There’s an increased realisation that everything has changed, and the old plans and assumptions for election year have suddenly evaporated. So, although Ardern has named an election date of 14 October there’s some good reason for the new prime minister to bring that forward to, say, March.
The problem for Labour is that it was elected as a majority government under the leadership of Ardern with 50 per cent support in 2020. People didn’t vote so much for Chris Hipkins, Kiri Allan, or Michael Wood. It was Ardern that won that support – more than any other party leader in New Zealand’s political history. It was Jacindamania, not Labourmania.
And now the Government only has the support of about 32 per cent of New Zealanders – about a third have been lost in two years. Hence even without a change of leader, Labour is facing a legitimacy challenge, and that’s only now forecast to get worse. So, when English took over from Key, the National Government was hardly in freefall, and it had coalition partners as a check on its power. That’s not the case in this situation, just nine months from the election.
What’s more, the economic recession, along with the multiple crises faced by New Zealand society – from housing, and inequality through to problems in climate, and law and order – are only going to accelerate as we get closer to 14 October.
And that is essentially why Ardern bailed out yesterday. She could see the writing on the wall, and was smart enough to get out before the going got much tougher, and her government was thrown out. It’s better to retire early as an undefeated prime minister than face the ignominy of being beaten by Christopher Luxon.
Of course, it wasn’t just Labour’s popularity that was plummeting – Ardern herself was losing supporters as well as creating more opponents amongst the public. Pollsters regularly ask the public about whether they have a favourable or unfavourable opinion of individual politicians.
The net favourables for Ardern – that is, favourable polling numbers minus unfavourable polling numbers – were extremely high for Ardern in her early years of power. David Farrar writes today that Ardern “spent the first two years at between +40% and +60% which is massive. John Key never got quite that high”. However, this shifted into the negative for the first time: “2022 saw the net favourability decline to +4% mid year, rebound to +12% and then a gradual decline until she hit -1% in the Taxpayers’ Union-Curia poll released today”.
Calls for an early election
Broadcaster Rachel Smalley writes today in favour of an earlier election: “Labour will come under enormous public pressure to bring forward the election. It is unthinkable that we can sit in a rudderless void with Chris Hipkins or Michael Wood at the helm of the Government, lurching our way through a recession, and waiting for an election in October. Neither of those people, neither Hipkins nor Wood will make any decisions, we’ll just sit and tread water. Now the country, this is the reality, it needs a war-time leader and Labour does not have one waiting in the wings.”
According to Smalley, Ardern has given the new PM something of a hospital pass at a time of two separate types of crises: the crisis in the economy, and the crisis in the Labour Party that needs to reset itself to become re-electable in October. She suspects that the new PM will have to focus on the latter crisis, deprioritising the need to deal with the economy, housing, inequality, water reform, infrastructure and so forth. Better instead to go to the country and get a new mandate so that the government can concentrate on governing instead of electoral politics.
For an example of how changing prime ministers without an election can be a moral problem, look at the United Kingdom where the Conservative Government is onto its third prime minister this term. Once again, there was no legal or constitutional problem with Liz Truss taking over from Boris Johnson, and then Rishi Sunak after her, but without the public giving the leaders new mandates, the Government’s moral legitimacy has continued to be questioned.
The big problem, of course, is that Labour will want to double down on the need to provide stability, calm and certainty, especially in light of Ardern’s departure. The economic and global environment is already unsteady, and Labour has been campaigning on the basis that New Zealanders shouldn’t take risks this year, especially in their voting. And overall, the conservative advice to the Beehive will be to avoid anything that might look like panic or volatility.
Why would Prime Minister Chris Hipkins want to call an early election?
Having inherited an election date of 14 October, for the new prime minister – whoever it is, but presumably Chris Hipkins – it surely makes sense to hold onto power for as long as possible, with the hope of having as much time as possible to turn around Labour’s polling. Turkeys don’t vote for any early Christmas.
The counter to this is that things are likely to get much worse for the Labour Government over the coming year. This is especially the case in terms of the economy – with interest rates, and inflation picked by many to worsen through the year. It might therefore make sense to strike out early before the economy tanks further and the current gap between Labour and National widens to a place where re-election is seen as futile.
What the new prime minister needs more than anything is to reset the party and government in a truly surprising and bold way. This will require major changes in policy. There will be plenty of advice to the new PM to stand up to the Māori caucus, to shift further on things like co-governance and Three Waters. And someone like Hipkins, if he is PM, will be inclined to shift the Government further away from an association with what is perceived to be woke politics and culture wars.
Policy aside, a more substantial bold move to show bravery and chutzpah would be to call an early election. Yes, over-ruling Ardern’s election date would be something of a missive to the former PM, but this might be a useful way of the new leader telegraphing a difference from the old guard, and showing that they aren’t just going to be the proxy for the old boss. What’s more, there are some questions about whether Ardern should even have used her prerogative to set the election date unilaterally given that she was resigning – many might see that this should be a question for the new PM, not the old.
However, the most important point for Labour is that there is a real chance that an early election could be won by the new Labour PM. Almost certainly there will be some sort of honeymoon for the new leader. Yet this might well dissipate by 14 October. Hence the new Labour PM might have to choose between having a “snap election” or a “recession election”.
Although the conventional thinking is that a new leader needs plenty of time to stamp their mark and get known and liked by the electorate, this is no longer the case. Witness Ardern coming to the leadership in 2017 with just seven weeks before the election. A large element of momentum and urgency can work very well in politics.
Has Labour already lost the election?
The immediate response to Ardern’s departure has been to call the election for National. For example, writing in the wake of the shock announcement, political journalist Andrea Vance, said “Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson just conceded the election.” She argued that “Ardern has pulled the emergency eject lever, and Labour’s election hopes just crash landed”.
Business journalist Bernard Hickey writes this morning that “The odds are stacked much higher against them than they were 24 hours ago.” And according to Guardian writer Henry Cooke, “Labour MPs and supporters have every right to be furious…. She leaves the party in far worse shape to fight this election than it would have been under her leadership.” Leftwing commentator Josie Pagani also concludes: “Labour will be at much longer odds to be re-elected now.”
Newsroom journalist Sam Sachdeva suggests things could now get much worse for Labour: “the perception that Ardern is fleeing a sinking ship could accelerate that shift towards the right as people look to back a winner.”
Gamblers are also turning further against Labour with their money. Earlier in the week, the Australian betting sites were paying $2.20 for a Labour win in this year’s election, indicating a likely probability of only about 43 per cent. After Ardern’s shock announcement, the betting sites increased their payouts for a Labour victory to $3.80, suggesting only a 26 per cent likelihood of re-election.
A new PM could reset Labour for re-election
There is no consensus that Labour is doomed. Reporting on what Labour insiders are saying, Richard Harman says today, “Opinion within Labour circles last night was divided as to whether Ardern’s resignation would aid or harm its election chances.”
Rightwing commentator Matthew Hooton writes in the Herald today that Ardern’s resignation will make Labour more competitive, and he’s now forecasting a re-election as more likely than a National victory (although he thinks Labour would probably be re-elected in coalition with NZ First).
Hooton clearly thinks that Hipkins has what it takes to beat Luxon, and to attract a resurgent NZ First back into coalition with Labour after the election. But it’s Hipkins’ innate conservatism that makes him the right choice for Labour: “Hipkins is also more from the right of the Labour Party. No one who has met him would ever accuse him of being woke. To prove it, expect a Prime Minister Hipkins to carefully plan what the woke daily media will bellow are ‘mistakes’.”
Furthermore, Hooton says: “Hipkins is also not associated with policies Labour really needs to clear off the decks before the election. Those include aspects of Three Waters that are causing such angst in the provinces and, in Auckland, the unwanted and self-evidently unaffordable light-rail project”.
And Hipkins might be seen as the sort of PM that could deliver when Ardern couldn’t: “More substantively, he is orthodox on macroeconomic policy and has positioned himself as tough on law and order. Administratively, he is far more competent than Ardern but can also do a press conference to the required standard.”
The Herald’s Audrey Young is also sure that Hipkins is the right person to lead: “Hipkins is next best to Ardern and Robertson in terms of capability and credibility, and is the person most likely to cause the least pain for the public in terms of a transition to a new Prime Minister. If he puts up his hand for the Labour vote on Sunday, he should have no competition.” She suggests that such a candidate is obvious for Labour in this crisis: “This is the time for stability, competence, and safe hands.”
Stuff political editor Luke Malpass says that Hipkins is the obvious pick, not just because of his political skills and high profile but because he’s more rightwing: “He is also a centrist politician and further to the right of the Labour Party, putting him in a strong position to re-orient Labour to take on the economic challenges it will face this year.”
Labour’s big reset would also have to be substantial, according to Malpass: “Labour will also have to recalibrate its Three Waters policies as well as think seriously about its general rhetoric and positioning around co-governance. If Three Waters has shown anything, it is that race is still a live issue in New Zealand politics, even if it seems to have laid dormant for years.”
This is also why Labour might be uneasy about selecting Justice Minister Kiri Allan as PM. Writing for Newsroom today, Sam Sachdeva and Marc Daalder say: “Allan would be a high-risk, high-reward choice, given the extent to which co-governance has become a polarising topic and the potential for an unpleasant race-based campaign from some quarters.”
Allan would certainly be a very bold choice for Labour. And her ability to inspire enthusiasm for a generational change in leadership would be great, but possibly just too risky for a caucus that is probably more focused now on “winning votes than wokes”.
The symbolism of having Aotearoa’s first Māori Prime Minister will be very attractive to the more identity politics elements in Labour and the electorate, and the fact that she is young lesbian woman would also be a strong and positive narrative.
Instead, there will be many in the party telling Allan that it’s “not her time”, and to wait. The position of deputy prime minister is likely to be offered instead.
Huge pressure will be applied to caucus members to come together to find a new PM to anoint on Sunday, rather than go through what could be seen as a divisive vote.
But after a combo like Hipkins and Allan are anointed, they face the very big question of how to undertake the big political reset that Ardern was unable to do herself. While it’s unlikely that this will involve an early election, they will certainly need to consider whatever big and bold changes they can to show the public that this is a very different new government that deserves re-election. In this scenario, fortune will favour the brave.
Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Victoria University and director of Critical Politics, a project focused on researching New Zealand politics and society. This article was first published HERE