago, Seymour was lambasting the media for asking about the prospect of a National-Act-NZ-First government. “In this interview and so many others, the press are so keen to fixate on one hypothetical,” the Act leader told The Spinoff in the middle of September. “People spend far too much time over-egging it. And I find that in itself quite sad.”

Today, that hypothetical is a likelihood, at least if the polls are right. Poll after poll after poll – the last five made public, from four different pollsters – would deal out the seats in parliament such that, yes, National will be in a position to form a government. They’re unanimous in leaving Labour floundering in the 20s. But National, all agree, would need both Act and NZ First to govern.

That polling reality informed the decision by National to release a video last Monday morning – almost exactly one week before polls opened for all in advance voting – saying they’d work with New Zealand First if they needed to. That announcement, in turn, cemented the polling reality. What it certainly did was catapult Winston Peters and his beaming, blustering, bombastic, belligerent spectacle into the headlines, right at the very moment that hundreds of thousands of people were beginning to pay attention to the election.

Seymour was phlegmatic about that announcement. If he was furious, and he is entitled to be, probably he’d processed that in the many months before in which Christopher Luxon neither ruled NZ First in nor out but instead delayed and equivocated, intoning – that term, again – “hypothetical” over and over again. Instead of making Winston go away, however, the incantation seemed to summon him. 

It wasn’t just that Luxon missed the opportunity to rule NZ First out. Instead of following the lead of 2011 (and 2008) John Key, he could have followed the lead of 2014 John Key and said, as the National leader did then: “New Zealand First is an unlikely partner. However, unlike the previous two elections, I’m not prepared to totally rule them out today.”

That might sound a lot like what Luxon just did. The difference – a very big difference – is timing. Key made the announcement, as he had in the previous election when he ruled NZ First out, in the first few weeks of the election year. NZ First did make it back in 2014, but Key didn’t need them, instead forming a minority government with three small support parties. What he hadn’t done, critically, is give Winston Peters a massive promotional leg-up in the peak attention period of the campaign – the issue had been dealt with long before. 

Google reports that Winston Peters attracted the most search interest among New Zealand party leaders in the last 14 days, with 36% of searches, compared with 20% for Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon and 14% for David Seymour. 

The chart below shows the boost in interest that came with National’s ruling-in of NZ First on September 25. The earlier peak for Peters, depressingly, came after he asserted that Māori are “not indigenous”. (The steeple for Luxon and Hipkins is the first leaders’ debate.) 

Quite apart from the personal odium that radiates between Seymour and Peters, there is plenty that sets their two parties apart. NZ First is in many ways born out of disgust at the ideas of people like Roger Douglas and Richard Prebble; Act is their offspring. And yet, as far as appealing to the electorate is concerned, they are fishing in the same pond. The frustrated rural voter. The one-law-for-all voter. And, in the current circumstances, the right-inclined voter who is unpersuaded by the National Party and its leadership.

Having taken the pulse of the electorate last year, Peters resolved that there was very much a change election coming, and in November he made a more emphatic declaration than ever before: he would not work with the Labour Party after the election. 

Thanks to Luxon’s announcement on NZ First and the attendant media coverage, Winston Peters’ party popularity is growing and growing. Act is sliding. In the latest poll by Curia – also the National Party’s pollster – for the Taxpayers’ Union, published yesterday, NZ First and Act were separated by just 2.2 percentage points. For much of the year that gap was more like 10.

Which presents for Act the nightmare scenario: after spending many months musing on the shape and focus of a coalition with National, there is a possibility – however unlikely that might remain – of Act witnessing NZ First nibble further into its vote, while hoovering up more of the fragmented far right, and even overtaking it.

In such a situation, Peters could be expected to demand, as he did in 2017, that he – a man about whom Luxon was continuing to insist as of yesterday “I don’t know him” – move to the front of the negotiating queue, and that NZ First secure a coalition agreement with the major party while the third component party – in 2017 the Greens – hammer out their own confidence and supply arrangement and stay out of cabinet. Such a setup would be agonising to stomach for Seymour and his team.

It is a long way from likely. Act is not freaking out. It is confident in internal polling which suggests that enough of its support is locked in, invulnerable to the NZ First invasion. It could be, even, that a series of pleas from senior National MPs and the 11th-hour deployment of Sir John Key to warn against a three-way governing arrangement and a post-election “limbo land” sees NZ First fall away.

What is remarkable, however, is that at this point such an outcome, one in which NZ First comes close or even outpolls Act, is not a completely unimaginable – what’s the word? – hypothetical.

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