Olivia O’Malley is a former press secretary to New Zealand’s Leader of the Opposition and long-time Conservative staffer. She currently works in public affairs.
Two weeks into January, New Zealanders are just starting to return from their summer holidays – and very soon, they’ll likely know the date of this year’s general election.
Historically, the election date was a closely guarded secret, designed to be sprung on the Opposition with the littlest notice possible.
However since 2011, when then-prime minister John Key scuppered all that and said he didn’t want to play politics with the Rugby World Cup, the convention has been to announce the date soon after the first cabinet meeting of the year.
According to the Spinoff – which accurately predicted the date of the last election, in 2020 – the likely date will be in November. Before then, it says, this year’s Rugby World Cup and the faltering economy are likely to dominate the agenda and prove a distraction for would-be voters.
The Government will be hoping for the economy to truly turn a corner before the end of the year, and for inflation to stop hitting New Zealand families in the pocket. Inflation is not as high as the UK, but at over seven per cent, its effects are still being felt.
But the consensus seems to be that they will be in for a rough ride.
When I was in New Zealand over Christmas, almost everyone I spoke to expressed frustration with Jacinda Ardern’s Labour – even people who I know to have minimal interest in politics or who voted for her in previous elections.
One consultant told me that they felt the problem was not that the Government had done anything in particular, but that there was a real feeling it had achieved very little despite an historic mandate and the first outright majority for a party ever under the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system.
Promises of 100,000 affordable houses have failed to come to fruition, even as property prices spiked during the pandemic. A pledge to bring light rail to Auckland never got off the ground at all. Controversy on other issues, such as reforms to the ownership of water, is continuing to bubble away.
As a result, there is a real sense that change is in the air – from MPs, from commentators, and from voters. The maxim that oppositions don’t win elections and governments lose them feels true in this instance.
There are positive signs for the Opposition, too. National successfully clinched the Hamilton West by-election last month, flipping what is traditionally a bellwether seat from Labour in a possible sign of things to come.
But ten months is a long time in politics. To become prime minister, as the latest polls suggest he will, Christopher Luxon, the National Party leader, will need to make the most of them, with big ideas needed in key areas to get New Zealand’s economy going again.
Luxon spent the middle of last year travelling to other countries (among them Ireland, the UK and Singapore) engaging with centre-right counterparts and seeing policies in practice across key areas. In a speech at Policy Exchange, he spoke about the importance of being frank about the issues New Zealand faces – a theme he reiterated again in a recent interview.
We can expect to see it again going into the election as he draws on his experience as a business leader to sell Kiwis his vision for where New Zealand needs to go.
With right-wing party ACT likely to form part of any government as a coalition, it is especially true that Luxon will need to appeal to middle New Zealand – those same voters who flocked in droves to vote for Ardern as a response to her handling of the pandemic.
One of the biggest strategic questions looming over him is whether populist party New Zealand First, under Winston Peters, will make the five per cent threshold needed to get back into Parliament.
Peters is a tricky coalition partner, and has already all but ruled out going with Labour, so the question for Luxon is whether to emulate his mentor John Key and categorically rule out a deal with Peters during the campaign.
This would put New Zealand First’s fortunes in jeopardy, but if they clear the threshold anyway, it could scupper the ability of a future government to actually pass the legislation it needs.
Then, of course, there is the matter of candidate selection. With National expecting to win a number of new seats and several retirements expected, it will need to make sure its processes are watertight. The party will not want to repeat its recent mistakes.
At this end of 2023, it is easy to predict a change of government by the end of the year. But Luxon will have to make a series of big calls. His supporters, and much of the New Zealand public, will be hoping he gets them right.