Jacinda Ardern has led her party to a resounding, unprecedented victory in what she dubbed the ‘Covid election’, leaving Judith Collins and National facing crisis. Justin Giovannetti reports.
The New Zealand Labour Party under Jacinda Ardern has secured a commanding victory, winning the largest share of parliament since the introduction of MMP after a historic election campaign waged in the midst of a global pandemic.
Ardern has cemented her place in the pantheon of Labour leaders with just short of 50% of the party vote on the night, the largest win in a half-century. The National Party, after a campaign marked by poor discipline, lost droves of centrist voters and fell below 30% support. Act and the Greens, representing different ends of the political spectrum, are each expected to win 10 seats. The Māori Party will return to parliament on tonight’s result after winning the Waiariki seat.
“Tonight’s result has been strong and it’s clear that Labour will lead the government for the next three years. Over the next three years there is much work to do, we will build back better from the Covid crisis,” Ardern told about 500 supporters at Auckland’s town hall, calling the victory a “mandate” for her agenda.
She took a moment to reach across the aisle in her victory speech, thanking blue voters who turned red for her. “There were a few of you,” she said, speaking past the crowd in the room to viewers at home. Labour won in urban and rural areas, as well as capturing a number of deeply blue seats including Ilam, the electorate long held by National deputy leader Gerry Brownlee, which he has lost by more than 2,000 votes.
“This is our opportunity to build an economy that works for everyone, to keep creating decent jobs, to upskill and train our people, to protect our environment and address our climate challenges, to take on poverty and inequality, to turn all of the uncertainty and hard times into cause for hope and optimism,” said Ardern.
It is unclear whether Ardern will seek to create a government together with the Greens or govern alone. Labour is expected to pick up as many as 20 new MPs.
National’s Judith Collins thanked her party’s volunteers at an Auckland gathering where she was joined by few of her party’s MPs. The results were devastating, according to some of her supporters. “Boy, did we know it was going to be tough, but you kept the faith,” said Collins.
The embattled National leader said she’ll make her party’s supporters proud over the next three years. She said the party will change and need to become more disciplined.
“We will be back,” she promised.
Act’s David Seymour, who will now find himself opposing the government with a much enlarged caucus, likely to number nine MPs, welcomed the support for his party, but called the result “a dark day” for the country.
The Greens ran an election campaign where they promised to support and empower a Labour government. That role now seems a risk due to the size of Ardern’s victory. Speaking to the party after a jubilant night where the Greens secured their first fully competitive electorate under MMP, co-leader Marama Davidson said she was looking forward to working with Ardern.
“We have worked productively with Labour this term to get outcomes for our community, and we are really excited to talk about how we progress that this next term,” said Davidson.
The election victories and defeats, celebrated in packed halls across the country, come despite the immense challenges of Covid-19 and an unstable world.
New Zealanders entered the election campaign having spent hours watching Ardern on a daily basis during recent months. At her 1pm health briefings through the worst of Covid-19, Ardern became a fixture in the homes of the nation. Her clear style of communication was lauded across the world as New Zealanders twice stamped out the virus. She called it the “Covid election” and the pandemic was always nearby, if not always acknowledged.
Labour’s campaign was very much the Jacinda show, a largely error-free and cautious operation that pledged relatively little. After three years that saw Ardern face down a litany of chaos, including the Christchurch terror attack, a national disaster and Covid-19, while also becoming the second woman to give birth while in office, Labour put its hopes on a second wave of Jacindamania.
Ardern’s campaign did little to offend the country’s centrist voters. Labour made it clear this election that National supporters looking to shift their ballots away from a party under its third leader this year alone should look to them for stability. According to Ardern and her main lieutenants, “the party of John Key and Bill English” was now red.
National worked hard to convince them that Labour wasn’t a safe bet. In a coalition with the Greens, Labour would turn to a wealth tax, Collins repeated on the campaign trail. With the country hurtling deeper in debt due to the cost of Covid-19, the suggestion made sense to some voters. Ardern found herself shooting down a wealth tax multiple times a day, vowing to never approve the tax while she is prime minister.
Ardern called the attacks a sign of “desperation” in the final days of the campaign. In the final debate the Labour leader looked directly into the camera: Collins had falsely called her a “liar”, she said. Labour had promised to run a clean campaign and Ardern said her hands were spotless.
Labour’s biggest problem was its lack of delivery over the past three years. In town halls and debates, Labour’s failures to control house prices, child poverty remaining stubbornly high and the lack of new mass transit in Auckland were brought up by opponents, but didn’t seem to sway voters.
The Green campaign pitched itself chiefly as a vehicle to support Labour in government. Co-leader James Shaw faced a crisis early in the campaign over funding he secured as a minister for a green school. He was forced to apologise early in the election and provided his opponents with an easy caricature of a Green Party too quick to spend money on silly projects. Before election night, the party largely worried about whether it would win enough party votes to enter parliament. Those fears ended up being unfounded.
National’s campaign struggled during a campaign split in two by the return of Covid-19. Prior to the outbreak in Auckland, which delayed election day by a month, Collins was filling halls across rural New Zealand. After the calamitous fall of Simon Bridges and Todd Muller, it seemed for a time like the party had found its footing.
Then there were missteps. Her deputy, Brownlee, went on an unscripted rant at a press conference where he implied Ardern knew that Covid-19 was coming back. Just asking questions, he shrugged. On the same day, the party released its fiscal programme – an area generally considered National’s strength. A $4 billon error was found. The so-called fiscal hole grew in the following days, to nearly $10 billion.
Some of the most memorable moments of the campaign belonged to Collins. “Don’t disrespect Samoa,” she snapped at Ardern during a debate. Later she prayed in a church at a campaign stop after days of mentioning her Christianity on the campaign trail. Polls showed voters weren’t fans.
In the homestretch of the campaign, Collins went for a walk down Ponsonby Road in Auckland to meet locals. However, the assembled locals turned out to be National supporters placed there by the party. Some local businesses told Collins not to enter. After the embarrassment, she stopped doing walkabouts. Ardern continued to hold them up to the last day of campaigning, drawing large crowds.
In the final hours before election day, National turned to supporters who were peeling off for parties further to the left. Collins made a direct appeal to voters looking at the New Conservatives, who won about 1.5% of the vote, and other fringe parties. The much larger mass headed to the ballot box to support Labour were a lost cause.
Conspicuously absent on election night were the bad boys of Brexit. Aaron Banks and his colleague Andy Wigmore, who ran a large social media operation in favour of Brexit, said they’d be entering the New Zealand election for NZ First and outgoing deputy prime minister Winston Peters. They promised a supercharged Peters who would vault to 12% in the polls. Then the election started and the bad boys never appeared. The party finished around 2.5% and lost its entire caucus. After 27 years , the party’s future hangs in the balance.
New Zealand First spent much of the past two months fighting for its political life by promising to either be an “insurance policy” or a “handbrake” on a possible Labour-Green coalition. A fraud investigation into the New Zealand First Foundation concluded days before the election and charges were laid. However, the two people who were charged are not party members or elected officials. Peters said he was completely cleared by the investigation.
The two referendums on cannabis on assisted-dying operated largely outside of the main campaigns, except for Ardern’s refusal to disclose how she voted on the cannabis question. She again declined tonight.
This election was held as the world undergoes one of its most tumultuous upheavals in decades. Beyond the disastrous spread of the coronavirus and the resulting economic chaos, New Zealand’s traditional allies are distracted or in retreat. Authoritarians are on the march across the world and China is on the precipice of great power status.
The rules-based international order that the country has relied on since the end of the second world war is in disarray. New Zealand relies heavily on regulated trade. As that happens, the country’s roster of friends is shrinking. When Ardern was asked in recent months to name world leaders she got on with, the list grew thin after Canada, Germany, Spain and Australia.
The international situation, largely ignored through the campaign, is unlikely to grow easier over the coming three years. Many of the plans and programmes announced on the campaign trail will eventually be meaningless in a world where a deadly virus is circulating and the international order is crumbling.