Jacinda Ardern’s new “COVID cabinet” is pretty much the same as — and completely unlike — every previous government under the mixed member proportional (MMP) system.
The similarity involves the political accommodation reached between Labour and the Greens. Every government formed since 1996 has rested on such arrangements. This one does too.
The difference lies in Ardern’s administration being the first single-party majority government since the electoral rules changed in the mid-1990s. Add to that the arrangement with the Greens and they have a massive 74-seat bloc in the House — 13 more than is needed to govern.
In brute political terms, Ardern is at the head of one of (and perhaps the) biggest parliamentary alliances in the nation’s history.
The Greens’ consolation prize
The deal announced over the weekend is a cooperation agreement. Think of it as the smallest of the consolation prizes, the thing you’re offered when your support is nice to have but not really necessary.
For the 15% of Green delegates who voted against it, perhaps it was just too small, and you can see their point. In the last government (when the party had eight rather than ten seats), the Greens held ten full or associate portfolios.
None of their ministers sat in cabinet, true, but there were four in the executive. Now there are only two, holding four portfolios between them — and they’re still not sitting at the top table.
Look more closely at the detail, though, and things get more interesting.
A new kind of MMP
The Green ministers will participate in relevant cabinet committees and informal ministerial groups, have access to officials’ papers, and get to meet with the prime minister at least every six weeks. Labour and the Greens’ respective chiefs of staff will also meet regularly.
What’s more, the party will chair one parliamentary committee and get the deputy’s slot on another. In non-portfolio areas of mutual interest, Green spokespeople will have access to Labour ministers and departmental advice.
All that and they get to publicly disagree with the government on policies that fall outside Green portfolios. That is not a bad policy haul for a party Labour does not need to form a government.
And there is no way any of it would have happened under the single-party majority governments we used to see under the previous first-past-the-post system. So it may be a consolation prize, but in fact it’s not that small.
A more diverse government
As well as being the first single-party majority MMP government, it is also a diverse one. In her first term Ardern acknowledged the importance of having more women in cabinet. Nearly half (47%) of the new parliament — and a majority of Labour’s caucus (53%) — are women.
To some extent this is reflected in the makeup of the executive. Eight of the 20 full cabinet members are women; in total, women comprise 43% of the wider administration. There are more women in the ministry than in the National Party’s caucus.
The executive also contains a solid number of people of colour: perhaps as many as a quarter of all ministers and parliamentary under-secretaries are non-Pākehā.
On election night, Labour’s Māori caucus conveyed a direct message to the prime minister about the importance of a solid Māori presence in Cabinet. She appears to have listened.
Between them, Labour’s Māori MPs get five seats in cabinet. Add positions outside cabinet as well as the Greens’ Marama Davidson and Māori comprise 25% of all members of the executive. Perhaps most noteworthy is that Nanaia Mahuta becomes the country’s first female Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Ardern has also looked carefully at her back bench and the clutch of incoming MPs, bringing some of them into the political executive. Jan Tinetti and Kiri Allan have been marked for higher things for some time, while the newly minted MP Dr Ayesha Verrall comes straight into cabinet as an associate health minister.
Power and control
Under certain circumstances a large parliamentary caucus can be a challenge. Thwarted egos, stifled ambitions, fits of pique — once the thrill of the election result has worn off, managing relations between those who are in government and the wider parliamentary party will be one of the chief challenges facing Labour’s whips.
The Green co-leaders aside, Ardern’s executive comprises 40% of the Labour party’s caucus. Given the conventions of collective cabinet responsibility, this means that members of the government have a near majority within caucus, so discipline shouldn’t be an issue — yet.
It is hard to overstate just how much control Ardern has over New Zealand’s 53rd parliament. Even before special votes are counted, the parliamentary arithmetic renders National, ACT and the Māori Party virtually irrelevant.
Labour dominates the executive, and between them Labour and the Greens will dominate the legislature and its committees. Voters have placed considerable power in Ardern’s hands. It’s time to see what she does with it.
The recent reelection of the Jacinda Ardern-led Labour government in New Zealand offers leaders elsewhere a potent lesson about how best to respond to COVID-19. Saving lives is, not surprisingly, a real vote-winner.
A clear majority of voters obviously did not accept these views. Indeed, the election result suggests voters have confidence in Ardern.
Key features of her leadership approach to COVID-19 are discernible – and offer useful lessons for leaders elsewhere – even given the specific advantages New Zealand has, such as its geographic isolation and relatively small population.
Prioritizing both health and economic considerations as central concerns affords a fundamentally different strategy from the yo-yo-ing between either health or the economy, which characterizes the approach taken by the likes of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
While this dual focus doesn’t magically solve everything that might arise from COVID-19, emphasizing both as mission critical avoids the strategic misstep of allowing largely unfettered economic activity alongside weak levels of control over the virus’s spread.
So this dual focus has been made clear and is ethically defensible, which helps in garnering the support of citizens – who are, after all, the voters.
Listen to and act on expert advice
Ardern is persistent in her commitment to a science-led approach. Effective engagement with the media by New Zealand’s director-general of health, Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, has lent real credibility to Ardern’s claims that the political arm of government is listening to independent, expert advice. This practice of being led by expertise is the second key feature of Ardern’s effective pandemic leadership.
Ardern also has a strong focus on mobilizing collective effort. This involves informing, educating and uniting people to do what’s needed to minimize harm to lives and livelihoods.
Regular press conferences show Ardern doesn’t pull her punches when delivering bad news, but she balances this with explaining why government directives matter and conveying empathy for their disruptive effects.
She also has a strong focus on practicalities and avoids getting defensive when questioned.
To secure unfiltered feedback from the public, she runs regular, impromptu Facebook Live sessions.
All these measures help give people confidence that Ardern genuinely cares about and is interested in people’s needs and views, thereby mobilizing community support for government mandates.
Ardern also focuses on actions that help to enable coping. This involves a range of initiatives to help people and organizations plan ahead. One example is the government’s Alert Level framework, which sets out the different rules and restrictions that apply depending on the current risk of community transmission.
A focus on building knowledge and skills relevant for surviving the pandemic, on kindness and on innovation form part of this approach, addressing both practical and emotional needs.
No ‘magic bullet’ … but
None of this constitutes a magic bullet for easily overcoming COVID-19. Not in New Zealand nor anywhere else.
And, looking ahead, the expectations on Ardern’s government to deliver economic recovery, as well as substantive progress on other key issues such as climate change and poverty reduction, are enormous.
But even though Ardern’s approach has not been faultless, her reelection makes it clear the effective pandemic leadership practices she demonstrates attracted strong levels of voter support.
That’s a lesson no elected leader ought to ignore. For U.S. President Donald Trump, who is seeking reelection on Nov. 3 and whose nation has suffered 220,000 COVID deaths so far, it remains to be seen if voters will punish or endorse the kind of leadership approach he has taken to the pandemic.
Even as the results rolled in on election night there were mutterings that a parliamentary majority controlled by one political party is somehow inconsistent with the spirit of MMP. The magnitude of the Jacinda Ardern-led Labour Party’s victory will no doubt encourage that view.
Wrong. In at least three respects the election result is exactly what electoral reform was about.
For the better part of the 20th century single-party majority governments in Aotearoa New Zealand were formed by parties that won a minority of the popular vote. The best example (or worst, depending on your view) was in 1993, when Jim Bolger’s National Party wound up with a manufactured parliamentary majority based on just 35% of the vote.
You need to go all the way back to 1951 to find the last time a governing party won a majority of the vote.
But you can’t get away with this under MMP. Ardern has already racked up Labour’s highest share of the vote since the 51.3% Peter Fraser’s Labour Party won in 1946. It’s also the best performance of any party under MMP.
She’s done it at a time when voting for a party other than Labour or National is both possible and pretty normal. If, once special votes have been counted, Labour clears 50% of the vote Ardern will have achieved something no prime minister has done in 70 years.
MMP was designed to accurately translate people’s votes into parliamentary seats — and that is exactly what it has done.
Ardern is a centrist, a self-avowed consensus politician. Her single-party majority government will not behave as the Labour and National administrations of the 1980s and 1990s did.
If MMP was designed to do anything it was to lock in policy moderation. In fact, in the early 1990s, the Treasury was concerned to implement its favoured neo-liberal reforms before the electoral system changed, precisely because it knew policy radicalism would be next to impossible under MMP.
Where the David Lange-led Labour and Bolger-led National governments of the late 20th century were doctrinaire and divisive, Ardern will be pragmatic and focused on results. For better or worse, she knows exactly where the median voter lives.
Diversity of representation
For reasonable people, one of the purposes of an electoral system is to produce legislatures that broadly reflect the people who choose them. On at least one count MMP is heading in the right direction.
In 1996, the first MMP parliament doubled the presence of women in the House of Representatives. By 2017 the proportion of women parliamentarians stood at 40%. That figure got another bump on Saturday, pushing the number of women in the 120-member legislature from 49 to 56.
Nearly half (46.5%) of all parliamentarians are now women, the vast majority of them — 73% — members of the Labour or Green parties. This lifts New Zealand from 20th on the international league table to ninth (two spots behind Sweden).
MMP was the winner
This election will change the way politics is done, discussed and practised in Aotearoa NZ due to three significant developments:
Labour has won big in the towns and in the country. National can no longer claim to be the party of rural people, and Labour can no longer be painted as the party of urban élites. In fact, the fundamental question confronting National now is: what kind of party are we?
Once special votes are counted, it is possible Labour will have over 50% of the vote. Not only will it be the first time this has happened since 1951, it will also mean most New Zealanders have chosen a politics of communitarianism over a politics of individualism.
For the first time in our history more people voted before polling day than on the day itself (a lot more — 70% of votes were cast early this year). The very nature of elections has changed, meaning the laws banning political activity on polling day need to be revised. (In the process, the problem of setting an election date to avoid an All Blacks Test might be avoided.)
There is more to be digested, including that this parliament contains no small-party tail to wag the big party’s dog. But right now one thing is clear: MMP gets two ticks for its performance this year. It has done exactly what it was designed to do.
At Saturday’s New Zealand election, Labour won 64 of the 120 seats (up 18 since the 2017 election). This means a Labour eight-seat majority. The opposition National won 35 seats (down 21), the right-wing ACT ten (up nine), the Greens ten (up two) and the Māori party one (up one).
Vote shares were 49.1% Labour (up 12.2%), 26.8% National (down 17.6%), 8.0% ACT (up 7.5%), 7.6% Greens (up 1.3%) and 1.0% Māori (down 0.2%).
Under New Zealand’s system, parties are entitled to a proportional allocation of seats if they either win at least 5% of the overall vote, or win a single-member seat. The Māori party entered parliament by winning one of the seven single-member seats reserved for those on the Māori roll. The Greens and ACT also won single-member seats.
Since the 2017 election, Labour has governed in coalition with the Greens and the populist NZ First. NZ First will not be returned to parliament, as their vote slumped to 2.7% (down 4.5%), and they failed to win a single-member seat.
In February, two polls had National ahead of Labour. But Labour recorded massive poll leads in May owing to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s handling of coronavirus. Labour’s lead narrowed somewhat as the election approached, but final polls understated Labour’s lead; they won by 22 points, not the 15 in final polls.
Greens could win six of 25 ACT seats
With 78% of enrolled voters counted at Saturday’s ACT election, vote shares were 38.4% Labor (down 0.1% since 2016), 33.1% Liberals (down 3.6%) and 13.9% Greens (up 3.6%).
The ACT uses five five-member electorates, with candidates elected using the Hare-Clark system. A quota is one-sixth of the vote, or 16.7%. Preference distribution sheets have been released based on votes cast electronically. Paper ballots will be manually entered.
In Brindabella, Labor has 2.5 quotas, the Liberals 2.3 and the Greens 0.7. The Poll Bludger’s analysis of preferences has it very close between Labor and the Greens for the final seat.
In Ginninderra, Labor has 2.4 quotas, the Liberals 1.6 and the Greens 0.8. Labor leads the Liberals for the final seat, but it could be overturned on late counting.
In Kurrajong, Labor has 2.3 quotas, the Liberals 1.6 and the Greens 1.4. Preferences from Labor and minor parties give the Greens a solid lead over the Liberals in the race for the final seat. So Kurrajong is likely to split two Labor, two Greens and just one Liberal.
In Murrumbidgee, Labor has 2.2 quotas, the Liberals 2.1 and the Greens 0.7. This is a clear two Labor, two Liberals, one Green result.
In Yerrabi, the Liberals have 2.4 quotas, Labor 2.1 and the Greens 0.6. This will be two Liberals, two Labor and one Green.
In summary, Labor is likely to win ten of the 25 seats, the Liberals eight and the Greens five, with two in doubt, one Labor vs Greens and one Labor vs Liberal. In 2016, the result was 12 Labor, 11 Liberals, two Greens. The current Labor/Green coalition has easily retained power.
Queensland Newspoll: 52-48 to Labor
The Queensland election will be held on October 31. A Newspoll, conducted October 9-14 from a sample of 1,001, gave Labor a 52-48 lead, a three-point gain for Labor since a late July Newspoll. Labor’s lead is the same as in a YouGov poll that I covered in early October. YouGov conducts Newspoll, so it is effectively the same pollster.
Primary votes were virtually identical to that YouGov poll, at 37% Labor, 37% LNP, 11% Greens and 9% One Nation; the only difference a one-point drop for the Greens.
63% were satisfied with Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s performance and 33% were dissatisfied, for a net approval of +30. These figures are identical to a September Newspoll of the Victorian and Queensland premiers’ ratings.
Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington had a net approval of -7, up one point since the late July Newspoll. Palaszczuk led Frecklington as better premier by 57-32 (57-26 in July).
More state polls: NSW and Victoria
Channel 10 commissioned a uComms NSW poll after revelations of Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s affair with former Liberal MP Daryl Maguire. 63% said Berejiklian should not resign, and just 28% thought she should go.
The only information provided on voting intentions was that the Coalition led Labor by 38-30. William Bowe says that uComms includes undecided in the initial table, and that this implies little change from the 2019 election result.
A YouGov poll for The Sunday Telegraph gave Berejiklian a 68-26 approval rating. By 49-36, voters did not think she had done anything wrong. By 60-29, they wanted her to stay as premier.
A Victorian SMS Morgan poll, conducted October 12-13 from a sample of 899, gave Labor a 51.5-48.5 lead, unchanged since late September. Primary votes were 40% Labor (up one), 40% Coalition (up 0.5) and 9% Greens (down one). Premier Daniel Andrews had a 59-41 approval rating (61-39 previously).
Trump still down by double digits nationally
The FiveThirtyEight national polls aggregate currently gives Joe Biden a 10.6% lead over Donald Trump (52.4% to 41.8%). It’s somewhat closer in the key states with Biden leading by 7.9% in Michigan, 7.8% in Wisconsin, 6.8% in Pennsylvania, 4.0% in Florida and 3.9% in Arizona.
Pennsylvania has returned to being the “tipping-point” state, and is currently polling 3.8% better for Trump than nationally. But Trump needs to get within five points to make the Electoral College competitive.
There appears to be a new surge of coronavirus in the US: over 70,000 new cases were recorded Friday, the highest since late July. Trump is perceived to have handled coronavirus poorly, so the more it is in the headlines, the worse it will probably get for him.
A pandemic can change the foundations of a society. But if this happens in New Zealand over the next three years, it will be for reasons beyond the control of the sixth Labour government. When it comes to the fundamental structure of state and economy, Labour is broadly committed to the status quo.
This was confirmed on election night when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, wearing a Labour red dress before a National blue background, declared: “We will be a party that governs for every New Zealander.”
In times of upset, people yearn for normality — and Ardern’s Labour Party was awarded a landslide for achieving something close to this. The risk of a further COVID-19 outbreak is ever present, as today’s announcement of a community transmission case in Auckland reminded us.
Nevertheless, international spectators view our pandemic response with a wistful gaze. At a time when many nations went sour on liberal democracy and rolled the populist dice, New Zealand appears on the world stage like a tribute act to third-way politics, a nostalgic throwback to the relative sanity and stability of the long 1990s.
Yet for many people who live in Aotearoa New Zealand, the status quo isn’t working, and hasn’t for some time. These tensions are only intensifying.
Housing unaffordability is on the rise again, with implications for wealth inequality and deprivation. This is compounded further by the cascading economic effects of the global pandemic and unconventional manoeuvres in monetary policy that are pushing house prices higher.
Without remedial action, this inequality will leave New Zealand society more exposed to future shocks, not only from COVID-19, but also the multiplying risks of climate change, biodiversity collapse, digital disruption and international instability. Inequality ensures uneven impacts, a recipe for further discontent and conflict.
No party for ideologues
Even from a purely electoral perspective, the Labour Party can’t afford inaction. It is easy to forget how precarious the prime minister’s position was at the beginning of the year. She could boast enough policy wins to stack an early campaign video, yet hadn’t pulled a fiscal lever large enough to convince the public that her government was truly “transformational”.
Entering a second term, her policy agenda is more recognisable by what she won’t do than what she will — no capital gains tax, no wealth tax, indeed no new taxes at all beyond a tweak for the highest earners.
This leaves us with the longstanding conundrum of what the Labour Party is and what it really stands for these days. Ardern and her colleagues are not ideologues, but no politics is without ideology — a system of ideas, values and beliefs that orients its efforts.
I’ve argued in the past that Ardern’s government has a spirit of civic republicanism. This has met with reasonable scepticism, yet in the midst of the pandemic it feels more relevant than ever. With borders drastically restricted, and old allies going wayward, there is a renewed sense of separateness, of independence in the world.
Might the pandemic seal New Zealand’s fate as the Commonwealth of Oceana, as a 21st century version of 17th century English republican John Harrington’s utopian island?
Kindness as a political virtue
The first symptom of republicanism belongs to Ardern herself. She is the active citizenpar excellence. She embodies civic commitment and public-spiritedness, along with a good dose of humility. Even in emergencies, she remains one of us: primus inter pares, “first among equals”.
Analysts of Ardern’s political leadership emphasise her openness, honesty, self-discipline, empathy and, above all, her authenticity. For civic republicans, the exercise of such virtues is the lifeblood of public life. Indeed, insofar as Ardern has a distinctive political agenda, it is centred on the virtue of kindness.
Arguably, this has displaced the more principled commitments that might guide substantive structural reform. But kindness also provided vital emotional leadership in the raw moments following the Christchurch mosque attacks and the outset of the pandemic.
As the 18th century philosopher Montesquieu said, “Virtue in a republic is a most simple thing: it is a love of the republic.” Few could doubt Ardern’s devotion to the nation. But for the Labour Party, as for republicans, this has an exclusionary aspect.
Given the emphasis on citizens, republicans have tended to prioritise “us” over “them”. In the Athenian republic, only citizens could participate in democracy, and only wealthy men could be citizens — not women, not slaves, not foreigners.
Similarly, in New Zealand’s “team of five million”, only citizens have the full spectrum of rights and entitlements. For more than 300,000 temporary visa holders, whose compliance with pandemic restrictions was vital for containing the outbreak, there was minimal solidarity from government.
Many were frozen out of jobs during lockdown, unable to relocate due to visa conditions, and excluded from social welfare support. Others were stuck outside the country until very recently, unable to re-enter. From a liberal or internationalist perspective, this is hard to swallow. But there is a nativist strain within the Labour Party which will relish these harder borders.
None of this is to say that Labour’s politics aren’t liberal or social democratic. Ideologies can be mixed in the same way that economies can be. It is to say, more modestly, that some of the qualities that characterise the Ardern government align with civic republicanism.
And this helps to resist the lazy analysis that this government is nothing more than a continuation of what came before, another phase in an undifferentiable centrist blob.
Neither socialist nor purely liberal
But where to next? Firstly, this is not a government of pure socialist intentions. Accusations of this kind come from a place of confusion, delusion, or plain mischief. Socialism, simply put, involves collective ownership of the means of production.
This government already relinquished an unprecedented opportunity to socialise the economy when it implemented its wage subsidy scheme at the outset of the pandemic.
Public debt is growing precisely to keep private businesses in private hands. Labour’s resistance to substantive tax reform, even to reduce the debt it insists it must pay back, reveals its abandonment of redistribution as a practicable tool for social change.
Secondly, this is not a government of purely liberal intentions. It is ambivalent about the free flow of people and capital. Attorney-General David Parker, in particular, has prioritised citizens through restrictions on overseas buyers of housing and the “national interest” test for foreign investment.
Ardern’s government is also unembarrassed about a more active role for the state. Its approach for housing is illustrative — not just its boost to state-owned housing, but especially its embrace of the state’s potential as a developer providing houses directly to market.
Liberals see this as mere interference, but republicans tolerate government intervention wherever it improves the lives of citizens. In the wake of the pandemic, voters will be prone to agree.
The danger of losing trust
This touches on the defining feature of civic republicanism: its commitment to freedom from domination. Republicans accept the kinds of intervention that liberals fear, as long as they free people from situations of oppression and subjugation.
Domination should also be broadly understood to include regulations, poverty, sexism, racism, environmental degradation, employment relations — anything that thwarts our cherished projects.
This is where the republican spirit mostly clearly intersects with the sixth Labour government’s interest in well-being. The purpose of worrying about well-being is to improve people’s capabilities to live the kinds of lives they most value.
Because the aforementioned forms of oppression curtail such freedoms, we have a duty to overturn them, through intervention if necessary. Well-being economics isn’t merely about measurement; it is an emancipatory project.
Ardern’s government is most vulnerable to criticism when it falls short of this ideal — for example, the oppressive practices of Oranga Tamariki or ineffective infrastructure development. If voters won’t punish Ardern for not being socialist or liberal enough, they might still penalise her for failing to make real these republican impulses.
It is said that, in politics, what lifts you up is what will eventually drag you down. When the virtues of openness fail to strengthen transparency, when state intervention fails to deliver outcomes competently or effectively, when appeals to “the people” paper over vital differences, when the politics of kindness fail to prevent suffering — this is where trust will be lost.
The danger of electoral dominance is becoming your own worst enemy.
The New Zealand election was held on 23 September, with final results released on 7 October. The conservative National won 56 of the 120 seats, Labour 46, the anti-immigrant populist NZ First 9, the Greens 8 and the right-wing ACT 1. As a result, the right held 57 seats and the left 54, with NZ First’s 9 seats required for a majority (61 seats) for either the left or right.
26 days after the election, and 12 days after final results were published, NZ First leader Winston Peters today announced that his party would form a coalition government with Labour. With NZ First backing, the left bloc has 63 seats, a clear majority in the NZ Parliament. This outcome ends National’s nine successive years in power, in which Labour had utterly dismal results in the three elections from 2008-14.
Bankers’ SA Galaxy: 31% Liberal, 30% SA Best, 26% Labor
The Australian reported today that a SA Galaxy poll, conducted for the Australian Bankers Association 10-12 October from a sample of 806, gave the Liberals 31% of the primary vote, SA Best (Nick Xenophon’s SA party) 30% and Labor 26%. The next SA election will be held in mid-March 2018.
This poll is not a media-commissioned poll. The ABA is an anti-Labor lobby group that wants to stop the proposed SA state bank tax. Polls such as these are prone to selective release; it is unlikely the ABA would have released a poll with Labor doing well.
The last media-commissioned SA Galaxy poll, in late June, had the Liberals leading Labor 34-28 on primary votes with SA Best on 21%, and a 50-50 tie between the major parties after preferences. If this ABA Galaxy poll is accurate, it implies that SA Best has surged 9 points since Xenophon announced his candidacy for the Liberal-held seat of Hartley.
In the better Premier question, Xenophon had 41%, with both incumbent Premier Jay Weatherill and opposition leader Steven Marshall at 21%.
If these primary votes were replicated at an election, SA Best would win many seats on Labor preferences, and could be the largest party in SA’s lower house. Such an outcome would break the two party duopoly for the first time in an Australian Parliament since the early 20th century.
However, there are still five months to go before the election. Even if this poll is accurate, it could represent SA Best’s high point. Both major parties will attack Xenophon during the election campaign, in an attempt to undermine his popularity. Labor will use Xenophon’s controversial Senate decisions against him.
Although Labor is third in this poll, they are not out of the running. If Labor can take a few percent from SA Best, they would be more likely to benefit on preferences than the Liberals. If Labor retains office at the next election, it will be a fifth consecutive term for them.
After 14 years in office, Queensland Labor was demolished at the 2012 Queensland election, and NSW Labor had a similar fate after 16 years at the 2011 NSW election. A SA Labor victory after 16 years would be a remarkable achievement.
During the dim, distant past of New Zealand’s recent election campaign, soon-to-be-former prime minister Bill English grumbled that the “stardust” that was falling thick and fast on new Labour leader Jacinda Ardern would settle.
Well, it just has – in such quantities that some time next week Ardern will be sworn in as the 40th – and second youngest – prime minister of Aotearoa/New Zealand.
From stardust to PM
It is quite some denouement to an extraordinary period in New Zealand’s political history. A little under three months ago, Ardern was the deputy leader of a Labour Party that was polling in minor party territory. From deputy leader of a struggling opposition party to prime minister in under three months – that’s stardust on an industrial scale.
For Winston Peters, too, who is likely to become the next deputy prime minister (for the second time), it is a spectacular return to form. Three times Peters has been the veto player in the government formation process. On each occasion he has kept everyone guessing, including, it appears, members of his own caucus.
So, here’s what we know. The new government will comprise a formal coalition between Labour and NZF (the first executive coalition we’ve had on this side of the ditch since 2005). As a minority administration, it will govern with support on confidence and supply from the Greens.
NZF will hold four cabinet positions and an additional slot outside of cabinet. This means that just over half of its caucus will be in the political executive. The Greens, too, will – for the first time in their history – have ministerial portfolios: three outside of Cabinet and one parliamentary under-secretary.
But there’s plenty we don’t yet know. We’re not sure who will occupy which portfolios (although we’re fairly sure Peters will be the deputy prime minister). Neither will we know the nature of the policy detail (if any) in the executive agreement and its associated confidence and supply document until next week.
Few rules to form a government
The last time NZF was in formal coalition – ironically, with the National Party in 1996 – there was an awful lot of devil in that detail. Since then, New Zealand governments have moved away from policy-prescriptive agreements to arrangements that emphasise procedural certainty and clarity. However, the attention that has clearly been paid to matters of policy in the negotiations over the last three weeks suggests we may see a swing back to a greater emphasis on policy substance.
Once the dust – wherever it happens to have come from – has settled on today’s momentous events, a number of features of this election will merit careful reflection.
In particular, questions will certainly be asked of the way in which New Zealand governments are formed. Almost alone amongst mature parliamentary democracies, there are few or no formal rules governing the process. Apart from the constitutional requirement that the government is formed by the party or parties able to demonstrate to the governor-general that they command the confidence of parliament, there is little formal guidance and few restrictions on the process.
That goes a long way to explaining why it has taken a few days short of four weeks to form this government and why, for the first time under the mixed member proportional (MMP) electoral system in New Zealand, the incoming government will not be led by the party that won the largest number of seats in the election. All of this is perfectly constitutional, but disconcerting for some New Zealanders nonetheless.
Expect big, boisterous opposition
What next? National will be furious. Expect some talk over the next couple of days of the “moral authority” the party had to govern, given that it won a clear plurality of parliamentary seats. While the constitution recognises no such thing, National certainly had political precedence on its side.
National will ride that wave of righteous anger – internally at least, if not outwardly for public consumption – for some time to come. Hell hath no fury and so forth. And if the Labour/NZF/Green governing bloc starts fraying at the edges, then National’s claim to “moral authority” will start to look a little less imaginary.
But this might not have been a bad election for National to lose. The party can now move on from the Key years, start generating fresh ideas and begin bringing through some of its younger talent as it remakes itself as a conservative force. Moreover, National will comprise a big, boisterous opposition. The parliamentary conventions and rules governing the allocation of questions in the house, speaking time and membership on select committee positions mean that it will be able to make life very challenging for the new administration.
Human face of capitalism
And what of the new government? For Labour, NZF and Greens – which between them represent 50.5% of those who cast party votes in the election (against National’s 44.4%) – this is the chance to effect change following nine years of orthodox neoliberal government from National.
Peters’ claim when announcing his decision that he wanted to be part of a government that would restore ‘capitalism with a human face’ falls far short of a clarion call for the destruction of neoliberalism. It does, however, signal a significant change in policy direction. For those New Zealanders on the wrong side of the ledger when it comes to our dire performance in health, housing, productivity, wage and salary growth, poverty and so on, that change can’t come soon enough.
This, then, will be a legacy government, one that represents a generational shift in thinking away from the priorities of the baby boomers towards the concerns of the millennials. The irony that such a thing has been brought about by a man on the other side of 70 won’t be lost on anyone. “Let’s do this” was Ardern’s campaign slogan. Now we get to see how New Zealand’s political odd couple go.