Saturday’s election was highly anticipated – we might say – over-anticipated, after an extended campaign that left the public, and both Party leaders apparently exhausted. But it was important not to take the occasion for granted –some people specially dressed up for the honour and privilege of voting, and others took time to reflect on the referenda for which they have campaigned for years.
At our election, there were no threats of violence, no potential bombs in the carpark, no intimidation, no bribes (if you discount New Zealand First’s usual operating model). Lines in and out were orderly, and hygienic; we had confidence there was no Covid, no vote rigging, no corruption. Even the conspiracy theorists and their illegitimate arguments were able to formally organise into political parties and get their names on the ballot in a legitimate attempt at power.
We are lucky with our orderly civil society, organisational capacity that leads to efficient voting systems (even if they ran out of special vote papers in Auckland Central). Even though our democratic system hasn’t tended to serve the young, Maori, Pasifika and other disenfranchised groups terribly well, it is better than many. These groups have at least been represented in the major parties, though perhaps in token, relatively powerless ways. I’m glad to see the Maori Party back, with Rawiri Waititi in the Waiariki seat, with his mana and his moko. If we can’t have a Maori Party specifically represented in our Parliament, where in the world can we? Chlöe Swarbrick winning Auckland Central was another highlight – unanticipated, exciting, confounding polls, and also providing hope that the predictions that the cannabis referendum will fail, are also wrong.
More than 82% of the population voluntarily voted, (without coercion), we now have almost 50% gender parity among our MPs, and a new cohort of 40 (!!) ethnically, gender and demographically diverse candidates, even though National’s decimation has impacted its diversity in the process. As they joined their Party leaders on stage on Saturday night, or assembled on Parliament’s steps on Monday, the new MPs looked eager, idealistic, bright eyed, star-struck and caught in the headlights of often unexpected, life-changing success.
Because of this process, we can and do have a high level of confidence in the electoral and representative legitimacy of New Zealand’s 53rd Parliament – even where the results have been surprising, and have upended old alliances and sinecures. Such a significant influx of new MPs signals a generation change in Parliament.
The election was not just a rush to Labour. It was a rush away from National. And despite some of the mixed views about Jacinda’s performance, it’s clear the die was cast for Labour victory, well before, and beyond the Leaders’ Debates. The election was decided not just on the pantomimes on TV but also by the performance of the parties in the prior three years. The train wreck that was the National Party -Jamie-Lee Ross, Hamish Rutherford, Andrew Falloon, the revolving door of leaders, Judith’s mistimed comments about obesity-, all had its own inertia that took National over the cliff.
Some observers have simply attributed Labour’s resounding victory to (Jacinda’s) “management of Covid”. It’s true that the public clearly want a Covid hero, one who looks good, is competent, science based, relatable, inspirational, communicative, empathetic and authentic, and Jacinda has all that in spades. But to say that all the success is down to Covid, is to belittle the other reasons for the Party’s success – including, primarily, National’s failure. Other reasons include the inertia of the status quo, and middle New Zealand’s confidence in it. This year, with global fires, droughts and pandemic, most of us rightly want the security of competent continuity, and there’s great reassurance in just continuing after the election as we did before it. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world, than it is to imagine the end of capitalism and our way of life.
Since the election, there’s been so much speculation. “Will Kelvin Davis (“who fades into the foreground”) be Deputy Prime Minister, rather than the ‘real’ Deputy, Grant Robertson?” “Will Jacinda include senior Green Party members among her Ministers, inside or outside Cabinet?” -As they weren’t included inside Cabinet when their numbers were more important to the Coalition, it was always highly unlikely now they’re not needed – and that’s been confirmed. And should the Green Party even seek to shackle its fortunes to Labour, or should it stay in Opposition?
As National’s ‘elderly statesmen’ Gerry Brownlee and Nick Smith, have lost their electorate seats in this changing of the guard, some suggest it’s time for them to resign altogether. It might also be that some of the longer standing, more conservative Labour Party MPs should move on and let the fresh blood rise up too. But instead, this election may have empowered the conservative wing in Labour. The apparent strategic voting of otherwise National Party voters, in supporting Labour to keep the Greens out, is likely to strengthen the arm of MPs like Damian O’Connor. Given the support from farmers and industry, it’s hard to see that Labour are conceived as Left at all. And as it has been said, now that the ‘handbrake’ of New Zealand First is gone, it’s just Labour’s own handbrake that remains. Jacinda has talked about her mandate, and it comes from middle New Zealand, not otherwise represented by the Green Party or Act; it’s such a broad church it entails prospects of paralysis. While Jacinda hasn’t used her political capital to do much so far, I’m sure she has plenty enough of it that voters will forgive her, for a while, for not using it in the future. One way to keep people happy is to not do much at all. But for other more optimistic believers, there is hope.
Jacinda says she wants policies that stick. Enduring policies, and that transformation occurs one step at a time. But to address inequality, housing unaffordability and poverty, as well as climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental damage, that get worse every day, some could argue that the necessary steps are big ones. And slow steps aren’t necessarily more enduring than quick ones, they just make the targets slower and harder to reach. Many initiatives suggested as solutions to these problems have Labour-imposed deadlines that are beyond the term of this new government, and the next, and like the debt incurred by the wage subsidy, leave legacies for the future as well as costs for today. So while voting on Saturday felt like an historic opportunity – as it always does and should – in the scale of time and the eternal struggle for power- history will judge whether it – and the Labour Party, live up to their potential and promise.