WikiLeaks cable: NZ election date 2005: Not now, I'm watching the rugby

April 6, 2005
NZ election date 2005: Not now, I'm watching the rugby

SUBJECT: NEW ZEALAND ELECTION DATE 2005: NOT NOW, I'M
WATCHING THE RUGBY

REF: WELLINGTON 70

Classified By: ACTING DCM KATHERINE HADDA, FOR REASONS 1.4(B,D)

1. (U) Summary: New Zealand's Labour Government is nearing
the end of its three-year term and speculation is rife among
the media and policymakers over the yet-to-be-determined
election date. Many pundits believe Labour will call
elections early, both in order to throw off the opposition's
ability to mount an effective campaign and to guard against
possible negative voter reaction if there is an economic
downturn or other unforeseen controversy. Prime Minister
Clark has indicated that the Party will go "full term," but
even this could include any date between the Government's
three-year anniversary in late July and September 24, the
last Saturday before the September 27 cut-off date mandated
under NZ's election law (reftel). Factors such as the winter
rugby schedule, the release of the budget and the Cabinet's
international political commitments will help determine the
date.

Regardless of the specifics, both Labour and the
opposition are trying to use the public's increasing focus on
election timing to highlight their parties' agendas. End
summary.

Regulations
-----------

2. (U) Under NZ's electoral system, the Prime Minister
decides on which date an election will be held. The
Governor-General then dissolves Parliament by proclamation,
and issues a second proclamation summoning Parliament to meet
again several weeks after the election, although they are not
bound to actually meet on that date. On what is known as
Writ Day the Governor-General tells the Chief Electoral
Officer to hold a general election, and polling is scheduled
to occur on a Saturday, 20-27 days after nomination day.
The day on which individual constituency candidate and party
list nominations close is declared Nomination Day. In 2002,
PM Clark announced the election on June 11, writ day was June
25, July 2 was nomination day and the election was held on
July 27, 2002.

Why Wait? Timing Is Everything
------------------------------

3. (C) Incumbent politicians have historically been penalized
for calling an early or snap election, and indications are
that PM Clark wishes to go "full-term," or between July and
September. Ultimately, the decision on timing is Clark's
alone, and according to members of her staff she has not yet
chosen a date. Cabinet Ministers Marian Hobbs and Chris
Carter independently expressed to us their doubts over an
early election, questioning how Labour could justify the
decision to voters in the absence of any outside influence.
They seem to believe such justification is needed in order to
avoid voter perception that the Government is manipulating
the process by holding elections when Labour's star is at its
highest. Labour currently maintains a comfortable ten point
polling lead over the Opposition National Party, and our
contacts argue that there are no indications that their
party's fortunes will change within the next six months. In
addition, the Government's budget will be released on May
19th and its advertising campaign regarding its milestone
"Working For Families" social welfare package is scheduled to
peak in August. A late (Antipodean) winter election would
assure Labour that publicity surrounding these financial
packages impacts the maximum number of voters.

4. (C) The PM's Chief Press Spokesman, Mike Munro, also
downplayed to us the likelihood of an early election. "It
will be some time between July and September, so what's the
fuss all about?" he said. Munro added that he did not really
blame the media for hyping the issue, as the election is
their biggest story of the year.

5. (U) Some have seen Labour's March release of its list of
party candidates as a sign of an early election, but Labour
delegates at the Party Congress insisted to us that the
timing was designed to prevent candidates from focusing on
their own possible list ranking instead of campaigning for
the overall party vote. (Note: The higher the candidate's
name is on the list, the more likely her or she is to gain a
seat in Parliament. (reftel)) A number of political parties
in New Zealand have yet to finalize their Party Lists for the
upcoming election. National expects to complete its list in
June, as do the Greens.

6. (C) National Party leader Don Brash has publicly cited
the early election buzz as proof that the Government is
panicky over a worsening economic situation. (Brash, National
Foreign Affairs Spokesman Lockwood Smith, and Welfare
Spokesman Judith Collins have in the past all told us that it
will be much harder for National to gain votes if the economy
is doing well. It's not surprising, therefore, that they
will use any chance they can to highlight any weakness in the
system.) Brash has also used the media's interest in the
election date to emphasize his party's readiness, publicizing
National's strong party membership numbers, and point out
that candidates have been selected in all 62 general
electorates. On Party policy, Brash noted that National is
waiting to "see the shape of the Labour Government's Budget
on May 19," but indicated that most policy development has
been completed though not yet revealed.

Can't Vote Now- The Footy's On
------------------------------

6. (U) While often referred to jokingly by policymakers, with
NZ elections held on Saturdays the winter rugby season is a
major determinant in scheduling an election. The British
Lions rugby team will be playing heavily attended matches in
NZ each weekend in June and early July. These games are not
only a distraction from any political campaigning, but
involve the movement of thousands of voters from their voting
districts. August is similarly "full of footy" with
Tri-Nations matches with Australia and South Africa serving
as a source of great nationalism, and distracting from
election year campaigning.

7. (C) Beyond football, PM Clark's foreign commitments may
disrupt the September options. A United Nations Head of
State or Government meeting in New York September 13 ) 16 is
a powerful draw for Clark, especially as she has in the past
expressed a desire to follow her NZ career with a
high-profile UN position.

Comment
-------

7. (C) While speculation is seen by some as a sport to while
away the hours, Labour is approaching this election with
great gravity, as noted in this part weekend's Labour Party
Congress in Wellington. Complacency was derided by the PM,
along with its "twin sister ) arrogance." No Labour party
has won a third term since the First Labour Government
(1935-1949,) and economic indicators are increasingly
pointing to a slowdown at the end of 2005. Finance Minister
Michael Cullen, in talks at the Party Congress, repeatedly
emphasized the impact an economic slowdown would have on
Labour's ability to implement social policy. Labour is not
taking anything for granted, and is weighing a number of
factors in choosing a date that will optimize its polling
advantage without allowing the Opposition time to mount a
sustained attack. Whatever the date, media focus on this
issue is a bellwether for increased voter awareness of
election issues.
Burnett

- Herald on Sunday

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