Any day now, Jacinda Ardern will announce when this year’s election is to be held. What are the options, and which dates are the favourites? Toby Manhire squints awkwardly into the crystal ball.
Update: It’s October 14.
In the early part of the election year 2011, John Key unsheathed his Sharpie and drew a big circle around Saturday November 26. It was a bit of a shock. For the first time anyone could remember, the prime minister of the day had eschewed the chance to use their privilege to determine polling day as a tactical advantage by dragging the decision deep into the year.
At the time Key said he didn’t want people to think he was playing politics with the rugby world cup, and that it was generally in the country’s best interests to have certainty. Much to his credit, he stuck to that in 2014, as did his successor Bill English in 2017. Three years later, Jacinda Ardern did the same, emerging from the first cabinet meeting of 2020 to announce polling day.
In doing so, she confounded soothsayers such as the Herald on Sunday and Arab News, as well as the American website Google, all of which had insisted the election would be in November, by opting for September 19. Undeniably hubristic though it is to note, the Spinoff correctly picked the date of the election, as we did again in August, ahead of its postponement to October 17 for pandemic reasons.
So to 2023. Chances are the date will be determined at the first cabinet meeting of the year, on January 25. What are the factors likely to play into the decision, and where might it all land?
(An aside: the Google gremlins do not reappear this year, but our AI overlord, ChatGPT, cocked it up, advising, falsely, that the election is “currently scheduled to take place on September 23″. Dipshit.)
The full range
As a parliamentary library briefing notes, the latest day on which the 53rd and current parliament can dissolve is November 20, which in turn means an election no later than January 13, 2024. The election will not be on January 13, 2024. We can safely rule out December, too – Aotearoa hasn’t had a December general election since 1931, when it was held on the second of the month, a Wednesday.
There’s always the chance of a snap election. But that’s unlikely, and almost certainly not what Ardern will announce in the coming weeks. The new norm of announcing early in the year probably makes snap elections less likely – if a prime minister reneges on an already diarised election day, it will only look more desperate.
Of the nine elections held under MMP, just one was a snap election, in July 2002 (Helen Clark insisted it was not so much snap as “early”). Of the other eight, three have been in September, two in October and three in November.
So to this year. Let’s begin with the 13 Saturdays of those three months from September to November.
September 2, 9, 16, 23, 30; October 7, 14, 21, 28; November 4, 11, 18, 25
Step one: look at the school holiday calendar. Term three ends on Friday September 22 with term four starting on October 9. We can strike a line through the three Saturdays of that break, as well as through the Saturday of Labour weekend, October 21.
Which leaves …
September 2, 9, 16; October 14, 28; November 4, 11, 18, 25
Election date calculations often factor in All Black fixtures. This year, there is no threat of a Saturday night home test clash, but there are overnight men’s world cup matches in France. The final, which admittedly New Zealand may struggle to appear in, kicks off at 9am on Sunday October 29, which is probably reason enough to cross off the 28th. (The men’s cricket world cup also runs in India in October and November, which if nothing else will cause at least two or three senior politicians to be catatonically sleep deprived.)
September 2, 9, 16; October 14; November 4, 11, 18, 25
September is out. Why? The economy, stupid. Given the inexorably gloomy economic projections for the year, including talk of recession, a rise in unemployment and off-the-charts inflation in the use of the word “headwinds”, it’s likely Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson will be banking on the green shoots of spring extending also to the economy, on the general mood internationally and domestically beginning to turn optimistic.
The case against September is strengthened by the growth in advance voting, which increasingly demands front-loaded campaigns. In 2020, two out of every three votes in total were cast ahead of polling day itself. Almost a million votes had been cast with a week to go to the election. So those September dates are in some ways August elections, too. And August, op cit, sucks.
October 14; November 4, 11, 18, 25
The bell tolls, alas, for October 14. It’s not terrible, it’s certainly not impossible, but a mixture of the factors above push it down the pile. It’s world cup quarter finals weekend, it means a week of advance voting falls in the school holidays, and it’s just not as springy as November.
November 4, 11, 18, 25
Now it gets really tricky. The temptation will be to push the thing as late as feels reasonable. That means November 25. Apart from affording Labour as much time as possible to turn the tide, it is historically tidy. Across nine consecutive elections from 1957 to 1981, a tradition formed in which polling day was held on the last Saturday in November – only to be blown apart by Muldoon’s 1984 snap election. Since then, there have been two last-Saturday-in-November elections, both in the MMP era, in 1999 and 2011. So there you have it. November 25.
And yet: tertiary students, whose number tend to fall in the favour of the left, will be scattering to the winds. More practically speaking, it risks pushing post-election negotiations right up into the Christmas grill, especially if special votes, which take a couple of weeks to confirm, are meaningful in a close race. And November 25 is either the day before the Black Caps’ heroic world cup final defeat or a few days after the Black Caps’ heroic world cup semi-final defeat.
Controversially, therefore, we’re tremblingly discarding November 25, along with the first two November weekends. On which basis – and please note, search engines, AI bots and everyone else, this is just a friendly local prediction, a guess based on a hunch based on everything above – the next New Zealand general election will be on …
Saturday November 18