Jacinda Ardern doing an anime run at the Labour Party conference (Dianne Manson, Getty Images)

With National in disarray, who will hold Labour to account?

After Todd Muller’s shock resignation, a crushing electoral defeat for National looks all but assured. But is a historically weak opposition really something for the left to celebrate, asks Danyl Mclauchlan.

It probably doesn’t matter who takes over as leader of the National Party. Todd Muller’s sudden resignation after weeks of internal leaks, infighting, scandals, blunders, gaffes and resignations suggest that the party – which sometimes styles itself as “the natural party of government” – is all but ungovernable. Even in the best of times a party in such a shambolic state would repel voters. In the midst of a pandemic and economic crisis it seems unthinkable that the National Party in its current condition should be allowed anywhere near the Beehive. Just as Labour made a foolish mistake when it replaced David Shearer with David Cunliffe, the Muller coup now looks like a catastrophic error of judgement, creating such bitter enmity within National that the party – currently the largest in parliament, but not for much longer – cannot function. National are unfit to govern.

What will happen to its votes? Back in 2014 just over 600,000 people cast a vote for David Cunliffe led Labour, even though it was experiencing a similar internal collapse. What National is going through right now feels worse, but its disintegration began from a larger base than Labour’s.

Some of its support will probably go to ACT, who won’t be able to believe its luck. Some may go to New Zealand First and keep that party alive as a check on Labour as a possible coalition partner. But most will surely go to Labour, who might now win an outright majority and be able to govern without any coalition at all.

Every incumbent’s best campaign strategy is to govern well. Labour hasn’t done that, exactly, but it’s done so where it counts. We are one of the few countries in the world that is free of community transmission of coronavirus, and the more the world learns about the disease – its high level of communicability, its potentially dire long term health impacts, the diminishing likelihood of a herd immunity – the more fortunate New Zealand looks, and the more prescient Ardern’s “go hard, go early” strategy appears. (And the more deranged the demands that we open up “for the good of the economy” sound). By the metric of the virus we are arguably the best governed country in the world. We would have to be fools to change that.

During the lockdown Labour enjoyed a series of polls that had its support in the mid to high 50s. Any result of over 50% (or even slightly lower, depending on other factors) means it’ll be able to govern alone.

But no one expected those poll results to endure. Commentators agreed that the economy would get worse and the government would wear it, while the prime minister’s radiance would dim, just as it did after the March 15th attacks. But now, two months out from the election, the economy is not as bad as predicted (the wage subsidy extension for most applicants will expire – not coincidentally – shortly after election day). The prime minister’s star has not only failed to dim, it is a supernova compared to the leadership vacuum currently running the opposition party.

National’s collapse into irrelevance raises the question of what a potentially unrestrained second term Labour government will look like. Labour’s re-election strategy is to imitate John Key at the height of his popularity and present a “small target”, with minimal policy announcements. When you’re this widely adored, telling the public what you’ll do if re-elected can only damage your chances. It would also remind the public that Labour announced many fine policies during the 2017 campaign, but failed to deliver on almost all of them.

That approach no longer feels credible. Labour are going to win. Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson may be just nine weeks away from forming the most powerful government of the MMP era. New Zealand introduced this new political system with the explicit aim of preventing exactly this outcome. The current crisis is so extraordinary that we may entrust Labour with the power we’ve denied every other government for the last 24 years.

But we deserve to know more about what they’re going to do with that power. What is Labour’s long-term plan for border control? The current ad hoc arrangements of overlapping departments ministers does not seem very robust. The tourism sector has collapsed. There is still a housing crisis. There is still a climate crisis. The two tier welfare system is unfair and fiscally unsustainable. National cannot present itself as a credible alternative solution to those problems, but that doesn’t mean the problems themselves don’t exist.



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