MAX HAYTON. New Zealand campaign for September Election Day intensifies.

Feb 7, 2020

New Zealand’s Labour Government announced an election will be held on September 19 and almost immediately revealed its plans for massive investment in infrastructure.

The timing of these two announcements has been criticised because the infrastructure announcement followed the day after the election date was revealed. This was seen as electioneering.

However with three year Parliamentary terms, New Zealand governments are in effect constantly in electioneering mode.

The new Labour Government elected in late 2017 had ambitious plans to fundamentally change the way New Zealand governments perform. In the short three year term their policies needed to be defined, refined, taken to consultation and then rolled out in time for the electorate to see significant progress in election year.

This helps to explain why Jacinda Ardern and her team are in a hurry. They have a long agenda and plans for substantial change in a short time.

The early announcement of an election has become traditional in New Zealand. Under the National Party’s then Prime Minister, Sir John Key, the election in November 2011 was announced in February, the election in September 2014 was announced in March, and the election in September 2017 was announced by the Prime Minister at the time, Bill English, in February.

The early warning of the election gives the Electoral Commission time to prepare, and every individual and organisation has the opportunity to factor Election Day into their plans. Voting is voluntary in New Zealand.

This context helps to explain the reason for a major infrastructure announcement early in the third year of the term. There is time to start turning turf by Election Day.

In addition, this year on Election Day there will be two referenda, one non-binding referendum on legalising cannabis for personal use and another binding referendum on legalising assisted dying. Legislation on both issues will be offered for voters to either support or reject. New Zealand will be the first country to put legislation on assisted dying to a referendum.

After the 2017 election, the leader of the New Zealand First Party, Winston Peters, chose Labour to form a coalition government. Peters held the balance of power under New Zealand’s MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) electoral system.

On Election Day in 2017, Jacinda Ardern had been Labour’s leader for only seven weeks. Under her youthful leadership the new administration’s plan was to create a new form of government that aspires to lift all its people by using new ways of creating and assessing policies and measuring performance.

An example was the Wellbeing Budget last year, where the emphasis was not wholly on the bottom line, but also focused on improving the lives of the population. There were measures for reducing poverty, an annual assessment of progress on child poverty, and a package of measures to address mental health in all its forms, including addiction.

During its first two years, the Labour Government consulted on more than 75 plans, programmes and projects. Critics said there were too many, implying that consultation was wasteful or that much of this work should have occurred prior to the election.

The consultations helped define needs, means of delivery, costs and funding. It has been a deliberately transparent approach to developing and delivering policy. It was a radical change from the Conservative (National Party) approach which had governed for nine years.

Through a policy of reining in expenditure on many projects affecting schools, hospitals and transport, the National Government accumulated a surplus which they planned to offer as tax cuts in an election inducement in 2017. Labour cancelled those tax cuts that had been legislated for and instead announced they would spend billions on health, education, welfare and infrastructure. Many of these projects have already started.

The rate of capital expenditure by the Government is already substantially ahead of the previous nine years and will quicken.

With the “New Zealand Upgrade” programme announcement, capital spending will be at its highest rate for twenty years and thousands of jobs will be created.

Much of the expenditure will be invested in regional roads and rail. Schools and health infrastructure will also be boosted with an emphasis on the regions.

The projects will produce environmental outcomes with provision made for public transport, walking and cycling, including a walking and cycling path across the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said very low borrowing costs and an economy in good shape presented a once in a lifetime opportunity to start this much needed work.

Significantly, the trusted and respected Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, will oversee the programme. He said every project has been funded.

The leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges, claimed the transport projects in the infrastructure plan had been proposed by him when he was Minister of Transport. The Government said National failed to provide funds for these projects.

The Labour Government promised to keep rigidly to its Budget Responsibility rules. Even after the infrastructure spending is factored in, net Crown debt levels as a percentage of GDP will be lower than Labour inherited from National and well under its target of 25 percent.

The National Party Opposition’s election year preparations have included studying the Australian Liberal Party’s tactics that produced Scott Morrison’s “miracle” re-election and has adopted some of them, including his tax cut plan.

Opponents of the Government are further assisted by some sectors of the media in New Zealand which has become increasingly populist and conservative. Talk-back hosts and radio commentators appear also to have studied their Australian counterparts.

With “The New Zealand Upgrade” revealing some major planks of the Government’s platform, the election campaign has intensified. The electorate can finally examine details of the Government’s major investment plans in the context of the distantly looming election.

The Ardern Government’s emphasis on the wellbeing of the nation, its regions and its people is being made tangible by focussing investment in transport, health and education.

The question is whether or not a Government committed to an altruistic approach, building a more physically durable nation and a kinder, more caring community, can win against the conservative, less philanthropic forces alive and well in the nation come Election Day.

Max Hayton is a former Foreign Editor and political journalist in New Zealand.

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