Not 48 hours after I sent what I thought was the final version of this column to the editor, events proved just how true the headline was: Todd Muller resigned as Leader of the National Party just eight weeks after he assumed the role. Twelve hours later, the National Party caucus elected Judith Collins as Leader and Gerry Brownlee as Deputy Leader. The political landscape suddenly changed almost unrecognizably. The relatively young and inexperienced duo of Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye were replaced by a couple of seasoned warriors – Judith Collins, who entered Parliament on the same day that John Key and I did in 2002, and Gerry Brownlee, who entered Parliament in 1996 and served as my Deputy during the three years over which I was Leader of the National Party from October 2003 to November 2006.
Of course the latest poll of public opinion taken before the change of leadership revealed that National was a very long way behind the Labour Party in popular support, but all of a sudden the public and the media sensed that the outcome of the election was no longer a foregone conclusion. The old cliché that “a day is a very long time in politics” had never seemed more appropriate.
Late last year, the Colmar Brunton poll suggested that National and ACT together were in a stronger position to form a Government than the current Coalition partners. Most of the big promises which Labour had made prior to the 2017 election had not been delivered – child poverty was increasing rather than decreasing, no decision had been made about who might build the promised light rail to the airport, only a tiny fraction of the promised 100,000 KiwiBuild houses had been built, there had been no attempt to remove the Metropolitan Urban Limit around Auckland (to make housing more affordable), re-entry to the Pike River mine had been effectively abandoned, free tertiary education looked like an expensive but ineffective bribe, and all the rest. Unfulfilled promises as far as the eye could see.
But then the pandemic. Even though the Government was deplorably slow to close our borders to those who could import the virus and grossly exaggerated the likely deaths unless the country was put into the tightest lockdown of any country in the world (“tens of thousands”), the pandemic gave our photogenic Prime Minister an opportunity to appear like a strong leader on primetime television every day for weeks. And the result was predictable. The Prime Minister’s personal rating as preferred Prime Minister shot up, dragging Labour’s popularity with her.
The National Party’s popularity fell, and Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett paid the price and were replaced by Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye. And in what seemed like a blink of an eye, they in turn were replaced by Judith Collins and Gerry Brownlee.
There are still plenty of imponderables, and making predictions is further complicated because, despite this being our ninth MMP election, it is quite clear that there is still a significant percentage of the population who do not understand how MMP works. This lack of understanding was evident from the number of people who had voted National at the 2017 election who were outraged that National, as the party which got the most party votes, didn’t get to form the Government. That didn’t happen quite simply because more people did not want the National Party than did. New Zealand First could have given National the edge, but chose Labour and the Greens.
And in a sense, as parties are currently configured in Parliament New Zealand First is always going to be in a position to decide which of the two major parties will form a Government (assuming that New Zealand First itself survives the election, which of course is by no means certain at this stage). Since it appears inconceivable that the Greens would form a coalition with National, and equally inconceivable that ACT would form a coalition with Labour, then the “swing party” in the middle, able in principle to form a coalition with either the centre-right grouping or the centre-left grouping, is New Zealand First. In 1996, in a very finely balanced Parliament, New Zealand First decided to go with National. In 2005, with an equally finely balanced Parliament (I was the National Party Leader at the time so remember it well!), New Zealand First went with Labour. And of course the same happened in 2017.
The lack of public understanding is also exemplified by how many people still think their electorate vote (as distinct from their party vote) is crucial in terms of deciding the composition of the Government. Electorate votes for Labour, National or Green candidates are, without exception, totally irrelevant: the number of MPs that all three of those parties get will be determined solely by their share of the party vote. (That is true unless Labour and the Greens were to do a deal whereby, in one electorate, the Labour candidate stood aside and encouraged Labour supporters to vote for the Green candidate. It’s hard to imagine any other circumstance where the Greens could win an electorate.)
For ACT, they want the electorate vote in the single electorate of Epsom because, by winning that seat, ACT is freed from the requirement to get 5% of the party vote in order to be in Parliament. Similarly, with New Zealand First currently polling well below the crucial 5% threshold, winning an electorate – probably that of Northland where Shane Jones is the New Zealand First candidate – is crucial. Elsewhere, even ACT and New Zealand First have absolutely no interest in electorate votes.
There are of course a multiplicity of small parties also contesting the election, too many to list them all. But it’s perhaps worth mentioning three of them.
One is the Maori Party, and this party too is vitally interested in the electorate vote since there seems no possibility on current polling of their reaching the 5% threshold. But if they were to win one of the Maori electorates, the 5% threshold would become irrelevant to them also.
Another is The Opportunities Party, created by Gareth Morgan before the 2017 election. Dr Morgan is not involved in the party for this election, and instead it is being led by Geoff Simmons. He’s an economist, but don’t hold that against him. Their most innovative policy would involve the creation of a Universal Benefit Income, a policy which internationally has considerable support on both the Left and the Right of the political spectrum as a way of freeing those currently subsisting on a benefit from the extremely high effective tax rates they face in trying to get off a benefit. (I looked at this issue when I was in Parliament and was told by Inland Revenue that at that time some 25,000 single parents faced an effective marginal tax rate in excess of 90%, even before taking into account the abatement of the Accommodation Supplement. This is because when somebody on such a benefit moves into a job they start paying income tax and lose their benefit.)
The New Conservative Party has some interesting policies also, including a strong commitment to treating all New Zealanders equally, irrespective of their ethnicity. Their Deputy Leader, Elliot Ikilei, as somebody with Maori, European, and Pacifica ancestry, seems the very embodiment of that.
What to do with your party vote? Each of us will have different priorities of course.
In my own case, I first rule out the Greens. While I agree with some of their environmental policies, their policies on welfare and the minimum wage put them on the far left of the political spectrum, reflecting a total absence of understanding how a modern economy works.
Second, while I’ve been more impressed with Grant Robertson, Labour’s Minister of Finance, than I had expected to be, and have a high regard for one or two other Labour Ministers – David Parker has been vitally important in the Trade portfolio for example – by and large Labour Ministers have been unimpressive, and the Prime Minister has been slow to move the non-performers on. Labour’s strong opposition to partnership schools also puts them beyond the pale for me given the great benefits which the kids who have attended them have gained. As indicated earlier, most of the big promises made by Labour before the last election remain unfulfilled – their failure to make housing more affordable being just their most egregious failure. And as we move nearer to the election, the Government seems to have lost all sense of direction in throwing very large amounts of money at almost everything.
From my perspective, New Zealand First has on balance been a constructive influence on the Government. Yes, it’s pretty hard to see the Provincial Growth Fund as other than a slush fund to win favour for New Zealand First, but the party can probably claim credit for blocking the Auckland light rail project and the capital gains tax, as well as preventing a number of legislative measures which would have given further constitutional preference to those with a Maori ancestor.
As a former Leader of the National Party, nobody will be surprised that I have a strong preference for National as compared with Labour. I entered Parliament on the same day as Judith Collins as I’ve mentioned, and reading her autobiography recently has reminded me how strong and principled she is. I believe Paul Goldsmith would make a very fine Minister of Finance. Prior to the change of leadership, I would have been reluctant to recommend a vote for National: I was worried that too many of the National Party caucus are status quo politicians, reluctant to rock the boat. And frankly, I believe the boat does need to be rocked. New Zealand has had lousy productivity growth for decades. We have an entrenched social welfare problem. We have an absurdly over-priced housing market. And we continue to give constitutional preferences to those who chance to have some Maori ancestry. None of these problems will be dealt with without strong and visionary leadership of a kind that the National Party has not provided for many years. However, with the new leadership team the National Party has something very tangible to offer.
But as a former Leader of the ACT Party also, and a current member of that party (to lay my cards on the table face up), I have to say that I’ve been greatly impressed with the way in which David Seymour has outlined a policy platform which would go a considerable way towards dealing with our lousy productivity growth and our absurd house prices. And as somebody who is closer to 100 than to 50, I also like the End of Life Choice Act!
Happily, in New Zealand we all have the freedom to exercise our own judgement on whom to vote for!
Copyright © 2020 Don Brash.