The political timetable and conventions around elections mean the current Government will effectively be in the role of caretaker from mid-June, so the steps it is taking now have extra significance, writes Peter Dunne

In the more leisurely times of the 1970s and early 1980s, the first focus of the political year was on the Orewa Rotary Club north of Auckland.

There, at the start of the year, Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, still on holiday at his nearby Hatfields Beach bach, would swap his holiday trademark unflattering Hawaiian shirts and shorts for a suit, then wander down to the Rotary Club to be its first guest speaker of the year.

At the time, because of the dearth of political activity elsewhere – Parliament, after all, did not resume meeting until around the middle of the year in those days – the Prime Minister’s speech assumed a particular importance, and became known as the state of the nation address.

Over time, other parties took to doing likewise, partly to counter the impact of Muldoon’s address and the media attention it came to attract, and partly because the advent after 1984 of Parliament beginning its sitting year in February meant the device of a state of the nation speech was a good way for parties to set out their priorities and plans for the year in the week or two before Parliament resumed.

However, nowadays the idea has become somewhat overworked and pedestrian, and the various efforts attract nothing like the attention they used to in Muldoon’s heyday. (Indeed, the last state of the nation address to attract substantial media attention was then National leader Don Brash’s controversial speech on race relations – coincidentally, also to the Orewa Rotary Club – back in 2004.)

The instant nature of the modern news cycle, and the range of outlets through which news information is now purveyed, have placed a much greater emphasis on information that is immediate and specific, so the impact of a formal set-piece, like the traditional state of the nation address, has been considerably diminished.

This year the interest is likely to be especially specific.

Will the Prime Minister use the occasion to announce any electoral accommodations? Will Simon Bridges finally rule out working with New Zealand First if in a position to do after the election? And just how far will both the Greens and New Zealand First be prepared to distance themselves from the government to protect their respective brands, without destabilising it to the point of inoperability in the process?

Today, there are new symbols to mark the start of the political year. The most obvious is the annual pilgrimage the parties make to the Ratana Pa every late January to mark the work and life of the late Māori prophet, Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana.

It is a highly symbolic occasion, both marking respect but also providing an opportunity for the Ratana movement as a significant force within Māoridom to set out to the politicians its concerns and perspectives on the issues of the day.

Given the strong historical links forged by Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana with the Labour Party over 80 years, there is no real benefit to any of the other parties in attending, but that has long since ceased to be the point.

The sacred ground of the Ratana Marae means it is not usual for significant policy announcements to be made there. Rather, the gathering has come to signal the formal starting of the year’s political activity, so much so that the both the major parties hold Caucus retreats either just beforehand (in Labour’s case) or just afterwards (as National does) to plan their political year. 

The first big political announcements of the year can be expected to follow shortly afterwards, probably in the lead-up to the annual Waitangi Commemorations.

Already, this year the Government has announced the details of its $12 billion infrastructure package, and there is mounting speculation that a deal to resolve the Ihumātao land issue will be made public before Waitangi Day. It will be against these backdrops that Parliament will resume in mid-February for its election year session.

Aside from its set-pieces, Parliament is unlikely to do very much this year. This is as much for practical as it is for political reasons. It simply will not have all that much time – Parliament is scheduled to sit for just 54 days, before being dissolved in early August for the September 19 election. 

In the meantime, the Government’s priority will be to pass the legislation already before the House that it wants to have in place before the election, as well as measures (any tax or benefit changes, for example) it will want to implement from this year’s Budget (probably due to be delivered in early May.)

As it usually takes about six months for a piece of legislation to go through all its stages in the House, there is unlikely to be any significant new legislation introduced because the government simply will not have the time to pass it before the election.

And that means the Government will be judged at election time, largely on its record as it stands today, rather than what it might do in the future. That could pose a real problem for this Government, already characterised as one whose delivery has fallen far short of its promises, and the expectations it created. It is rapidly running out of time to overcome that deficit.

Another factor to be taken into account is what has come to be known as the period of restraint. It used to be the case that during the four weeks of the formal election campaign, the government of the day did not take controversial decisions which could impact upon an incoming government, without involving them.

A good case in point occurred in 2008 during the Global Financial Crisis when during the election campaign the incumbent Labour-led Government consulted closely with the National Party (about to come to office) about measures needing to be taken to secure the banking system.

… the agendas the parties are setting for themselves now have to contain enough momentum to see them through to the start of the election period.

However, in recent years, the bureaucracy, for reasons largely of its own determination and certainly not constitutionally based, has been steadily and stealthily extending the scope and duration of the period of restraint.

Now the period begins formally three months before the date of the General Election and holds that not only no controversial decisions are made, but also that no new major policy initiatives can be considered.

Officials, at the direction of the State Services Commission, therefore tailor their interactions with Ministers accordingly, meaning that the government is effectively reduced to the status of a caretaker government for that period.

This year, given the mid-September election date, the period of restraint will begin in mid-June, meaning the Government will be in effective caretaker mode from then onwards. So, policies not in place by then will not be able to be put in place before the election, thus further constraining the government’s scope for action in election year.

All of which means that the symbolic steps being taken now take on added significance. Even though the election will be later, government activity will steadily grind to a halt after the Budget and its accompanying legislation is passed by late May, and certainly by the time the period of restraint begins.

Parties will effectively be in full-time election campaign mode from then. Therefore, the agendas the parties are setting for themselves now have to contain enough momentum to see them through to the start of the election period.

We have a come a long way from Muldoon’s time when election campaigns – even those called over a drink late at night – ran for not much longer than four short weeks.

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