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.
Observers of British and New Zealand politics could be forgiven for thinking we are reliving the 2010s all over again.
The familiar faces are coming back. In the UK, David Cameron has returned to government, and last month John Key, the former New Zealand prime minister, was spotted at National’s election night party celebrating with his family in tow.
Key and Cameron – friends, confidantes and sensible, popular leaders – both left office in 2016. But while Cameron’s premiership concluded with the Brexit referendum, Key stood down at the height of his popularity, defying the notion that all political careers end in failure. Instead, he remains a popular figure and informally advises Christopher Luxon, the incoming prime minister.
Yet despite that the election was just over a month ago, on 14 October, Luxon is not in post just yet.
The results, such as they can be in a proportional system, were convincing. The centre-left bloc, led by incumbent prime minister Chris Hipkins, had no path to forming a government. Though the results showed the Green Party resurgent and on its way to its best ever result, this success came at the expense of its senior coalition partner.
Hipkins, only prime minister since January, looked visibly shaken and upset, though later providing moments of light relief by announcing his new relationship with partner Toni, briefly confusing reporters – and the public – as to whether he had also just come out as gay.
The atmosphere at National Party HQ was far more celebratory, as results trickled in and supporters realised, almost belatedly, that recent polls had been overly pessimistic.
There were near upsets: for much of the night, it was thought that veteran National list MP Melissa Lee might have pulled off a stunning victory against Labour’s Helen White in Mt Albert, the seat of former prime ministers Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern.
And there were actual upsets: Mount Roskill, Labour for all of living memory, went blue for the first time, with newcomer Carlos Cheung pulling off a stunning victory against former minister Michael Wood.
After six years with Labour at the helm, New Zealanders decisively voted for change. So why has Luxon still not been installed as prime minister, over a month on?
The answer, in short, is coalition negotiations.
On the night itself, National was the clear victor. But despite having a combined result of just under 47 per cent with centre-right partner ACT, under New Zealand’s Mixed Member Proportional system, this does not constitute a parliamentary majority.
Enter Winston Peters. The veteran politician – in office in various guises since the late 1970s – is, once again, kingmaker.
The last time Peters was in government was not especially long ago: between 2017 and 2020, Peters and his populist New Zealand First (NZ First) party propped up a newly-elected Jacinda Ardern.
This time, the stakes are different. Regardless of the policies on the table and any personal misgivings either side may have, National and NZ First need each other.
The latter is not a true kingmaker here because the left cannot form a government, with or without the party. That means Peters’ only option is to negotiate with National – which, in turn, needs him.
After an initial wait for so-called special votes to be counted (the votes that are cast outside of a voter’s home constituency, and have to be sent back to their local area – over 20 per cent of the vote this year), talks have begun in earnest, albeit perhaps more slowly than most voters would have liked.
This week will be pivotal in determining the shape of the new government, with the first meeting of all three leaders since the election – National’s Luxon, ACT leader David Seymour, and NZ First’s Peters – taking place today.
That is not to say that the leaders have not been meeting and negotiating separately up until now, but it is worth noting that negotiations do not typically take this long. On average, there have been just 36 days between a general election and Parliament resuming since the first MMP election took place in 1996.
There is an absolute deadline: Parliament must return before 21 December, or another general election will have to be called in the hope of securing a more decisive victory.
For his part, Seymour has publicly defended the length of time talks have taken, and claimed the parties are close to reaching agreement on key areas such as the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document which governs relations between the Crown and the Maori people.
On the face of it, the differences between NZ First, National and ACT should not be intractable. The main sticking points appear to be around tax plans, in particular on the issue of taxing foreign buyers, who are currently banned from buying property.
Under National’s plans, foreign buyers would be permitted to buy property, but only upon paying a tax of 15 per cent on properties costing over $2 million (around £970,000). Yet New Zealand First was in government when the ban on foreign buyers was introduced under Ardern.
But with parliamentary terms being comparatively short by international standards, at just three years, it will be front of mind for Luxon that time spent negotiating with Peters is time that could be spent governing. National will be especially keen to put the issues to bed and form a new government before Kiwis head off on their summer break.