2020 New Zealand Election Explained: on the 22nd of May 2020, opposition parliamentarians descended on parliament to hold an emergency caucus meeting.
Four months before the next planned general election, the National party leader Simon Bridges faced a challenge to his leadership from Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller.
The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, had just received international applause for her handling of the Coronavirus pandemic.
And New Zealanders were equally impressed, netting the Prime minister’s Labour party a dominant result in opinion polling.
Behind closed doors, Muller’s challenge was successful, and with that, the 2020 election campaigns unofficially began.
But while Ardern was receiving praise for her handling of the string of crises she faced over the three years since the last election, the pandemic had tanked the economy, and Muller and the center-right National party were aiming to bring that front and center in this election cycle.
Mr. Muller, despite being only in his second Parliamentary term, and thus having neither been a minister or having the national name recondition of other candidates, his ambition for the nation’s top job was known within the halls of parliament.
He had served as Executive Assistant to Prime Minister Jim Bolger in the late 1990s, but forgoed immediately running for office,but instead undertook a corporate career with management positions in some of New Zealand’s most well known agricultural companies.
The world’s largest kiwifruit marketer Zespri, crown research institute Plant & Food Research, and New Zealand’s largest company – dairy cooperative Fonterra.
For the centre-right National party followers, this represented real-world business experience, and a man tested in the coundren of the corporate environment.
Muller attempted to be magnanimous in victory, offering the former leader the justice portfolio.
Bridges, however, declined, and requested the high-status foreign affairs role instead.
It was immediately clear with his safe electorate seat, the former leader would be a thorn in the side of the new one … cracks within the party were still showing.
The new leadership didn’t get off to a great start with the media and public either.
They were criticised for a lack of diversity on the front bench.
This immediately led to a debacle when the new deputy leader, Nikki Kaye, described front bench MP Paul Goldsmith as Māori.
When defending the diversity of the party’s new front bench. This, however, was news to Goldsmith, who rather diplomatically, said his family had “Māori connections” but he was not Māori himself.
Meanwhile, Muller’s first few days as leader were overshadowed by his hat.
A “Make America Great Again” hat he had on display in his office resulted in him spending his time explaining that he isn’t a white supremacist and is simply interested in American politics well aren’t we all.
Eventually, though he found his footing, and an issue to press the government on.
National argued that the government’s Covid-19 managed isolation facilities were insufficiently strict.
In mid-June, it was revealed that two British women were allowed to drive to Wellington from Auckland on compassionate grounds without being tested, they later tested positive for Covid-19. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that the British came with a disease.
The resulting pressure eventually led to Health Minister David Clark stepping aside, and National polled at 38% – up 9 from the last poll under Bridges.
Things were beginning to look better for National, Then there was a leak.
On the 2nd of July, National MP Hamish Walker sent a press release to the media, that alleged that more than 11,000 Indians, Pakistanis, and Koreans could be put into isolation in cities across the south of New Zealand.
He was of course scolded by his leader. It could have ended with that, but Walker, in an effort to prove he wasn’t racist, leaked confidential information of Covid-19 patients to the media.
Before he knew of his parties involvement, Muller came out swinging. Saying this was “a reminder these guys can’t manage important things well”.
The Government though called an immediate inquiry, with State Services Minister Chris Hipkins saying that the leak could even be criminal.
With things getting heated, Walker admitted it was him behind the leak, and after Muller pushed for him to be stripped of his candidacy in the upcoming election, he announced he would not seek reelection.
Walker had received his information from former National Party president Michelle Boag, who remains very involved in the party, and had access to it through her role as the acting chief executive of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust, a position she would have to resign.
Another National MP, Michael Woodhouse also admitted he had received the information.
Woodhouse said he had deleted the emails as it would have been irresponsible to share.
Woodhouse claimed he told Muller about this on Tuesday but it took until Friday morning for that fact to be made public.
Muller’s slow response and conflicting information coming from the MPs under him made him look like a leader who didn’t know what was going on in his own party.
With an unhappy caucus fearing for their jobs, it all became too much for Muller, he resigned on 14 July 2020, citing the toll that leadership had taken on his mental health as the reason.
He became the shortest-serving leader in modern National Party history, I’m not sure this is what they meant when they said putting someone with business experience in politics would inject some corporate efficiency.
So once again National MPs descended on parliament to hold an emergency caucus meeting. Judith Collins emerged victorious with her deputy Gerry Brownlee, unlike with Muller, she was surrounded by her caucus as well, a deliberate show of unity right from the beginning.
And while Muller had attempted to be magnanimous, Collins was more successful, partly due to her predecessor resigning of his own accord, but also because space was available in her shadow cabinet.
Woodhouse lost his Health portfolio over the saga that brought down Muller; and both Amy Adams, who had previously reversed her decision to step down in order to continue under Muller, as well as now-former deputy Nikki Kaye both announced they wouldn’t be contesting the upcoming election.
The result was that Collins could keep both previous leaders ranked highly on the party list, while still rewarding key allies.
While the party appeared to rally around her, the nation didn’t appear to. The next Newshub Reid Research released had Labour soaring above 60% support.
The former Police Minister “Crusher Collins” had come with some baggage and a reputation of dirty politics. Public acceptance might take some time.
Gerry Brownlee, questioned the accuracy of the poll, stating “one in 20 polls will always be a rogue and this is clearly one of them”.
That one in 20 number doesn’t come out of thin air,
the margin of error given on a poll, applies at 50% where the margin of error is greatest, and is given with a confidence of 95%.
So the true values will be outside of the margin of error for one in 20 polls.
But, although this was the best poll for Labour throughout the campaign, the polls that came in the weeks that followed didn’t paint a particularly rosy picture for National either.
In the Adjournment Debate, ACT Party leader, David Seymour, labeled the Labour government a “Disaster Government”, of course, this is a jibe on leadership with a radically different ideology than his own, but, he may have a point.
A crisis brought on by external focuses media attention on the nation’s leaders, and providing they have a basic level of competence in handling the situation, this leaves the opposition ignored and largely unable to criticize.
Just ask newly minted deputy leader of the National Party, Gerry Brownlee, who rose to national prominence after the 2010 Canterbury earthquake.
Brownlee, as the senior-most Christchurch MP in government, was appointed Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery.
And just before a crisis brought on by external forces derailed the entire election process Collins was able to give the nod to Epsom voters to back ACT Party leader, David Seymour as their local MP.
You see under the New Zealand Mixed Member Proportional system, Kiwis have two votes actually four this round, as in addition to the usual election, two referendums are also being run in parallel with the Party Vote New Zealanders determine the proportional makeup of parliament, so broadly speaking if a party receives 30% of the Party Vote, they will get about 30% of the seats in parliament.
But in addition to this New Zealanders also vote for a local representative with their Electorate Vote, whoever wins their electorate seat is guaranteed a seat in Parliament.
A party must reach the threshold to enter parliament, either receiving 5% of the Party vote or winning an electorate seat.
So by telling National supporters in Epsom to elect Seymour, the National Party leader ensures that their natural ally in parliament, the ACT party, makes the cut.
But no sooner than Collins was able to make this deal.
On the 11th of August, after 102 days with no recorded cases of Covid-19 community transmission, four new cases were identified.
All eyes turned to the Prime Minister, who activated the government’s planning for such a development.
The Auckland region, where the cases were identified, was plunged into a Level 3 lockdown, with only essential businesses operating, while the remainder of the country moved to Level 2, with stricter social distancing rules limiting the spread of the virus, but businesses and schools operating.
This was for an initial three days while the authorities conducted contact tracking to evaluate the scale of the cluster.
But these restrictions would last longer than three days, and the rhetoric coming from the Prime Minister’s press conferences perpetuating the image that New Zealand had beaten the virus once and would do it again.
Auckland endured Level 3 restrictions for 18 and half days, before moving to a modified Level 2 status, inventively called Level 2.5.
With increased restrictions preventing political parties from effectively campaigning,all major political parties suspended their campaigns and pressure mounted on the Prime Minister to change the date of the election.
Setting the election date is, under New Zealand law, and within some limitations, one of the very few privileges that lie with the Prime Minister alone.
A privilege I’m sure some other leaders are envious of.
Both National leader Collins and ACT leader Seymour immediately sought a delay to the election.
Adern, first played for time.
The day after announcing the outbreak she announced she was pushing back the dissolution of Parliament until the following Monday.
It was previously scheduled for that day.
Two days later, Deputy Prime Minister, and New Zealand First leader, Winston Peters also wrote to the Prime Minister urging her to delay the election.
Now a majority of parties in parliament now supported a delay.
Come the 17th of August, the Prime Minister announced that the general election would be delayed by four weeks until the 17th of October.
This wasn’t the long delay favoured by New Zealand First and National, both struggling in the polls;but was expected to be sufficient to allow the nation to deal with the new coronavirus outbreak.
While Auckland was isolated under Level 3 restrictions, little developed on the campaign trail, with the campaigns being suspended for the duration
and the nation’s attention occupied by the pandemic.
However, just after these restrictions were lifted.
James Shaw, Green Party Co-leader and Associate Minister of Finance announced the government would fund a privately run Green School in Taranaki to the tune of 11.7 million dollars.
This funding didn’t come from the Ministry of Education but via 3 billion dollars set aside for infrastructure in the Covid-19 Response and Recovery Fund.
According to Shaw would “secure” hundreds of construction jobs. But, the announcement attracted criticism and accusations of hypocrisy from several groups, including teachers’ unions, the opposition, and even Green Party members; as this funding violated the Green Party’s own policy of opposing state funding for private schools.
A leaked UMR Research poll, taken during the height of the controversy, had the Greens out of parliament at just 3.2%.
Typically though these are unpublished polls and used internally by Labour, so naturally this one made public painted a rosy picture for Labour, and may not be entirely accurate.
But, this still indicated the Greens were at risk of falling below the threshold to enter parliament.
Marama Davidson, the other Green Party co-leader, described her party as ‘hella focused on just surviving election, and some speculated on the possibility of an Epsom style deal with Labour to ensure the parties return; if Labour were to give the nod to Chlöe Swarbrick in the Auckland Central seat now more competitive with the incumbent Nikki Kaye stepping down, the Greens return as Labours ally could be ensured.
But, with several polls having had Labour with above 50% support since Collins had taken control of National; Labour were getting accustomed to the idea that they might govern alone, and wasn’t feeling the need to spend any political capital on unpopular and arguably undemocratic, deals.
Ok, we have now been going on this video for over 10 minutes, and we are yet to look at the parties and their policies.
That reflects the sentiments around this election.
With Covid-19 placing the focus clearly on health and economic recovery; little has separated the major parties with both National and the public being largely supportive of the government’s response.
But, as you know, the Parties must release policies, and play the game.
So to tackle the recession-induced by Covid-19; National, as a center-right conservative party, promised to stimulate the economy with income tax cuts in order to grow their way out of Covid induced recession.
but their credibility of being the “safe pair of hands” to manage the economy was shaken though when their alternative budget was found to have a 4 billion dollar hole in it.
While the incumbent Labour party, our centre-left social democratic party, announced they would reintroduce the top 39% tax bracket for the wealthiest 2% of kiwis.
The Labour policy plan this election was overall cautious – perhaps a little boring.
The politically left environmentalist Greens suggested a wealth tax on individuals’ net wealth over $1 million.
A bold choice for a party that primarily appeals to young affluent voters those struggling to make rent don’t have climate change and environmentalism at the forefront of their minds in the voting booth.
While the politically right-libertarian ACT parties alternative budget would save billions by slashing government spending, to pay down debt and hand out a few tax breaks.
The other minor parties have all polled well below the 5% threshold needed to enter parliament, and so would need to win an electorate to gain any seats, a feat that would potentially make them kingmaker.
But, for now, their policies aren’t all that important and their campaigns would need to focus on winning those local races.
New Zealand First, having supported the Labour government had seen their support erode, a 2019 survey suggested New Zealand First supporters would have preferred Peters to have supported a National-led government. And they were now paying the price.
They would need to win Northland to regain the kingmaker role again.
The Māori Party, having sat out the last term, would need to win one of the Māori electorate seats, in which only people of Māori descent are eligible to register.
Polling for either of these scenarios wasn’t inspiring confidence for these two parties, but we would have to wait until election night to see how the votes tallied.
Meanwhile, National took aim at Labour’s failure to tackle the housing crisis by building new state-owned houses as they promised three years ago, and promised to relax regulations with the abolishment of the Resource Management Act to solve the housing crisis.
Labour though, at least in part agrees, the policy listed on their website
was to “repeal and replace the Resource Management Act, because it takes too long, costs too much and hasn’t properly protected our environment.”
National also campaigned against the Labour-Green alliance, citing the Green Wealth Tax policy, something Ardern had already ruled out agreeing to.
But, Ardern and Collins did agree on the idea of moving to a four-year parliamentary term.
An idea I fully support after going should the process of making these election videos.
What set the parties apart wasn’t much of any substance, National wanted electric vehicles should be able to use bus lanes, Labour bribed voters with the promise of making Matariki – the Māori New Year – a new public holiday, ACT unveiled an employment insurance scheme, and the Greens pushed for Te Reo Māori to become part of the curriculum by 2030.
Maybe too late for me based on my Māori pronunciation but an amiable goal.
So the choice given to New Zealanders came down more to flavor than substance, with the two main party leaders representing different quintessential kiwi ideals.
Jacinda’s ideals of kindness and working together versus Judith’s ideals of hard work and independence.
So how did the nation vote?
For that, I pass on to future Soliloquy for the election night results .
At 7 pm on election night, the polls closed, and the embargo on campaigning and influencing voters lifted.
Within minutes the results began coming in, and within hours a fairly good picture of the next parliament would emerge,although these numbers are preliminary and a couple of weeks will need to go by before the finalized numbers are released.
ACT Leader David Seymour was the first parliamentary party leader to meet his supporters at their election night headquarters.
He was smiling, his deal with National would secure his position as MP for Epsom, guaranteeing his party crossed the threshold.
Not that it would matter, in the Party Vote, ACT would receive 8%, passing the threshold anyway. And this time he was going to be bringing in some friends.
ACTs success came from Seymour being the only MP to oppose the gun regulations brought in after the Christchurch attacks,
his pushing of social libertarian ideas such as the euthanasia bill that became a referendum alongside this election, and a weakness in centre-right National.
However, unlike three years ago, Epsom wasn’t the only electorate to be won by a minor party. Chlöe Swarbrick took Auckland Central.
Despite not having a deal like Seymour, tactical voting on the part of Auckland Central voters saw Labour with the party vote but the green candidate,who also benefited from the exposure gained by being the MP behind the Cannabis referendum, taking the seat.
Not that it mattered for the Greens either, they took home 7.6% of the Party vote.
The Māori Party also claimed a seat. A high turnout in the Māori seats allowed them to claim Waiariki.
This was a little admittedly surprising as many expected them to be punished for supporting National for more than a single term,but it does send a signal to Labour that their command of the Māori seats isn’t a guarantee, and they will have to work to keep them.
Their party vote was only 1%, so Rawiri Waititi would be a party of one in the house – maybe he can ask David Seymour for some advice.
New Zealand First wasn’t so lucky, in Northland, Shane Jones came a distant third, and the Party vote just 2.7%.
So it would be farewell from Parliament for the Deputy Prime Minister. But, New Zealand First has been out before, in 2008, and rose like a phoenix three years later.
Winston Peters is just 75, so perhaps he has some fuel left in the tank for 2023.
Let me know your opinions in the comments below.
As for the major parties, going into election day the question wasn’t who would be the Prime Minister on Monday,
but whether she would need the support of the Greens or be able to govern alone.
National and Judith Collins had a difficult night, receiving just 26.8% for the party vote, and seeing several high profile and long-serving MPs lose their electorate races,including deputy leader Gerry Brownlee losing his seat, he will, of course, make it into parliament as a list MP.
At the beginning of this campaign, National supporters talked about the depth of talent present in the National caucus, arguing Labour was “only Ardern”.
But, those opposed to National saw this as disunity, and, I think, were proved right in that assessment.
The day before the election Collins committed to continuing as leader regardless of the result,but despite being of a smaller size, there will now still be those with ambition in her caucus, time will tell if she can hold onto her job.
Labour’s victory on the other hand was massive,with 49.1% of the Party vote going their way.
And translating these numbers into seats in the house, we can see Labour is able to govern alone, with 64 seats,the first time this has happened since MMP was introduced.
National lost 21 MPs, now sending only 35 to parliament, the Greens and ACT both bring 10,and the last seat in the 120 seat parliament being taken up by the Māori Party.
But just because Ardern can govern without help, doesn’t mean she has to.
She may wish to keep on good terms with the Greens,in three years time she may need them after all.
This opens up the question of who will replace Winston Peters as Deputy Prime minister. Let me know your predictions in the comments below.
But one thing is clear – these numbers constitute a massive swing to the left for New Zealand, with the left Labour-Green block dominating the right National-Act block.
The question though is how much of this is caused by the raw popularity of Ardern and the chaos that made up National campaign; or perhaps the extraordinary events of 2020,
with Black Lives Matter and a global pandemic dominating the international conversation, has caused the left to become the new centre.
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