Last night Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party won a historic victory, changing the shape of NZ politics. Danyl Mclauchlan writes on what took place, and what comes next.
A few days before the end of the campaign Jacinda came to my university. The crowd filled the central hub, spilling out into the courtyard. Wellington had been back at level one long enough that a huge, densely packed crowd no longer seemed transgressive. I stood on the mezzanine floor looking down on an ocean of bright red Labour banners, talking with a friend while we waited for the prime minister to arrive. Jacinda was still a few minutes away when my friend pointed into the crowd and said, “Is that James Shaw?”
It was. The Green co-leader, conspicuous among the students in a dark suit and tie was working the crowd, grinning and shaking hands. I’d never seen a politician canvas for votes at another party’s rally before, and I said to my friend, “He looks like one of those birds that feed on the meat between crocodile’s teeth.” Then there was a flurry of excitement at one end of the hub. A tremor ran through the crowd. The electoral equivalent of a crocodile troubled the waters. Jacinda approached. Security guards began clearing a path through the throng. The banners beat the air and the cheering began, rising to a deafening pitch. When I looked back Shaw was gone.
Ardern’s Labour Party was founded in 1916, in a West Coast mining town. It spent most of the 20th century mobilising votes in churches and factory floors. Now, like many left-wing political parties around the world, its spiritual heartland is the university campus. Ardern had been at Otago just a few days earlier, before an equally vast and rapturous crowd. That night the TV media showed a brutal juxtaposition: Ardern surrounded by admirers, contrasted with a lonely handful of individuals interacting with National leader Judith Collins as she walked down a street in Ponsonby, most of whom were revealed to be strategically placed National Party operatives.
Jacindamania is a complex phenomenon. For most of her term Ardern was less popular than John Key during his first three years as prime minister. But she achieved an international celebrity unlike any other New Zealand politician, and during her peaks of popularity – after March 15, during the lockdown – she became our most popular leader in generations.
It was that second lockdown peak that panicked National. Labour was on 59%. Sixty-three percent of those polled named her as preferred prime minister. Simon Bridges was on 5%. Bridges – regarded as being on the right of the National Party – was deposed in a centrist coup during an emergency meeting of the caucus. He was replaced by Todd Muller, an MP with a low public profile but strong support within his party. Bridges’ deputy leader, Paula Bennett – National’s campaign manager – was replaced by Nikki Kaye, long regarded as a potential future leader.
The Muller-Kaye leadership – which was said to be orchestrated by a cabal of public relations experts – was a series of public relations disasters, the most serious of which involved a National MP leaking confidential information about Covid patients to the media; information which came from Michelle Boag, a former National president and long time party operative. Muller resigned after 42 days, citing mental health issues. He was replaced by Judith Collins, a high profile former minister popular with the base of the party, and who had occasionally polled ahead of Bridges in the preferred prime minister rankings. She was unpopular with many of her fellow National MPs, but was the only viable candidate for the leadership. Her new deputy leader and campaign manager was Gerry Brownlee, who spent the campaign repeatedly telling the media how much he hated them.
Collins’ campaign was confusing to many commentators. Her job was to “save the furniture” – to prevent right-wing voters from abandoning the party to the more radical options of Act, the New Conservatives and New Zealand First. So Collins talked about her religious faith. She blamed obesity on a lack of personal responsibility. She promised to borrow money to pay for tax cuts that would primarily benefit high income earners. She attacked Tasmania, for some reason.
Collins performed well in the leaders’ debates (debates don’t usually have any measurable impact on election outcomes, but they are among the very small number of events that can change outcomes if something interesting happens: Helen Clark tore Don Brash to shreds on live TV back in 2005, which probably helped arrest National’s end of campaign surge). She was decisive in dealing with Andrew Falloon, a backbench National MP who was caught sexting pornographic images to young women. She gritted her teeth through the debacle of National’s alternative budget, presented by National finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith, which had an $8 billion hole in its figures.
In the last 10 days of the campaign, when National’s caucus began leaking and briefing against her, and the polls showed her party headed for an inevitable defeat, and the media repeatedly asked if she’d resign after the election, Collins soldiered on, her teeth clenched in a brilliant, hateful smile. A lot of strange things happened this year, but feeling sympathy for Judith Collins during the final grueling stages of this seemingly endless campaign is possibly the most unexpected.
Some of Collins’ enemies in her caucus have (anonymously) promised to depose her in the immediate aftermath of the election. But it’s not obvious who they’d replace her with. Many of the perceived future leaders resigned this year. The former Air New Zealand CEO Chris Luxon is seen as a potential saviour – he’s appeared in the preferred prime minister rankings several times over the last year, which is impressive for someone who’s never spent a minute in parliament. But running a major political party is harder than it looks, as Todd Muller discovered. National regards itself as the natural party of government, the sober and mature custodians of power, but in a time of national crisis it collapsed into an acrimonious and embarrassing shitshow. Its problems run far deeper than choosing a mediagenic leader.
Some of National’s votes have gone to Act, who’ve campaigned on free speech and opposition to gun control, issues that are deeply attractive to the political right. Pollsters also think Act has picked up votes from New Zealand First. These are socially conservative voters but Act is, traditionally, a liberal party, founded by the neoliberal MPs that formed the core of the fourth Labour government. Act also has a tradition of bringing very odd individuals into parliament; the most notable was David Garrett, a law and order activist who resigned after it emerged that he’d stolen the identity of a dead baby. The parliamentary press gallery are likely to scrutinise Act’s new stable of MPs with brightly malevolent interest.
New Zealand First is gone from parliament. Being in government has never worked out well for Winston Peters, who thrives as an opposition MP. His party lost some support when it chose to form a government with Labour; it lost more when Peters failed to negotiate the raft of policies he campaigned on during the 2017 election, instead securing his prized and prestigious cabinet position of foreign minister and a $3 billion investment fund for his high profile new MP, Shane Jones.
New Zealand First decided that the path to reelection in 2020 lay in “differentiation”. They would attack their own government, playing an overtly destructive role in the governing coalition. This never seemed to work, and New Zealand First fluctuated around 5% for most of their term. There were numerous scandals around Shane Jones, many of them involving his investment fund which drew criticism from the auditor general.
Then an electoral donations scandal involving a shadowy organisation called “the New Zealand First Foundation” revealed that Peters’ party was being quietly bankrolled by some of the wealthiest individuals and corporations in the country. The Serious Fraud Office investigated, and announced they were pressing charges against two individuals. Peters furiously insisted that the New Zealand First Foundation had nothing to do with the New Zealand First Party.
We don’t know what the MMP system looks like without Peters. He’s been there since the beginning, and he’s used it to dominate our politics for much of the last 24 years. Peters refused to give a formal concession speech last night, simply saying “We’d have to wait and see.” But he’s had health problems during this term in government, and he’ll be 78 by the time the next election rolls around. It’s hard to imagine any of his now ex-MPs rebuilding his party.
Peters has often campaigned on racial issues, attacking Asian and Muslim migrants and Māori separatism, but he’s never acted on any of these issues in government, and some political insiders see him as a useful safety valve for the right-wing ethno-nationalism that’s become popular across western democracies since the 2008. Peters indulges it, this theory goes, but never believed in any of it. His absence may create a dangerous vacuum in our democracy.
The Green Party did not differentiate itself from the government. It defied the conventional wisdom of MMP and sold itself on its ability to work with the government. It literally campaigned at Ardern’s rallies. And this seems to have worked. It is the first minority party to grow its vote after going into government.
A lot of the Greens’ surge in support seems to be tactical; party pollsters saw a huge swing towards the Greens once left-wing voters were confident that Labour would win. The Greens spent the final weeks of the campaign talking about a wealth tax, a policy that Labour have absolutely ruled out, but that Judith Collins ominously warned the country that the Greens and Labour would force upon them.
The Greens cannot force anything on Labour. Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson can respond to any demand with the famous line from the Godfather: “Our offer to you is nothing.” Labour can govern alone.
But that creates its own challenges. A lot of Labour’s existing MPs were very low calibre; some of the new intake will be more capable but many of them won’t. Political parties with this many MPs inevitably have issues with infighting and discipline. Having 64 MPs is a good problem to have, but it is still a problem. A few resignations, scandals and by-elections can see majorities evaporate.
So Labour might want a confidence and supply agreement with the Green Party to consolidate their majority. They’re unlikely to be generous with policies or ministerial appointments; Ardern will want to distribute those to keep her own MPs in line. Instead we might see policies negotiated – a marine sanctuary, say, or replacing coal boilers in schools, with associate ministerial positions outside of cabinet. For the first time in 24 years, a single party will govern our country.
National MPs used to mock Jacinda Ardern’s performance as prime minister by saying she’s “only good at communication”. This is like dismissing a boxer as “only good at fighting people”. Communication is the core competency of a political leader, and Ardern’s abilities are world class. But it’s true that Labour struggled to govern effectively in its first term. Its second term will be one of the most challenging in our history.
During one of their leadership debates Jacinda Ardern asked the National leader, “What’s your plan Judith?” And last night when she gave her victory speech Ardern assured all New Zealanders that she has a plan, a plan that is already working. Labour will build lots of roads; roads that the National government planned to build anyway. It will invest in skills training. It will leave the tax system almost untouched. It seems like a plan that is inadequate to the scale of the problems that the nation faces.
Political strategists call Ardern’s approach to this campaign a “small target strategy”. Her plan was to say as little as possible; promise as little as possible; minimise risk; capture the centre. Small target campaigning has delivered her a huge victory, but it will make her a huge target. The Covid crisis and structure of our economy is already accelerating inequality; we’re seeing job layoffs, a runaway property market, soaring rental prices. But in this time of catastrophic change Ardern has promised to change as little as possible.