The New Zealand election campaign has produced a star but is it rising or setting or is it just a descending meteorite heading for early burnout? The polls on September 23 will give the answer. Current polls a week from Election Day are confused and confusing.
The smiling scintillating star in question is Jacinda Ardern who became leader of the opposition Labour party after the very sudden resignation of the leader Andrew Little. He said the polls had been disturbing and disappointing. Labour was making no progress, until that is, the day he resigned, August 1.
Ardern who had been deputy leader is 37 and has a distinctively dazzling smile. She is quick talking, personable and confident although she says she is anxious about not letting her colleagues down. But could she reverse Labour’s slide into the black hole of electoral defeat? She could. She has the X factor.
Dramatic evidence of this came on August 31, the day of the first Leaders’ TV debate. A few minutes before the start of the debate TV1 News released the results of a One News-Colmar Brunton poll showing a massive change in the standings of the two main parties and preferred leaders. Labour was ahead for the first time and so was the Labour leader who had been in the job less than a month. Jacindamania had lift-off. For the first time in nine years Labour supporters could now dream of forming a government.
The National Party leader and Prime Minister Bill English claimed it was a rogue poll and the latest polls show he could be right. Labour’s dramatic rise has slowed and may be falling back. The reason may be in the contrast between the campaigning styles.
Labour is relentlessly positive, talking up the improvements they plan in health, welfare, education, housing, keeping the pension age at 65, a fairer tax system; Ardern’s radiant presence and cheerful confidence prominent in the publicity.
National’s campaign has been unremittingly negative, a mostly successful tactic despite an early problem. The National Party Campaign Manager and Minister of Finance Steven Joyce accused Labour of making promises that left an “eleven billion dollar fiscal hole.” In fact Labour proposes to run a surplus, and many prominent economists said Joyce’s claim was wrong. Even so, Joyce and his leader former Finance Minister Bill English both claim to be supremely competent and they are sticking to their story.
They have followed up with an advertisement campaign attacking Labour’s promise to reform tax laws. The National Party’s new campaign ad. this week claims Labour would introduce a string of new taxes. The advertisement has been widely fact checked and is partly accurate, partly misleading, partly wrong and wholly intended to scare voters away from Labour. The ad. wrongly claims Labour will increase personal income tax.
What Labour has said is that it will set up a Working Group to find ways to make the tax system fairer. It could look at a range of options. For instance, New Zealand is one of only three OECD countries that doesn’t tax capital gains. The working group would look at taxing gains on property speculation while specifically excluding a tax on the gains on the sale of family homes.
Central to Labour’s plans is to reverse the National Government’s election promise of tax cuts that would cost $2 billion per annum and see $400 million go to the top 10% of earners. Instead, Labour would continue to maintain a surplus but invest more in families and public services such as health, education and police.
National’s attack ad. worked and produced a dramatic result, a U-turn. Labour announced that any tax reform legislation resulting from the working party would not take effect until April 1, 2021, that is after the next General Election due late in 2020.
The impact of this announcement is still being assessed but it seems clear the efforts to stir confusion and fear have in the past week helped to produce wildly swinging polls. One showed the parties very close, another showed National ten points ahead. One commentator said tea-leaves may be more accurate than the polls.
With just under a week until the election the combined results of all recent polls show the outcome is too close to call but whoever wins would probably need the support of two minor parties to form a majority. This projection holds only until the next poll that could show another massive swing in any direction.
The fortunes of the minor parties have also fluctuated wildly. In early polls the New Zealand First party under its populist leader Winston Peters was secure as the king-maker with the balance of power between the two major parties. Now the polls show he has slipped and must share the king-maker role with at least one other party. That could be the Greens who for now appear to be stable at just over the critical five percent support level.
In this dramatic and unusual election the final week will be an epic conflict between the smart suits of the National Party who claim financial competence and credibility while waving a scary socialist hand puppet in one hand and a tax cut in the other, versus the soaring, smiling star that may have reached its apogee, may be falling to earth, or perhaps could survive the week to succeed on Saturday.
PS: Here is a brief description of the Mixed Member Proportional voting system as employed in New Zealand.
New Zealand has one chamber, the House of Representatives, with 120 seats. This number can vary a little depending on what happens on Election Day. Each party fields candidates in electorates and also produces a list of additional candidates (their “list” candidates who don’t have electorates).
The voting paper has two parts. First, the voter votes for the candidate they favour in their own electorate. Then they vote for the party they favour. This can be tactical. For instance, a voter may first vote for the electorate candidate with the best local policies, but the second vote could be for a different party. It could be a vote for a minor party to help it get a minimum of 5 percent of votes nationally so it can get seats in the house from its party list.
After the election: Any party that gets one candidate elected in an electorate or five percent of the party vote nationally gets a share of the seats in Parliament equal to their share of the party vote nationally.
As an example, a party that wins thirty percent of the party vote would get thirty percent of the 120 seats, or about 36 MPs. If that party won twenty electorate seats it would need to send to Parliament sixteen more MPs from its list (in addition to its twenty electorate MPs). In this way lots of MPs in New Zealand don’t represent electorates. The current Prime Minister Bill English is one of them. He gave up his electorate seat and is number One on the National List so will certainly get back in.
Max Hayton is a retired New Zealand journalist with Parliamentary and International experience.