Is it a Kiwi thing to name political events after the first name of politicians? For example when Laissez-Faire economics was flavour of the decade in the 1980s, it was dubbed Reaganomics in the US (after Ronald Reagan), Thatchernomics in the UK (after Margaret Thatcher), but here in Aotearoa New Zealand it was called Rogernomics, (after Roger Douglas).
For the past month we have been faced with a new political event named after the first name of a politician – the Jacinda effect, also dubbed Jacindamania. Named after Jacinda Adern, it has turned a what was expected to be a boring and predictable general election into one balanced on a knife edge, with the major political parties leap frogging each other with the publishing of each new opinion poll.
Under our MMP electoral system, party representation in Parliament is determined by the nationwide party vote, and opinion polls can give a very accurate prediction of election results. During election campaigns, support for the major parties do not vary by more than a few percentage points. This year it’s very different.
At the commencement of this year’s campaign in July, the National party was polling at around 47% support while the Labour party was at 25% and falling. Of the minor parties, the Greens and NZ first were neck and neck with 10% each. Other parties were polling at 1% or less. The outcome was predicted to be that either National could form a government on its own or in cooperation with its current allies, NZ Futures, ACT and the Māori Party.
So what happened? First, the admission by Metiria Turei, the co-leader of the Greens that she failed to declare to Work and Income (the government department responsible for handling most social security benefits) when she was a solo mother and university student in the 1990s, that flatmates were contributing to her household income. Surprisingly, this omission, dubbed fraud by her opponents and an economic necessity by her supporters, saw her personal popularity rise, and the Greens rising dramatically to 15% support in the polls, and Labour dropping to 23%. Support for National also rose to 49%, making the election result an almost forgone conclusion.
Then the unexpected happened. With less than two months until the elections, Andrew Little, the leader of the Labour Party, resigned. I guess we’ll never know whether he jumped or was pushed, but clearly the resignation was due to his very poor personal ratings in the opinion polls and the effect that was having on the Labour Party. The party elevated the deputy leader, Jacinda Adern to leader, and the results were astounding.
Within days, the Jacinda effect saw National and Labour polling within a few percentage points of each other, and they have gone on to take turns at being the most popular party. Currently they both sit at around 40% – 43% support, depending on the poll. It seems certain neither party will be able to govern on their own.
The Jacinda effect has not only had a detrimental effect on National. It has had a devastating effect on the minor parties. Whereas the Greens had 15% support and NZ First 12% support – 27% between them, the Greens dropped to just under 5% support and NZ First to 7%.
Under MMP, a party gaining less than 5% of the party votes is ineligible for any party seats unless it also gains an electorate seat. That could mean that the Greens might not make it to the next Parliament. That would be a shame, as that leaves NZ first as the only potential government partner. And there’s nothing that Winston Peters, the leader of NZ First, likes better than being seen as the “king maker”.
What’s the problem with that you may ask. Look at it this way. Think of Donald Trump as Winston Peters on steroids. While he’s nowhere near as egocentric as Trump, he’s the most xenophobic, nationalistic politician we have. The name of his political party – New Zealand First – gives a clue to where he stands. And when I say his party, I do mean his party. Winston created it, leads it, and when he eventually leaves politics, so will NZ First.
What I like about our political system is that under MMP no party has been able to govern on its own. The major parties must rely on minor parties to form a government. Typically these are not coalitions, but agreements on matters of confidence and supply. This means that the governing party is not able to railroad legislation through Parliament, but must negotiate support for each bill, and not necessarily from their supporting partners.
It also means that other parties don’t automatically oppose every piece of legislation that comes before the House. I like to think that legislation is more considered and debated rationally as a consequence, instead of the “It’s good because we wrote it” and “It’s bad because they wrote it” mindset that occurred in the days prior to MMP. In those bad old days, it was not uncommon for bills to pass though Parliament without amendments, only to be found wanting after they came into effect.
Our unicameral legislature inevitably means that some poor legislation sneaks through, but these days, the lack of absolute power in Parliament for the governing party, and scrutiny that legislation undergoes through our select committee system means as it’s nowhere near as common as it once was.
The problem with Winston Peters is that he’s likely to demand full coalition instead of the more loose arrangements that have become more or less the convention. If he has a talent (apart from the ability to spend ten minutes not answering an interviewer’s question), it’s getting what he wants in political negotiations. While he makes politics in this country interesting, I really wouldn’t like Winston and his party to be the tail that wags the dog.
As to where my party vote will go, that’s no-one’s business but my own. But I will say this: I have voted every three years since 1969, and not once in all that time has my vote gone to a party forming the government. The odds are that it’s not going to be any different come the 23rd of September. So no matter which party or parties form the next government, it’s unlikely that I voted for them.