By Peter Dunne*
With just over three weeks until the General Election, the release of the first major pre-election opinion poll this week confirmed what was already being reported about this year’s campaign.
Although the gap between Labour and National has narrowed slightly it remains substantial and is unlikely to be overturned by election day. That means that, whatever else happens, National is likely to be looking at the loss of up to 15 seats, including 14 sitting (mainly list) MPs.
Already, polling is showing National set to lose the Auckland Central seat it has held since 2008, and there are whispers that other seats like Whanganui and Wairarapa are poised to fall as well. A reduction in numbers of that size will have significant implications for both the Party’s resourcing in the next Parliament, which will be proportionately reduced, and will also remove the dominance National has had of select committees in the last Parliament, because of its high numbers of MPs.
Labour, on the other hand, stands to gain up to 16 additional MPs, over and above those being elected to replace Labour MPs who are retiring, which will present its own challenges in the coming Parliament.
For many, their election, on the party list, will come as an unexpected surprise to both themselves and the Party itself. Undoubtedly, some of these will subsequently prove not up to the task of being MPs and will need to be hidden away lest they become embarrassments.
Others will quickly become frustrated that in a Caucus potentially that large, there will be little opportunity for them to make any significant impact, especially as policymaking and major decisions will continue, as is the case in all governments, to be made by the Cabinet, and within that, the core of Ministers close to the Prime Minister.
In addition, there will be those from the 2017 intake frustrated that after a term in government, there is no place in the Ministry for them, and they remain just backbenchers. Managing these egos and thwarted ambitions will take some skill and will be a major challenge for the Party’s Whips and officials in the term ahead.
On the other hand, Labour will gain significant additional Parliamentary resources because of this windfall and should have no difficulty in ensuring a reliable government majority on all select committees.
While the Greens will be breathing a sigh of relief that on the basis of this week’s poll, they are across the party vote threshold, they still face some major uncertainties.
Historically, the Greens have always done better in opinion polls than on election day itself, so being just over the threshold at this stage means, on the basis of past performance they cannot yet take their re-election as a given.
Previously, they have always received a big bump in their support from overseas votes, but with many Zealanders having come home because of Covid-19, there may be fewer of these, and in any case, the likelihood is that Labour will be the main beneficiary of them this year.
Moreover, even if the Greens are returned, there is no guarantee what role they will play in the next Parliament. It was significant that the during the leaders’ debate this week the Prime Minister was very coy about the prospects of the Greens continuing to play a role in government if Labour wins an outright majority.
For New Zealand First, the news continues to be bad. Despite a national tour and a number of regional policy announcements the Party’s support has barely shifted above the 2% or thereabouts it has been trapped upon for some time.
With both Labour and the Greens making negative noises about New Zealand First’s contribution to government since 2017 it is hard to see things changing significantly for them over the next three weeks or so.
Even Shane Jones seems to have thrown in the towel at least as far as winning the Northland seat is concerned.
In all these circumstances, the Party’s campaign appeal to be the handbrake on Labour and the Greens is ineffectual for two reasons. Some would regard New Zealand First’s behaviour as a classic case of the tail already going too far in wagging the dog, while others would note that it is difficult to be an effective handbrake on anything if the Party is not in Parliament at all. And lurking in the background behind all of this is the report of the Serious Fraud Office into the operations of the New Zealand First Foundation that was promised before the first election date of September 19, but has yet to see the light of day.
Meanwhile, it continues to be smooth sailing for ACT. David Seymour is presently the most impressive party leader outside the Prime Minister and his party is well on track to record perhaps its best result ever, and certainly its best for at least 15 years.
While he may feel frustrated that his reinvigorated party is unlikely to end up a government partner this time, he should perhaps feel relieved. Three years on the crossbenches, as a vocal Opposition party, will give him the opportunity both to weld his new team together, and also to carve out a significant niche to National’s right which ACT can then credibly claim as their own, shutting out more extremist pretenders like the New Conservatives and Advance New Zealand.
At this stage of the campaign, therefore, the only outstanding questions surround the Greens. Will they actually get over the threshold, and if they do, will Labour want to partner with them again in government if it does not need to? The rest of the election jigsaw is beginning to look remarkably settled which is why the campaign so far has been so uninspiring.
*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.