A recent poll suggests that New Zealand’s Labour Party had insufficient support to form a government if an election had been held when the poll was taken.
Jacinda Ardern has work to do and it is not just building roads and railways.
The recent 1 News Colmar Brunton poll conducted February 8-12 showed the National Party (conservative) opposition could have narrowly formed a coalition government with the minor ACT Party.
This poll was taken soon after the Government had made two major announcements: The election date of September 19 and it announced a major road, rail, health and education infrastructure construction programme.
The Government appears to have a problem at the polls. Jacinda Ardern personally has no such problem.
The same poll showed her rating 42% in the preferred Prime Minister stakes against the Opposition Leader Simon Bridges on 11%. At this early stage in Election Year, it appears Ardern’s job is safe, Bridges’ may not be so secure.
The reason for the Labour Government’s poor polling may be partly of its own making. Labour came into power in 2017 promising a a kinder, more caring Government and better lives for New Zealanders. One promise in particular was to produce more affordable housing. This programme has so far significantly not met its targets.
Although Government programmes, spending and financial husbandry have all been heading in positive directions most New Zealanders have failed to notice much difference.
New Zealanders live in a prosperous country where employment is high, unemployment is low and in its first two years the government has invested money where it said it would in health, education, infrastructure and housing while maintaining a surplus, yet voters appear to remain dissatisfied. The list of achievements is impressive, but not, it may seem, enough to convince the electorate.
Perhaps the Government raised expectations too high.
In Parliament last week (Thursday February 13), Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern launched the Parliamentary year with a speech outlining how the Government has tackled the long term challenges facing the country.
Priorities include health, housing, infrastructure, child poverty, the economy and the environment. During the week extra funding was announced to tackle homelessness. She said the sell-off of state houses by the previous government had been stopped. In addition the current government delivered in just 2 years over four thousand public housing places, banned offshore speculators, limited rent increases to once over a 12 month period and invested $NZ175 million in transitional housing to end the reliance on motels.
The Government blamed nine years of National Government neglect for the shortage of housing and poor outcomes in health, education and infrastructure.
The National Opposition Leader Simon Bridges said it was time to stop making excuses for the Prime Minister. He said the Government is first class at making announcements but hopeless at delivery. He said Ardern’s Government represented opportunities lost.
Ardern described her administration as a “Government of Infrastructure” but Simon Bridges said there was ample evidence of failures in infrastructure policies involving house building and light rail.
In his latest “state of the Nation” speech Bridges said the Government had increased the cost of living for New Zealanders so he promised to cut taxes and narrow the wage gap between New Zealand and Australia to reduce the number of New Zealanders leaving.
He said jobs growth was lower than under the National government and the economy was growing more slowly than Chile, Hungary, Poland, Spain, Greece and the Baltic countries.
In rebuttal Finance Minister Grant Robertson said tax cuts were being promised without announcing what services would be cut as a result.
Robertson said unemployment at 4 percent was well below the level the Government inherited from National, wages were rising at their fastest rate in a decade, and the economy was growing faster than the countries to which New Zealand compares itself including Australia and the UK. He said Bridges would create the same problems the Government was trying to fix.
These are the arguments that will dominate Election Year: National’s tax cuts to compensate for higher living costs, the Government’s infrastructure investments and child poverty reduction to make up for what it calls nine years of neglect.
It was always going to be an uphill battle for the Government. Labour became the Government because the minor party New Zealand First held the balance of power in the election in 2017. Its leader Winston Peters could have chosen either Labour or National to govern under New Zealand’s MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) system.
The latest poll suggests the same scenario is unlikely next election. In the poll New Zealand First was in deep trouble with only three percent. At this level of support Winston Peters would not be in a position to choose the next Government.
The news has been getting worse for Peters. His party’s arms-length fund-raising scheme, a foundation which receives large donations from some of New Zealand’s richest people is being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office. It’s not the first time Peters has caused anguish for his coalition partners.
His portfolios include Minister for Racing. In addition to the difficulties over his party’s fundraising foundation it has been alleged wealthy horse trainers are among his donors.
If Peters and New Zealand First don’t recover in time for the September 19 Election Labour will need to improve its standing sufficiently to govern alone or rely on another partner. The next best candidate could be the Green Party with five percent against NZ First’s three percent in the latest poll.
Under MMP small changes to the support for small parties could have a big influence on the outcome and with seven months to run it is too close to call.
Max Hayton is a former political correspondent and foreign editor in New Zealand.