New Zealand waits for Party equations with bated breath

Election 2023 was devastating for Labour and its Leader Chris Hipkins but the writing was on the wall (Getty Images)

Richard Shaw
Palmerston North, October 17, 2023

Close, but so far no baubles of office for Winston Peters and NZ First.

“We have done the impossible,” he told supporters on election night (October 14, 2023).

But as the old saying goes, politics is the art of the possible.

For the past two weeks, as the polls showed NZ First climbing towards and then past the 5% threshold for securing seats in Parliament, all the talk was about how Peters, the great survivor of New Zealand politics, might exercise the balance of power.

In the event, many things now hang in the balance. New Zealanders will have to wait until the variables and peculiarities of the MMP electoral system are shakedown once special votes are included in the final results.

Varying fortunes for Parties

But there is no denying the laurels on the night went to Christopher Luxon’s National Party.

It outperformed recent polling to secure 38.9% of the vote and 50 seats in the new Parliament. All that, plus an All Blacks victory the next morning.

The ACT Party will reflect on a night which, if not quite as good as earlier polling might have delivered, still resulted in 8.9% of the vote and 11 seats.

For Chris Hipkins and the Labour Party, however, it was a terrible evening. Labour’s 26.9% of the vote is barely half what it achieved just three years ago, and its second-worst performance since 1969. Labour lost a slew of electorates including seats such as Rongotai, Wellington Central and Mt Roskill which have rarely not been red. The road back for Labour will be a long one, and it begins with a much-diminished caucus.

Christopher Luxon at his Electorate Office in Botany (Facebook)

End of an era

Ironies abound in this election. Under MMP, the Party vote determines the overall outcome, but the votes cast in constituencies have shaped the size of the next Parliament.

The unfortunate death of an ACT candidate means that NZ First’s Leader may yet be kingmaker. Parties hostile to the very existence of Māori seats may have to work together because of what happened in those electorates.

But beyond those minutiae, something else happened on the election night.

Three years ago, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party won the largest share of the popular vote since 1951, largely on the basis of the trust voters placed in her political leadership and her government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

A New Zealand that no longer wishes to be reminded of those dark times closed the door on the government that led the country through them.

Not so Minor Parties

Behind the raw numbers lies another story. The combined two-party vote for National and Labour was just 65.9%, the lowest since 2002. It may soon be time to retire the “minor” shorthand used to refer to the other parties now embedded in the political landscape.

The Greens have real cause for celebration, adding four seats to the ten they secured in 2020. The Party held the key urban seat of Auckland Central and also picked up Wellington Central, comfortably winning the Party vote in that electorate too.

Te Pāti Māori’s performance in doubling the number of its parliamentary seats to four was striking: reward for confident, assertive leadership from Rawiri Waititi (the incumbent for the Waiariki seat) and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer (the new MP for Te Tai Hauāuru).

At just 21 years of age, new Waikato-Tainui MP Hana-Rawhiti Maipi-Clarke, who toppled Foreign Affairs Minister Nania Mahuta – becomes the youngest representative ever elected in Aotearoa New Zealand.

NZ First, on the other hand, will be feeling frustrated. Yes, it is back in Parliament with eight seats, after three years on the sidelines. But Winston Peters is not (yet) in the kingmaker position that most major polls were predicting just days ago.

Professor Richard Shaw

The maths of MMP

Te Pāti Māori’s strong showing means the 54th Parliament will probably have 122 MPs, including the additional seat that will be added following the Port Waikato by-election to be held on November 25.

Crucially, this means at least 62 seats will be needed to form a government.

National and ACT currently control 61. Assuming National holds Port Waikato, between them they will be able to cobble together a bare majority.

However, if either National or ACT lose seats when the official results are announced on November 3, Port Waikato would become irrelevant: if he has not already done so by then, Luxon would have to pick up the phone and speak with Winston Peters.

It is worth pointing out that National has routinely dropped seats once special votes have been counted at each of the past six elections: two in 2017 and 2020, and one in every election between 2005 and 2014.

It is possible, therefore, that the business of stitching together the next government will not be entirely straightforward.

That process is unusually permissive under New Zealand’s election rules. Parliament must meet within six weeks of the return of the writs (November 9), but there is no formal requirement that a government be in place at that point.

Moreover, the shape, substance and duration of the process are for the political parties to determine. The Governor-General steers clear of proceedings, and some of the arrangements that apply elsewhere – the appointment of a “formateur” to oversee the process, for instance, or the requirement that the largest Party is included in the government – do not apply in New Zealand.

Internal barriers

It is all a little freestyle, which explains why the country has had such different government formation processes and outcomes since the first MMP election in 1996.

If National and ACT maintain the number of seats they won on election night, the only barriers they face to the formation of a government are internal ones.

Negotiations will likely have been concluded by December 22, the day the Governor-General will deliver the Speech from the Throne containing the incoming government’s policy priorities. But any slippage and all bets will be off.

NZ First’s support will be required to form a government. And if Winston Peter’s chequered history with the National Party is any guide, negotiations could quickly turn difficult.

But for now, NZ First and New Zealand itself must wait.

Richard Shaw is Professor of Politics at Massey University based in Palmerston North. The above article has been reproduced under Creative Commons Licence.

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