It is sometimes said that New Zealand is a young country that boxes above its weight. The same might be said for its Prime Minister Jacinda Arden. In the triennial election bout she defeated the woman who seems pleased to be nicknamed “Crusher” Collins (because as a minister she ordered hoons’ cars to be crushed).
It is an historic victory because under New Zealand’s Mixed Member Proportional electoral system (MMP) it is almost impossible to win without support from a minor party.
This time the Labour Party under Jacinda Ardern won an unprecedented outright victory with around 49 per cent of the vote with National on just under 27 per cent.
Sixty-one seats are needed to secure a Parliamentary majority. Labour won 64 on election night numbers and can govern alone. It is the strongest support for Labour in 50 years.
The victory was secured by the Ardern Government’s exceptional performance against COVID-19 and Ardern’s personal leadership qualities. She exuded empathy and authenticity. In her first three years as Prime Minister she has dealt with a massacre in two mosques in Christchurch, a fatal volcanic eruption, and the COVID epidemic. She is only the second Prime Minister to give birth (to a daughter) in office.
Through these events she has displayed consistency, good humour, empathy, optimism, courage, competence and compassion. She, her Cabinet and Director General of Health had the intelligence and mental agility to grasp the science of epidemiology and take firm, early action on the pandemic, which has placed the whole country on level one and on the road to recovery.
In her victory speech she spoke with inclusiveness, of government for every New Zealander, despite the world being increasingly polarised.
She said the Government’s plans, which she called an antidote to current uncertainties, include an effective health response to the pandemic and an economic recovery that works for everyone by taking on poverty and inequality and promoting hope and optimism.
The plan has already been started with investment in infrastructure to improve schools, hospitals and transport and create thousands of jobs. She said the Government would build more state homes to house the homeless, generate all the country’s electricity by renewable means, and provide free trade training and interest-free loans to help businesses to expand.
The National Party Leader Judith Collins’ concession speech was, by contrast, gloomy and negative, with criticism of the Government’s performance and a prediction that the New Zealand economy would be in worse shape than many similar countries within five years.
National’s front bench was devastated by the election. Labour won 15 seats held by National. Among them were the seats of senior members. National Party Deputy Leader and campaign manager Jerry Brownlee lost his seat in Christchurch and former cabinet minister Nick Smith lost his seat in Nelson.
Significant small party victories include the Maori Party victory in a Labour-held North Island Maori electorate and the Greens victory in Central Auckland, a seat held by National but where Labour polled strongly. Nationally the Greens won 7.8 per cent of the vote, ACT 8 per cent and the Maori Party 1 per cent.
This translates to 10 MPs each for the Greens and ACT and the Maori Party gets one MP. These figures were produced on election night but special votes could produce changes as they are counted over the coming days.
It appears to be the end of an era for the New Zealand First Party. Three years ago, the party’s leader Winston Peters held the balance of power and chose the Labour Party led by Ardern to form New Zealand’s government after a close election result. His role as Deputy Prime Minister under Ardern could be his last major political act after a long career in Parliament.
Peters first entered politics in 1979. He has been acting Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister twice, Treasurer, Foreign Minister and ‘king’ or ‘queen maker’ helping to form National and Labour governments. He is colourful and controversial. Demonstrating his usual flair for theatre, he did not concede on election night and did not announce whether he planned to continue in politics.
Ardern considered whether to include the Greens and even the Maori party in her Government. There could be strategic advantages in making an arrangement with a smaller party. An ally would help if a tight election in 2023 gave a small party the power to choose the Government.
An arrangement could take the form of a full coalition agreement with cabinet positions for the smaller party or some form of agreement over confidence and supply.
The election result indicates an historic shift to the left in New Zealand politics in the rural provinces and not just in the cities. With some of its promises of three years ago yet to be fulfilled, Labour now has a mandate to make transformative changes to the country.
There are, however, stirrings on the right of New Zealand politics. The ACT Party improved from one seat to 10 seats largely by taking votes from the National Party. Its leader, David Seymour, is an advocate of hard right libertarian economics and, according to his Facebook entry, is a member of the international neo-liberal organization, the Mont Pelerin Society. His supporters certainly appear to show no fear of hard-right politics.
It remains to be seen whether National will seek support on the centre ground or swerve to the right to recover some of the votes it lost to ACT.
Two referenda were held at the same time – on legislation governing end-of-life choices and on legalising marijuana. The preliminary results will be announced on October 30.
For now, Ardern’s Labour Government faces the challenge of dealing with the health and economic impacts of an international pandemic while trying to build the better country the party promised three years ago. If the success of her first term is repeated, New Zealand could be embarking on a journey towards accomplishing some major goals through the inevitably hard times to come.