Inside Story

NZ’s back-to-the-future election

Saturday’s result looks like a return to pre-Ardern, pre-Covid politics

Jennifer Curtin 18 October 2023 1072 words

Normal service? New Zealand’s prime minister–elect, Christopher Luxon, talking to journalists in Auckland on Sunday. Alex Burton/New Zealand Herald via AP

While the world was watching the Middle East on the weekend and Australians were focused on the Voice referendum, New Zealanders were voting in a new national government. Although late polling had hinted at a closer race than initially thought, in the end Saturday’s result was clear-cut.

The centre-right National party — which won 46 per cent of the vote in 2017 but narrowly failed to form government, and managed just 26 per cent in 2020 — secured 39 per cent of the vote and fifty seats in the 121-seat parliament. Its habitual coalition partner, the ACT party, attracted 9 per cent and an additional electorate seat, for a likely total of eleven. Between them, these two parties of the right attracted 47 per cent of the vote, just two seats fewer than their combined result in 2017, giving National leader Christopher Luxon a clear mandate to form government.

This time it’s the turn of Labour, and its relatively new leader Chris Hipkins, to face devastation. The party won just 27 per cent of the vote and lost a number of previously safe seats in Auckland — results that echo its performance in the 2011 and 2014 elections. Polling had suggested a similar defeat in 2017 until Ardern took over the leadership and secured a solid 37 per cent, and government, through a coalition with New Zealand First and a support agreement from the Greens.

Some in the media are blaming the extent of the loss on Ardern’s unfulfilled promise of transformation and the extended lockdowns experienced by Aucklanders. But once the count is finalised (in three weeks or thereabouts) and the split voting patterns analysed, the causes may prove to be more complex.

First, it is important to remember that the 2020 election result was an anomaly. Since New Zealand introduced proportional representation in 1996, no party had won more than half the vote. Labour achieved this, but single-party government came at the expense of support from across the political spectrum.

According to calculations by the political scientist Jack Vowles, the net shift in votes in 2020 was the biggest in over a century. The question that followed from that electoral upheaval was whether New Zealand was witnessing the beginnings of an electoral realignment.

The weekend’s results so far suggest that New Zealand politics has returned to its pre-Covid, pre-Ardern political landscape. Fragmentation has returned on the left and right, with the Greens and Te Pāti Māori (the Māori Party) winning votes and seats from Labour, and the ACT party doing the same to National. NZ First, under the leadership of the veteran politician Winston Peters, is back in parliament after three years, with eight seats and the now-familiar role of kingmaker.

Second, this election featured a resurgence of anti-Māori sentiment built on extremist reactions to initiatives including co-governance of natural resources and infrastructure and the reorganisation of healthcare to better support the needs of Māori communities. Indeed, the politicisation of race relations during this year’s campaign reached a level not seen since former National leader Don Brash’s infamous 2004 “Orewa” speech, in which he attacked “special privileges” accorded to Māori New Zealanders.

The rekindled race debate fuelled opposition to the widely accepted recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi’s significance in fostering strong partnerships between Māori and the Crown to ensure greater equity in policy outcomes. (The constitutionally and culturally significant treaty was signed in 1840 between most Māori tribal leaders and representatives of the British Crown.)

By contrast, the two smaller parties on the left, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori, campaigned on issues identified as the greatest voter concerns: the cost of living, inflation and health, as well as climate change and natural resource governance. They stayed positive in their messaging and quietly garnered an increase in support and ultimately an increase in both party and electorate votes at the expense of Labour.

Te Pāti Māori added three Māori electorates to the one it already held. The Greens also won three electorate seats, holding on to Auckland Central and picking up two central Wellington seats from Labour. High-profile Greens and Te Pāti Māori candidates also stood in several safe Labour seats, resulting in those seats being lost, or only marginally won, by Labour.

Third, turnout appears to have been well down this year, which was always going to be a concern for Labour. While the media coined the term “Jacindamania” even before her star power became evident, Ardern’s elevation in 2017 and her leadership through Covid-19 seem to have mobilised voters.

Part of the explanation for the turnout might also lie in the fact that no headline referendums were held on the weekend. End-of-life legislation and the legalisation of cannabis were both put to a vote in 2020, with the latter believed to have particularly motivated younger voters. As the 2020 New Zealand Election Study revealed, young people were more likely than their elders to favour that legalisation, to seek more information from the Electoral Commission’s referendum website and, as a consequence, to vote. Combined with polls predicting a resounding win for the right, the absence of highly charged referendums may have led some voters on the left to disengage.

The Electoral Commission has estimated that this year’s turnout will be 78.4 per cent of enrolled voters (down from 82.2 per cent in 2020). It would be lower still as a proportion of all those who were eligible to enrol. Research shows that Māori, Pacific islanders, young people and those on lower incomes — groups less likely to vote, historically at least — are more likely to vote Labour.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that only once since 1949 has Labour won three consecutive elections. It was Helen Clark’s Labour government (1999–2008) that achieved this feat, with its third term only possible with the support of NZ First among others.

By contrast, National has never had the experience of being a one-term government. Indeed, it won the most seats — and potentially a fourth term — in 2017 but was unable to win over NZ First. Similar negotiations will need to happen this time round, a process history tells us is likely to be painful and protracted and could yet slow the pace of National’s proposed cuts to taxes and services.

While the smaller parties may have scooped up more of the total vote share than in times past, the make-up of government, and the plight of Labour look like a return to pre-Covid times. •