Election preview: New Zealand

There are two elections this weekend – New Zealand on Saturday and Germany on Sunday. I’ll preview Germany tomorrow, although I’ve already had a bit to say about it recently; for now, let’s look at New Zealand.

New Zealand behaves a lot like a smaller version of Australia. Its party system is obviously similar, with the important proviso that there is no separate rural party, just a mainstream centre-right party (the National Party) that merges rural and urban interests. But there is a Labour Party, Greens, a One Nation-like party called New Zealand First, and a small libertarianish party (ACT) like our LDP.

(Since New Zealand has a much larger indigenous population, there is also a Māori Party, which has shown itself able to deal with both major parties. Seven seats are elected by Māori who choose to vote on a separate roll, but Labour holds most of them.)

And political trends tend to cross the Tasman as well. Like us, New Zealand elected a Labour government in 1972 to end a long period of conservative rule. It lasted only three years, and gave place to a conservative government that was so strongly dirigiste that it gave place in the 1980s to a reformist Labour government.

But with more to do, Labour in New Zealand broke under the strain in a way that Hawke and Keating never did, and so National took office again in 1990. That meant that it didn’t go through the same cycles of despair that the Australian Liberal Party did, and in particular never reached the stage of authoritarian conservatism represented by John Howard: it remained reformist and socially moderate.

NZ Labour in 1999 then won the election that Kim Beazley had narrowly lost here the previous year, and remained in office for three terms, eschewing further economic reform but making no effort to turn the clock back. National in opposition tried a radical free-marketeer in Don Brash, who led them to a huge comeback but failed to win office. They then turned to the more moderate John Key, who won government in 2008 and held it in the two subsequent elections.

Key retired last year and was replaced by his deputy, Bill English, who is now trying to extend National’s run to a fourth term.

Until a couple of months ago, the betting was pretty strong that he would succeed, with Labour becalmed in the doldrums. Since then, however, the advent of new Labour leader Jacinda Ardern has revitalised Labour’s polling, and a Labour government is now regarded as a serious possibility.

Sportsbet’s odds still favor the government, but there’s not a lot in it: National are favorites at about 8-5 on, with Labour at 5-4 against.

The problem facing both leaders is that one big difference from Australia, the electoral system. Neither major party has any real hope of winning an outright majority, and it’s quite likely that neither will be able to reach a majority at all without dealing with the wild card Winston Peters of NZ First.

Yesterday I talked about the dilemma of whether or not to bring extremists within the tent. Peters is not as extreme as some, but he’s decidedly erratic, and no-one will be keen to deal with him if they can avoid it. If either National+ACT+Māori or Labour+Greens+Māori can win a majority, they’ll try to form government on that basis.

Whether that happens (and if so, which one) will depend a lot on just how solid Ardern’s support turns out to be. My gut feeling is that some of it is illusory, not entirely unlike Mark Latham’s turned out to be in 2004. Add to that the fact that Peters, if he holds the balance of power, seems more likely to go with National, and it looks as if English is slightly better placed.

But against that, perhaps, should be set New Zealand’s remarkable toll of mid-term prime ministers. No-one since 1943 has taken the job mid-term and won the subsequent election: six have failed. In Australia, by contrast, four of the last six mid-termers were re-elected (McMahon and Rudd are the exceptions).

English could be the one to break the curse. Or he could be another victim.

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