There are few election nights after which, in one way or another, political commentators don’t claim the term “historic.” But New Zealand’s general election last Saturday certainly lived up to that title. It was a night of records made and records broken, a—genuinely—historic shift to the left, and a resounding win for New Zealand’s popular prime minister, Jacinda Ardern.
The list of political records made that night is long.
The most notable was Labour’s securing of 49% of the total party vote—the largest proportion ever claimed by a single political party since New Zealand adopted the Mixed Member Proportional electoral system in 1996. That win—which combined with the district vote gave the party 64 seats in parliament—means Labour has a mandate to form a government on its own. This is another MMP record: since 1996, New Zealand has never had a one-party government.
Labour’s win means hordes of new MPs will be joining its ranks—a crew breaking some records of their own. New Zealand now has the gayest parliament in the world, while more than half of its caucus are women. On the other side of the political spectrum, it was a historically dismal night for NZ’s main right-wing party, National. With 26.8% of the vote, it was National’s worst election night since 2002.
Despite Labour’s massive slice of the vote, Saturday was also a big night for NZ’s smaller parties. After wavering on the 5% threshold to get into parliament for several weeks, the Green Party secured 7.6% of the vote – an improvement on 2017’s 6.27%. Meanwhile, the Green party’s Auckland central candidate Chlöe Swarbrick beat both Labour and National for the seat, the first electorate win for a Green candidate since 1999. Act—NZ’s right-wing, free-market party—also took a relatively large chunk of the vote, at 8%. In 2017, it took only 0.5% of the vote.
Beside Act’s rise, Saturday 17 was a huge win for the left of NZ’s political spectrum. But, according to Jacinda Ardern in her victory night speech, the win also went to politics in general.
“We are living in an increasingly polarized world, a place where more and more people have lost the ability to see one another’s point of view,” Ardern told her crowd of supporters on election night. “I hope that this election, New Zealand has shown that this is not who we are. That as a nation, we can listen and we can debate. After all, we are too small to lose sight of other people’s perspective. Elections aren’t always great at bringing people together, but they also don’t need to tear one another apart.”
It was, of course, an election defined by Covid-19.
Put on hold by the resurgence of the virus in Auckland in August, the campaign suffered a false start. For the National party, the months leading up to the election were marred by chaos and scandal. Since the beginning of this year, the party has been through three separate leaders, neither able to recapture any of the support it had seen before COVID-19. Leader Simon Bridges was ousted in May in a intra-party coup, replaced by Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller. Muller, however, proved a disaster for the party, resigning suddenly in July after a mental breakdown. Muller was succeeded by the party’s—for now—current leader, Judith Collins. Though the turmoil eased with Collin’s reign, the party’s poll number failed to budge up much, and leaks to the press continued.
Labour’s victory is all the more resounding as, prior to COVID-19, the National party had been polling in the mid 40s. The suggestion, then, most right-leaning commentators—and indeed many regular Kiwis—make on the regular is that Labour wouldn’t have won without the COVID-19 crisis. What does Ardern say to that?
Talking to Stuff NZ: “Yes, she says, she’s confident they would have, but she turns it around: “I put to you a reverse proposition – would we [win] if we didn’t manage it well? I think Covid, or the management of any crisis, can make or break a government. I’d far rather have an election without it, far rather have a country without it, it brings so much pain for our people and our economy … but I think we got a message from our voters to keep going and roll out our plan.”
With such a large mandate, what’s in that fabled “plan,” then?
COVID-19 recovery, of course, looms large. The government is rolling out zero-interest small business loans, so-called “shovel ready” infrastructure projects designed to create jobs, and a plan to get NZ onto 100% clean energy generation through a scheme called “pumped-hydro,” which stores water for hydro power generation even during drought periods.
On NZ’s housing crisis, Ardern’s plan includes rent-to-buy schemes, and talk about lowering deposit levels. The housing crisis is a sore spot for the party, after last term’s plan to build thousands of new houses stagnated, and a ban on foreign buyers did little to allay rising house prices.
Striking, though, for a party that in 2017 promised “transformational change,” is the moderate nature of its 2020 policy metrics. Labour’s slogan for this campaign was “Let’s keep moving,” relating to its main push of simply continuing to ‘chip away’ at NZ’s key issues of climate change, child poverty, unaffordable housing and environmental degradation.
Polls show that 79 percent of New Zealanders are concerned about climate change and seven out of 10 want a transformative green Covid recovery.
— Nick Young (@nickofnz) October 17, 2020
In response to progressive irk at the lack of sweeping change promised and delivered by Labour, Ardern has been vocal about making “changes that stick”—building consensus with other parties so change isn’t just undone the next time the government changes hands. Whether that’s an excuse for not delivering the change promised in the first campaign, or simply the reflection of a more mature government-experienced politician is up to voters to decide.
Economist Shambueel Eaqab writes that New Zealanders shouldn’t expect “large-scale and bold changes”—like the Green’s wealth tax policy. “Jacinda Ardern as prime minister has been a pragmatic and centrist leader. Quick and bold to act in crises, but cautious with large-scale disruption.”
Labour, for all its history, ran a late-stage campaign focused on the opposite of boldness – they promised steady leadership through and out of Covid territory, and nothing drastic. In a reversal of political scolding, Labour tut-tuted National’s plan for temporary tax cuts, calling it a “rash sugar-hit”, and “not what New Zealand needs right now.”
For many on the left, the worry is that Labour’s new-found success will only make them more moderate, for fear of losing the support of former national voters. Jacinda Ardern rejects the idea, telling Stuff NZ: “If you put an agenda out and people vote for it in good solid numbers, it doesn’t mean you change your agenda – you say ‘good, people agree with me, now crack on’. That’s what intrigues me about the commentary which says ‘a bit of your vote came from these people’. Does that mean you change your agenda? They voted for the plan, they know exactly who you are, and I think there is a difference when you vote in your second term … they know who you are, they expect you to keep being who you are and keep rolling on.”
Just Auckland Central’s MP, no big deal pic.twitter.com/RGRjonPVe4
— Max 🏳️🌈 (@max_tweedie) October 23, 2020
What’s next, then?
Over the next two or three weeks, Ardern will be holding negotiations with the Green Party on a possible coalition—although it’s not something Labour depends on, so a formal coalition is unlikely. Additionally, Labour has already ruled out adopting the more radical policies of the Green Party if a coalition was to occur, such as its wealth tax on capital gains. Instead, what many experts expect is a portfolio exchange—Green party leader James Shaw could remain minister for Climate Change. The parties might also opt for some kind of informal support agreement.
Then, of course, it’s time to start governing.
With a mandate for law making stronger than ever before, and no more right-wing NZ First party in coalition to block progressive laws, the expectations for Labour are huge. Progressives will be wanting the very agenda Labour campaigned on in 2017, and former national supporters will be wanting the opposite. But with that myriad of crises: child poverty, climate change, housing, and, of course, Covid, a successful second term will be a mixture of what Labour has already delivered—sage, strong scientific leadership—and what it has so far failed to show—big changes on the issues that matter.
Featured image via Kiwichris