The 2020 general election produced the most powerful government New Zealand has ever had since proportional
representation (mixed member representation) began in 1996. With three year terms we have now had nine elections under
this system. For the first time we have elected a majority government. The first eight elections required coalition
partners. But can a government with so much power also have the fragility of a house of cards?
Last September Labour won an absolute majority and therefor mandate to govern alone. It opted to enter into a governing
arrangement with the third biggest party, the Greens, but not as part of a formal coalition. National as the main
opposition party was thrashed including losing badly to Labour in provincial New Zealand. While we have had previous
strong governments under Prime Ministers Helen Clark and John Key (and Bill English), none were in such a powerful
position as Jacinda Ardern.An eternity ago
It seems an eternity ago now but seven months earlier the polls were advising that it was a neck-and-neck race between
Labour and National with the latter slightly ahead. In other words, it was 50:50 whether Ardern would be one of our few
one term prime ministers. Labour’s earlier lead arising out of its impressive handling of the response to the terrorist
Christchurch mosque murders a year earlier had evaporated.
Labour was not seen on delivering on matters that made a significant tangible differences for the better to people’s
lives including poverty, our rundown health system and affordable housing. This was despite Ardern claiming in the
lead-up to the 2017 election that Labour would lead a transformational government and subsequently asserting that 2019
would be the year delivery. Transformation never eventuated and 2019 was more like a year of non-delivery.
But then came Covid-19 and the Government’s willingness to follow the science and ability to provide masterful
leadership which justifiably earnt high public confidence. It was justly rewarded electorally in September.Political fickleness
Politics can be fickle. In 2002 Helen Clark led Labour to a resounding election victory thrashing National. But, on the
back of an appeal to racism in a speech a couple of years later by its new leader Don Brash, not only was Labour’s huge
lead in the polls lost but National leapt well ahead. Labour managed to pull this back by adopting more tangible
policies such as ‘working for families’ and making the student loan scheme interest free enabling it to just scrap
through in the 2005 election.
In 1972 Labour was elected with a massive majority; three years later National returned to office also with a massive
majority. In 1978 National only just retained office with a razor thin majority despite Labour winning the popular vote.
In Queensland the state Labour government was decimated in 2012 with its 51 seats reduced to 7 following a nearly 16%
swing against it. In the very next election Labour successfully returned to office.
Labour’s victory last September was due to its crisis management skills from the terrorist attack to Covid-19. One
effect of its success combating Covid-19 was an unedifying leadership crisis within National. But there is fragility
underlying Labour’s support because of too much non-delivery that the so-called NZ First ‘handbrake’ can no longer be
blamed for.Making a tangible difference
If Labour isn’t seen to be making a tangible difference in people’s lives in areas such as poverty, housing, and the
accessibility of health services, it is electorally vulnerable in 2023. We need to see substantive progress being made
through specific measures. These include strengthening collective bargaining and introducing fair pay agreements to
improve wage and salary incomes, implementing its welfare advisory group’s recommendations including benefit levels,
addressing the workforce vulnerabilities and crises that affect our health system, not allowing centralised health
bureaucracy to make decisions that affect the health and well-being of communities, and improve housing affordability
(through supply and prices). If we don’t see this an election defeat in 2023 isn’t implausible.
If Labour proceeds with creating massive ‘mega-DHBs’, thereby further distancing people living outside the main centres
from health decision-making that directly affects them, Labour can kiss goodbye to many of the provincial seats that it
won so well last year.
Labour can’t rely on continuing leadership difficulties to impede National’s ability to get its political act together.
Already Judith Collins has made a remarkable transformation since her disastrous election campaign. She now sounds like
a human being. It is not impossible that by the end of the year National’s percentage polling improves to the mid-30s
which is likely to strengthen her leadership and National’s performance in the next election. But this could also happen
with a leadership change depending on the person and Labour’s tangible performance in government.
So what is the difference between a powerful government and a house of cards? Depending on the circumstances, very