With a challenging year behind us, we have hit 2023 carrying something of a hangover from the past twelve months.
The new year is still young, but the challenges past and present have already claimed their first scalp. The Prime Minister has decided that the going is too tough, leaving us leaderless just three weeks into the election year.
There are plenty of people, including the Prime Minister herself, recording her outstanding record and others lamenting her departure. However, she leaves behind an economy in tatters, a divided nation and her flagship policies such as housing, child poverty and climate change no further advanced.
Every year, January presents an opportunity to look forward to the year before us. Thursday’s news has thrown the first curve ball at those of us seeking to anticipate what lies ahead. The PM’s departure will go down as a momentous event, just as that of fellow Labour Party Prime Minister David Lange did.
So where to now? The 2023 year was always going to be politically fascinating. It just became even more interesting. The Labour Party will elect a new leader and that person will lead the country into the next election. They’ll be taking on a potential recession, and a series of crises from health to education, crime and the soaring cost of living.
Beyond the Prime Minister’s departure and the election of her successor, it’s a year that will be remembered by New Zealanders for a couple of major events. The Rugby World Cup will kick off in France in September, and for the first time in recent memory, the All Blacks will not go in as favourites. Nevertheless, we will enter the tournament with high hopes and the nation will become heavily distracted for seven weeks while the game we love is played on the opposite side of the world.
That distraction will be welcome news for our government, who have now decided that the other major event will be scheduled during the Rugby tournament. The election date has been set for October 14th, just two weeks before the Rugby World Cup finishes. Perhaps they’ve chosen a date, in the hope that our team will still be in the tournament and the pro All Black hysteria will impact the mindset of voters.
Despite being as keen on our national sport as anyone, I’m expecting the election to be the most exciting of the two contests. As many commentators have noted, I’ve never seen the country so divided on political matters. I’ve never seen so many petitions, protest groups or disgruntled commentators bemoaning the policies of the nation’s government. Such is the concern about the government record, we’re even unhappy with the performance of the opposition parties who many suggest have failed to hold the failing government to account.
The levels of public dissatisfaction have seen some government ministers expressing concerns about their personal safety on the campaign trail. I’m not sure if such concerns are genuine or imagined. Nevertheless, it all suggests that irrespective of who the contestants are, we are in for an election that will be our most divisive and aggressively fought yet.
The departure of Jacinda Ardern from the Prime Ministerial contest will only heighten the nation’s anxiety, given the calibre and depth of the team she leaves behind.
The timing of this election is difficult for the incumbent government. The reality is that inflation and therefore interest rates are going up at a time when the country is carrying more government and personal debt than ever before. We’re also expecting to be in recession by Election Day. People are coming off a couple of years that have been tough financially and emotionally, and now pay-packets are stretched by the increasing cost of a bag of groceries and a mortgage payment that will keep going up for a while before it starts going down. Words like “crisis” are being used to describe the cost of living.
At the same time, we’ve learned this week that business confidence is at the lowest level it’s been since 1970. Let’s understand for a minute what that means. Lower than the two oil shocks in the 1970s or the sharemarket crash in the 1980s. Lower than the aftermath of the GFC in 2008. When confidence is low, business owners will stop investing in their businesses, conserve cash, cut back on spending, and possibly decrease staff numbers. Incumbent governments don’t like that stuff.
Irrespective of who ends up campaigning for our vote, my hope is that the election campaign is fought on the real issues that are affecting New Zealanders. There is a risk that we will get inundated with rhetoric about co-governance, climate change and other ideologies that this government has specialised in.
But, as the saying goes, there are bigger fish to fry.
I recently read the summary of a 2015 United Nations study that asked 10 million people to rank 16 priorities. The top two were education and health. Sound familiar? Then came jobs and corruption. Violence was number six and equality came in at number 10. And what was number 16 you may ask? Climate change. For differing reasons, they’re all issues on this country’s agenda.
My guess is that New Zealanders in 2023 will feel much the same about Jacinda Ardern’s legacy. The decline of our health system has been well documented and, sadly, experienced first-hand by many New Zealanders. Waiting times for everything from essential surgical procedures to being attended at Accident and Emergency are beyond reasonable. Even an ambulance can sometimes seem a distant luxury.
On the education front, we have been well informed of the appalling school attendance and the accompanying dilution of our abilities in English, maths and sciences. So much for former PM Helen Clark’s grand vision of a knowledge economy. In a few short years, we have drifted rapidly in the opposite direction. If not corrected within the next parliamentary term we will be relying more than ever on imported labour for the next twenty years. But not because we need more workers in bars and on ski-fields. Rather it will be because we need more highly skilled people further up the value chain.
Meanwhile, the headlines continue to tell us about crime perpetuated by seemingly unrestrained gangs and young ram raiders smashing into our favourite stores. The average Kiwi voter will want to see some focus come back onto our personal safety. An incumbent government that has developed a “soft on crime” reputation is going to have to do some explaining to convince us they’re serious about the current lawlessness.
At election time, voters will forgive these failures if they can see champions with a clear plan to improve our performance in the areas of concern. The Labour Party now need to find that champion by tomorrow. But we’re not seeing that yet, from either of the two main political parties. John Key used to talk about the ‘vision thing’. What he meant was an outlook for where the country is headed, the type of country we want to be, the services we provide, the aspirations for our people, the values we live by and of course, the quality of life we enjoy at every stage of our lives.
That means everything from the birthing suite to the retirement village. What do we aspire to deliver, on a consistent basis, for all of our people? It seems strange that we don’t have a clear and shared view of those aspirations today.
If a politician can tell that story, votes will follow. Witness the success of David Seymour, arguably 2022’s best-performing politician. He’s been doing exactly that, very effectively, and it’s getting noticed.
Seymour’s performance is highly relevant to this election. If you assume that the two main political parties continue to do what they’ve always done, hovering around the centrist line, the behaviour of the fringe parties will be where the most interesting game is played and possibly where the election is lost or won. The Act party have a clear view of what is needed and seems to be good at getting its message out.
The Greens, on the other hand, have struggled with their position in the government’s shadow and their own internal squabbles. Like Green parties around the world, they are now also challenged with finding a new ‘mojo’. With the United Nations’ announcement, in November last year, that the threats associated with climate change have been substantially downgraded, the global warming alarmism we have become used to is no longer relevant. Simply put, there is no longer a climate emergency and those who have claimed to champion that particular cause will need to find a new grievance. If the major polluters were ignoring the climate accords before, they now have permission to forget about it altogether. New Zealand’s Green Party has made climate change its raison d’etre. They now need to discover a new cause with which to capture the voter.
Of course, standing in the middle is one other ‘mainstream’ minor party. Despite not currently being in government, my bet is that New Zealand First will be by the end of the year. That will not come as welcome news for those on the right side of the political ledger who still blame Winston Peters for our current government and our current problems.
But Winston Peters will hit the campaign trail with all the energy, charisma and polish that we know he has, and he will win voters back again. He’ll do it by talking about the topical things that other politicians are fearful of touching. He’ll talk about democracy, separatism, equality and the Treaty. He’ll talk about the cost of living and the inadequacies of the Reserve Bank. He’ll also talk about the now former Prime Minister and her betrayal of him and his party. And of course, he’ll attack the media. And he’ll get some votes.
So where will we end up? Pre-Christmas polling suggested that an election held in mid-December would see National and Act with the numbers to form a government. They say that a week is a long time in politics and the game has changed dramatically in the last 48 hours. With nine months to go before voting, things just became a lot more difficult for this government.
Of course, there will be surprises. On the campaign trail, the new Labour leader will present a fresh face to the electorate, and National’s Christopher Luxon will be better for his experience to date than we expect him to be. I think we know what to expect from Seymour and Peters, and the Greens will be beneficiaries of Labour’s post Ardern slump.
Finally, a wildcard. I suspect that student loans will again be topical. Remember that Helen Clark once won an election with a late promise to declare student loans interest-free. This time around, I wonder if a desperate government with a new leader will promise to write off student loans at the 11th hour of the campaign.
And so to my 2023 prediction. New Zealand will place third in the Rugby World Cup. Oh, and that other race? National and Act will get more parliamentary seats than Labour and the Greens. But not enough to govern without the support of NZ First. Sound familiar?
An edited version of this article first appeared in The New Zealand Herald on Saturday 21 January 2023.