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.
New Zealand elections come around more often than most. Here in the UK, we are accustomed to waiting four or five years between votes, but in New Zealand, parliamentary terms last just three. So it is that, this Saturday, New Zealanders will go back to the polls.
Yet the notion of an ‘election day’ is largely an outdated one: most New Zealanders will have already voted, with polls opening up to two weeks before the day itself. In 2020, around 68 per cent of Kiwi voters chose to vote in advance.
The choice before them this year is a battle of the Chrises: that’s Chris Hipkins, the current Prime Minister and Labour leader, and Christopher Luxon, Opposition and National Party leader.
But New Zealand’s electoral system is not that clear cut: unlike under First Past the Post, the Mixed Member Proportional system rarely delivers outright majorities – the 2020 election was an anomaly in this respect – and results in weeks of coalition negotiations.
This year, the polls indicate support for the two major parties is at a particularly low ebb. Coalition partners will be especially important. At this stage, the most likely composition is an alliance between National, centre-right coalition partner ACT, and the more populist New Zealand First, led by a resurgent Winston Peters.
Peters is something of a Nigel Farage in New Zealand politics, though remains far more electorally successful. He is particularly popular with older voters, and is known for being a critic of immigration and a proponent of horse racing.
He is also renowned for his political longevity. Peters first became an MP in 1979 for National, but was only in office for two years.
In 1984, he was elected again, and in this second stint (lasting until 2005) he became the Winston Peters that we know today. In the early 1990s, at a critical time for New Zealand politics, he left the National Party to found New Zealand First.
The 1990s was a time of electoral reform – with MMP coming into effect in 1996 – as well as upheaval: new parties were formed and outright majorities became rare. This shift was in part in response to the Labour-led macroeconomic reforms of the 1980s (known as Rogernomics), and the subsequent microeconomic reforms of the subsequent National government, led by Ruth Richardson, then finance minister.
Richardson’s ‘Mother of All Budgets’ in 1991 was notorious for the extent of the cuts to key areas such as health and welfare, and heralded the beginning of the ‘Ruthanasia’ economic reforms for which she was named.
After public criticising National’s economic policy and being told he would not be able to continue as an MP after the 1993 election, Peters resigned from National and went on to found New Zealand First.
An uneasy coalition in 1996 followed, but it has been under Labour governments where Peters has thus far flourished the most. He served first as Minister of Foreign Affairs under Helen Clark from 2005 to 2008, then as Deputy Prime Minister under Jacinda Ardern’s leadership between 2017 and 2020.
In 2017, New Zealand First was the reason Jacinda Ardern became prime minister, despite not being leader of the largest party after the election. That coalition was often accused of presiding over stagnation, and achieving little on key policies such as Kiwibuild, a pledge to build 100,000 houses which delivered just a fraction of that number.
Yet when asked, the majority of New Zealand First voters tend to express a preference for Peters to work with National.
John Key, a previous National prime minister, responded to a resurgent Peters by ruling out working with him, a strategy aimed at ensuring his vote reached a natural ceiling.
Luxon has not done that, instead choosing to keep his options open and expressing a strong preference for being able to partner with ACT and go it alone. And David Seymour, the ACT leader, has himself ruled out negotiating with Peters.
But given the electoral calculus, it is clear that Luxon has had little choice but to make Peters essentially kingmaker, a position of power that he relishes, despite attracting less than a tenth of the vote.
This refusal to cut New Zealand First off at its knees – given previous precedent, a key question asked at every election – means that having to negotiate with him is now the most likely outcome this Saturday.