Published March 11, 2020: ‘The Big Q’ – University of Auckland
Recent political polling suggests that the 2020 New Zealand general election will be a close affair. The result could very well rely on the success of minor parties, and the horse trading that goes on between the parties before and after polling day.
Perhaps the most intriguing contest is in Auckland, or more to the point, the Māori electorate seat of Tāmaki Makaurau. The Māori seats have been the go-to talking point of political opportunists in recent decades, often only discussed in the context of whether they should be continued, entrenched or disestablished. However, with New Zealand First now a party of government, and having for the time abandoned demands for a referendum on the issue, it is the contest within seats such as Tāmaki Makaurau which will take centre stage.
Tāmaki Makaurau is an urban Māori electorate, encompassing most of the Auckland metropolitan area. The current MP, Peeni Henare, is a softly-spoken, articulate politician who was first elected in 2014 and is now standing for a third term. We know already that high-profile MP and Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson will also be standing in this electorate, as she did in 2017. Meanwhile 2018 Auckland mayoral candidate and former MP for Tāmaki Makaurau, John Tamihere has recently announced his candidacy for the Māori Party in this seat.
Why does Tāmaki Makaurau matter?
It could mark the return of both John Tamihere and the Māori Party to Parliament. Tamihere actually lost the seat to then-Māori Party co-leader Pita Sharples in 2005. But in politics, 15 years is aeons and in 2014 Sharples retired from Parliament. In the 2017 election, the Maori Party failed to win re-election gaining only 1.2% of the party votes and not winning a single electorate seat.
Tamihere’s mana as a longtime advocate for urban Māori would make him a serious contender to win back the seat. Due to the way MMP functions, if Tamihere did win on a Māori Party ticket he would also open the possibility of bringing another MP or two into Parliament (under MMP’s coat tailing provisions, if a party wins an electorate seat then it no longer needs to reach the 5% threshold to be allocated a proportional share of seats in Parliament, based on its share of the party vote). Considering this, along with recent comments from Māori Party President Che Wilson, it might be assumed that the Māori Party is eyeing an alignment with Labour after the next election.
Such quirks in MMP raise an uncomfortable proposition for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her party’s election prospects: losing battles to win the war. If Henare was placed sufficiently high on the party list, Labour could lose the seat and perhaps be better off because of it. It is the party vote that ultimately determines how many MPs a party brings to Parliament and therefore losing an electorate simply means losing an electorate MP, one which could otherwise return as a List MP. But such thinking does not sit well with either the party hierarchy or its Māori caucus. In 2014, each of Labour’s Māori electorate candidates opted not to take a place on the party list, leaving their political longevity in the hands of ‘the people’ – something Tamihere himself did as Labour’s MP for Tāmaki Makaurau before narrowly losing out to Sharples.
It is the same practical reason for Davidson standing in Tāmaki Makaurau. Davidson might be the Green Party’s best chance of returning to Parliament should they encounter any difficulty reaching the 5% threshold. What is more likely, however, is that her rising profile will inadvertently aid Tamihere’s candidacy by splitting Henare’s vote. Henare and Davidson have also been central to an issue that has dominated headlines in the electorate since the middle of 2019, that of the future of Ihumātao. This picturesque green space adjacent to Auckland’s International Airport has become a focal point of resistance for a new generation of indigenous activists opposed to the building of homes on areas of cultural significance. For Henare, the job of facilitating a compromise at Ihumātao has required the unenviable two-step process of negotiating a pathway forward with various interests, and then having it ratified by cabinet. And despite reports that a deal is imminent, it seems that New Zealand First is notably cool about the prospects of any agreement – for which its support is crucial.
Winston’s last stand?
New Zealand First has its own problems heading in to the lead up to September. Among them an unfolding story regarding the legality of party funding which may have contravened the Electoral Act. Still a more gloomy reality might be New Zealand First’s support levels. In 2017, NZF got 7.2% of the party vote, but won no electorate seats. Recent analysis of the New Zealand Election Study suggests the majority of its supporters at the last election were disenfranchised National Party voters. If these same voters were to return to National en masse (as they did in 2008), it could leave the party short of the 5% threshold. That said, the party does have a tendency to lift its poll numbers in the months leading into an election, so climbing to 5% is not inconceivable, particularly with a contemptuous Peters out on the campaign hustings.
It does underpin, however, where the Māori Party and its potential to win a couple of seats might play a vital role in the election outcome. Labour will likely require the help of two other parties to form the government. It might not seem like much in a 120-seat Parliament, but the current polling data suggest those extra couple of seats might be the difference between the baubles of office, and a spot on the opposition bench.
Another option for New Zealand First, and by extension the prospects for another Labour-led Government is Shane Jones standing in the marginal Northland electorate. Jones himself was once a Labour Party MP, and its candidate for Tāmaki Makaurau. It is probably no coincidence that a long advocated policy of New Zealand First, moving Auckland’s port to Whangarei, is something to be decided just before this year’s election. Jones has been the minister overseeing the Provincial Growth Fund from 2017 to 2020. It might just be that the lolly scramble of long overdue infrastructure spending in Northland could be enough to propel Jones to victory in the electorate, return New Zealand First to Parliament, and perhaps secure Jones the party leadership.
For Jones to win in Northland he would perhaps need to rely on Labour’s willingness to again trade electorate wins for reelection. If Labour’s own aspirant in Northland, current list-MP Willow-Jean Prime, were again provided a reasonably strong position on the party list, Labour’s emphasis might then move away from competing for the electorate seat, thereby enabling Jones an easier path to victory.
Existing tensions in the current governing parties should not be understated either. It is an open secret that in cabinet New Zealand First has scuttled major reforms put forward by Labour in areas of welfare, housing, and criminal justice. Some introspection might be required from Labour as to why it is even reliant on Peters’ support after a three-term National government. The Labour-Greens bloc is yet to realise consistent polling above the 50% required to form the government – a reality that has been the norm for more than 15 years.
Each of these estimations works on the basis of a number of assumptions, not least of which that many in Labour’s caucus would be aghast at tipping their own electorate prospects to enhance the chances of competitors-come-partners. Beyond that, it assumes a newly-invigorated Māori Party would actually win an electorate seat – by no means a forgone conclusion – after which they would enter into a post-election agreement with Labour ahead of National. Another assumption is that such a working relationship would be possible between Labour and its junior partners. This appears less likely if it were to be a four-way arrangement requiring both New Zealand First and the Māori Party, further complicating an already tense relationship between New Zealand First and its current relationship with Labour and the Greens.
National has few options of its own
On the other side of politics, the National Party has an equally difficult pathway to victory. Its easiest option might also be through brokering a deal with the Māori Party. It was of course National who the Māori Party supported in government for 9 years between 2008 and 2017. While this might not sit well with Māori Party members, there are some practical reasons for the party to do another deal with the National, something to which Tamihere has indicated that he is open. One of Tamihere’s motivations for standing is the future of whānau Ora, the program is a legacy of the National-led government but implemented through agreements with the Māori Party. Labour has taken issue with it since coming to power, and suggestions have been made that the current government is less excited about the family-centric, highly individualised approach to social programmes. Siding with National might also be less complicated as the Māori Party could then deal with as little as one other party in the governing arrangements.
Due to David Seymour’s chameleon-like politicking – and a careful mix of opportunism and dumb luck – ACT appears to be on the rise. Seymour himself was even taken aback by the diversity now apparent among his supporters, comprising a variety of protest movements from the more natural bed-fellows in the Free Speech Coalition, to gun-rights advocates. Again, it is small numbers that make the difference. Should National poll 45% or more on election night, a couple of seats from ACT, including the electorate seat of Epsom, would probably be enough (considering the wasted vote) to get a National-led government across the line. Add in a catastrophe for the Greens or NZ First on election night and it would most certainly be enough.
Beyond what comes of ACT and the Māori Party, National seems marooned on a vote north of 40% but just short of the numbers to comfortably form government. One possible working partner touted earlier in the electoral cycle was the newly-launched ‘Sustainable New Zealand Party’, a hybrid of quasi-environmentalism and free market ideology. As it stands, this venture appears to be a failure: the party has barely registered in the polls. Other possibilities for National include the New Conservatives who follow a long list of parties with a distinct Christian identity, none of which have been particularly successful at the ballot box since the inception of MMP. It could be that as the New Conservatives gain traction on issues such as abortion, drug, and euthanasia reform (the latter two of which are referendum issues), National’s Mr. Simon Bridges might be tempted to make an electorate seat available in the same sort of informal way that has benefited ACT.
If there is one area in which Mr. Bridges can count on support, it is among the reliable base of older pākehā voters who would likely back the return of a National-led government. These voters are a consistent bloc who have demonstrated their virtually unbending support for National for nearly a decade. Interestingly, it is a level of support that could become stronger in the event of National switching its leader.
Political realities and sound-bite politics
Adding to the sea of predictions, estimations, and calculated guesses are some things which are less hypothetical. Labour came to power in 2017 after garnering only 36.9% of the party vote. Any so-called ‘norm’ suggesting that governing parties get more than one term is ignoring the Labour Party’s own political history, but also the fact that the lead party of the current government was hardly able to enamour itself to the public in 2017. Furthermore, the Labour-Green bloc together only managed 43.2% of the party vote, short of National’s 44.4% of the party vote in 2017. For Labour to reasonably expect to govern without a patchwork of coalition and support partners seemingly at odds with one another, it will need to make greater inroads with older pākehā voters while not hemorrhaging Māori or working-class voters in the manner it did between 2008 and 2014.
The way we campaign in New Zealand has changed also, and of the two major parties it is perhaps National who have been the first to adapt their politics in this new era of populism. Whether it be characterised as a stylistic, ideological, or discursive logic, populism has become a pervasive force in global politics. New Zealand is not immune to this phenomenon. While anti-elite sentiments are a long-standing feature of Winston Peters’ and the New Zealand First brand, they are also now a prominent campaign tool across the political spectrum from Seymour to Davidson. This is to say nothing of Tamihere who, while losing the 2019 mayoral race, managed to collect 80,000 votes from mostly pākehā constituents through borrowing from an unmistakingly populist campaign framework.
Finally, a less talked about feature of the current parliament is the number of MPs with Māori whakapapa. Each parliamentary party now has a leader or co-leader with Māori ancestry, with the exception of the Labour Party. While not all parties necessarily run on a platform orientated around kaupapa Māori, it does underline just how diverse Māori representation is ideologically. This is a far cry from the last half of the 20th century where all but a few Māori political voices were synonymous with the Labour Party. Māori voters themselves are equally diverse and anything but a homogeneous voting bloc.
Want any further proof? Just look at how the cards fall in electorates such as Tāmaki Makaurau this coming September.