One of the odd features of MMP is that we vote twice: for an electorate MP and a party. And we’re also implicitly voting for a coalition. In the past, the electorate has consistently preferred centrist governing arrangements, but that’s not a realistic prospect this time around.
Both the major parties have attacked each other’s coalition prospects, describing them as chaotic. This week, a Taxpayers’ Union-Curia Poll revealed that 40% of voters perceive a National-Act-New Zealand First coalition as more chaotic, while 35% think Labour-Greens-Te Pati Māori are the true agents of chaos.
They’re not wrong. We’d see some very radical policies from the left-wing arrangement, but they could cheerfully sit around a table together and run the country. In the right-wing coalition, Act’s David Seymour would have more seats, and therefore more power and Winston Peters would find this completely intolerable. Later in the week, Seymour mused that they would have to find a governing arrangement with some distance between the two support parties. It’s hard to imagine what this would look like: two very aggressive leaders who hate each other would always have to rely on each other’s votes to get legislation passed.
Act released its welfare policy today. It is very on brand – drug addicts would lose access to their benefits if they refused treatment and failed to look for work. But it foregrounds how quiet National has been about welfare numbers over the past few years. During the Clark government, the size and cost of the benefit system was one of National’s grand themes. Its welfare spokesperson and then minister for social development was Paula Bennett, one of the party’s most prominent MPs. It’s interesting – and a little mysterious – that National has left this space open for Act.
Labour had some good policies this week. It would look at making stalking a separate offence, punishable with imprisonment, and today it pledged to dramatically scale up the number of medical students and clinical placements for nursing students. It would abolish its 30% reduction in prison numbers target, which seems to have led to a spike in crime. It’s a fleeting glimpse into what a second-term Labour government could have been like, if it hadn’t been so obsessed with centralising and growing the bureaucracy.
Act has had a messy couple of weeks: five candidate resignations, Seymour’s public musings about bizarre coalition arrangements. Today, it attempted a campaign refresh – promoted as “the biggest event in the party’s history” – with a rally in Auckland. But the event was interrupted by serial political heckler Karl Mokaraka, a Vision NZ candidate and the breakout star of the 2023 campaign. Mokaraka disguised himself with a gigantic false moustache and a luminous pink tie, infiltrated the carefully vetted audience and disrupted Seymour’s speech, screaming, “You are an actor my friend. An actor.” This precipitated a mini-brawl between Act supporters and media covering the incident. News coverage was farcical.
Mokaraka has also targeted National and Labour. The Greens must surely be next, with a final confrontation between Mokaraka and Winston Peters serving as the logical culmination of the campaign.
Both the major parties conduct opposition research against their rivals, much of which involves trawling through the social-media feeds of MPs and candidates looking for embarrassing comments. They have software applications that allow them to scrape this information, then search it for key terms, and this probably explains the story that broke today about National’s Hamilton East candidate, who made anti-fluoride comments on Facebook back in 2013. Almost as soon as this story emerged, we learnt that a Labour candidate had railed against the HPV vaccine in 2019, suggesting National had the information on the shelf, ready to respond when it came under attack.
The first leaders’ debate was tonight. There seems to be a consensus among commentators that Christopher Luxon won, and I think that’s correct. He’s very inexperienced for a major party leader, and that’s damaged him and his party over the past two years. But he’s been a quick study, and based on his performance last night, it’s easy to imagine him running the government for a few terms: a low-key Key era restoration in which he’s perpetually relaxed about failed policies and ministerial scandals. And he was very well prepared. Chris Hipkins didn’t seem to have a goal or strategy: it’s possible he was relying on the sheer weight of his experience to carry the day. If so, that was yet another unforced error from Labour’s campaign.
Some commentators also thought the debate was boring. I have a very short attention span and I stayed awake through it all. It’s true there wasn’t much drama. There’s a perpetual media bias towards conflict and histrionics because it’s good for engagement. But those aren’t qualities the majority of voters are looking for in their leaders, both of whom seemed very credible. It is also true that in the quickfire questions designed to illuminate the personal and ideological differences between the two men, they gave the same answers on almost everything. I anticipate plenty of conflict in the upcoming minor-party debate.
No drastic changes in the latest 1News Varian poll: National and Act can form a government with a majority of one seat. This is far from ideal. There’s a famous quote that’s been attributed to British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan after a journalist asked him what blew governments off course. His reply: “Events, dear boy. Events.” All it would take to bring down a National-Act coalition with 61 seats is an electorate MP standing down and National losing the subsequent by-election.
The Varian poll also asked voters if political parties should be upfront with potential coalition partners prior to the election. Eighty-two percent said yes. We know exactly what the left-wing coalition would look like: Labour, the Greens and Te Pati Māori. But National is still being strategically opaque about whether its coalition would include New Zealand First.
One of the other failings of MMP is that policies that weren’t discussed during the campaign can come out in the post-election negotiations. Labour’s 2017 arrangement with NZ First was the most egregious example of this: Peters campaigned on a number of populist policies – ring-fencing GST for local government, making prisoners do hard labour, a referendum on the number of MPs and the Māori seats, and reducing immigration. None of which made it into his coalition deal with Labour. Instead, he demanded the foreign affairs portfolio, the regional economic development fund, and a free-trade deal with Russia.
The minor leaders’ debate was promoted as “the powerbrokers’ debate” by NewsHub, although none of them have much that power to broker after the election. They’re all pre-committed to some form of coalition with one of the major parties. The physical positioning of the candidates spoke volumes: Green co-leader Marama Davidson and Te Pati Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer standing together, high-fiving and heckling the two men on their periphery, David Seymour and Winston Peters. Competitive debaters sometimes adopt a tactic of joking when their opponent is serious, then pivoting to serious when their opponent matches their levity. It lets them control the mood of the debate. It’s a technique Marama Davidson employed to considerable effect: soberly denouncing David Seymour and promising to heal the nation, then affectionately mocking Winston Peters about his age, in a manner Peters obviously found charming despite himself.
Peters still radiates charisma: the dazzling smile, the rich, deep voice. Most of what he says makes no sense when you try to parse it for meaning but his force of character compensates for the lack of coherency. David Seymour tried to focus on delivering his key messages to the audience, talking past the host Rebecca Wright and the other participants in the debate. But his voice was so monotonic, especially compared to Davidson and Peters, his content was lost in the drone.
There was a hint of rapprochement between the two men. We already knew Davidson and Ngarewa-Packer could work together, but given the current polls the more likely government is some combination of Peters and Seymour - both of whom indicated they could work together if that’s what the voters delivered. And by the end of the debate it was easier to imagine a National-Act government with Winston Peters - as foreign minister outside of Cabinet, perhaps - supporting it on confidence and supply. Out of the country for most of the time with an ambassadorship and a knighthood waiting at the end of it.
The GPD measures also came out today: growth of 0.9% for the June quarter. 3.2% growth over the last year. That’s pretty good, given that we spent the end of last year and the beginning of this one in recession. A lot of that growth is due to record high migration levels, of course. If you have more people working and spending, the amount of economic activity in your country will naturally increase. And there’s anxiety among some economic commentators, who think the population increase will be inflationary, and that the Reserve Bank will have to raise interest rates again after the election, possibly tipping us back into recession. Although both major parties insist they’ll beat inflation and grow the economy, neither has offered suggestions on how they’ll deliver on these promises.