Updated: Oct 20, 2020
‘’This stardust won’t settle, because none of us should settle’’ - the words of the world’s most prominent Kiwi, 3 years ago. Just months out from a general election, the New Zealand Labour Party threw a hail Mary to end their 9 years in opposition - a young parliamentarian named Jacinda Ardern, who now enjoys a status approaching that of Royalty.
History came at the 40 year old fast, but whether it was virtually eliminating COVID-19 with her go-hard-early approach, her outpouring of compassion and unity in the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre that killed 51 Muslims, or her quick response to the White Mountain disaster, she has shown real, refreshing leadership where most other leaders would fall down.
She says her entire approach to politics has been based on kindness and it seems New Zealand has responded to her likewise. After delaying the election for a month due to Auckland’s coronavirus outbreak, Ardern was gifted a landslide victory of 64/120 seats and 49% of the party vote, securing a safe majority in an electoral system designed to prevent them. A huge achievement that left the main opposition party, the Nationals, licking their wounds. Labour will be the first party to govern without cross party support since the new electoral system was introduced a quarter of a century ago.
Re-elected for the next 3 years, last night Ardern told supporters that ‘’We will be a party that governs for every New Zealander’’ – a bold statement for a party that, pre-COVID 19, faced falling back into opposition after a premiership criticised for failing to deliver much of the social transformation it promised. However, after an election campaign where she was often unable to keep to her schedule because of how many people swarmed her for photos, Kiwis have given the incumbent a huge vote of confidence, and she is looking stronger than ever.
If Ardern’s approach makes her ‘the Cuddler’, then Judith Collins was undoubtedly ‘the Crusher’. Leader of the Nationals for just 4 months, she’s made a name for herself as being strong in her exchanges and political tactics. National was in turmoil ever since Ardern was sworn in. The well-respected Bill English, former Prime Minister, resigned and 2 leaders have come and gone since. The only thing that seemed to stabilise was National’s embarrassing poll numbers. Collins established herself as an effective performer and quickly identified that this was the COVID election, so it made sense to attack the Government’s most vulnerable point – the economy. She pointed to the record-breaking recession Labour has presided over, a 12% fall in GDP, Labour countering that New Zealand’s pandemic response puts their economic rebuild in a stronger position than anyone else. National also attacked Labour’s 2017 domestic policies, such as KiwiBuild and Lightrail, and championed tax cuts to reboot the economy and boost spending.
But after a poor campaign, even party loyalists knew it was an enormous task to bring down a Prime Minister enjoying sky-high approval. In the end, they fell well short in their attempt. The National Party suffered far worse than many expected, with just 35/ 120 seats in the Beehive, and with 21 seats lost, and only 27% of the vote, Collin’s insistence that Ardern would be a ‘‘one-term Prime Minister’’ looks rather foolish with hindsight. In the debates Collins proved a worthy opponent against Ardern but last night, visibly shocked, she acknowledged to National supporters that the party will need to change drastically.
Few expected a National victory, but at the very least Collins wanted to prevent Ardern from governing alone. Failure to do this undoubtedly raises questions about her future. Defiant in the face of defeat she insisted on sticking around in her concession speech: ‘’Bring on 2023’’ she said. But can she really continue with any credibility after such a wounding defeat? She thinks so, and it’s unlikely National can stomach another leadership change so soon.
Defeat wasn’t only confined to the Nationals, however. New Zealand First, Ardern’s coalition partners for the last 3 years, was left without any MPs in Parliament – a humiliating end to the campaign for Winston Peters, who stood alongside Ardern as Foreign Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and as Acting Prime Minister during her maternity leave.
It wasn’t just Ardern celebrating though, the Greens had a good night, finding themselves up in numbers, albeit without the influence they had previously had the Government’s confidence and supply partners. The other big winner of the night was ACT, a libertarian party, celebrating a huge surge in MPs returning to the House of Representatives, from 1 to 10.
New Zealand has been used to the compromise that stems from having an MMP electoral system, where Ardern had to rely on the support of 2 very different parties. Perhaps that is why her premiership will be remembered as one that responded to events rather than shaped them. This time, Labour’s election slogan was ‘Let’s Keep Moving’. Without the need for cross party support, Ardern will be able to define what this means on her own terms, and the world will be watching to see just how the Prime Minister chooses to use her popularity.
By Afraz Farooq