Winston Peters’ public support for an election delay puts Jacinda Ardern – and possibly the Governor-General – in a tricky position. But there is good reason to suspect compromise will win the day, Sam Sachdeva writes

Outlining his party’s preference for a new election date, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters stopped abruptly and looked down at the podium underneath him.

“Sorry, what’s that sound over here? Did someone let go a – not a possum there, is it?”

Highly unlikely, he was assured – it seems nearby building work may have been the culprit.

After an often confusing but never dull press conference, it is Jacinda Ardern who may be stuck with an invasive pest in her workplace for longer than expected.

Peters’ decision to publicly advocate for a delay to the September 19 polling date is not quite a constitutional crisis yet, but it is certainly a conundrum for the Prime Minister, and maybe even Governor-General Patsy Reddy.

By joining National and ACT in opposing a business as usual approach, Peters has raised the spectre of a vote of no-confidence in the current Government if it was to forge ahead with the September 19 date.

Wellington lawyer Graeme Edgeler has ably outlined the possible ramifications on Twitter: should it become clear Parliament had indeed lost confidence in the Government, Reddy could refuse to dissolve Parliament as is currently scheduled to take place Monday.

The House could then sit for the Government to move a high-stakes motion of confidence: if that passed, Parliament would dissolve, but if it failed the Governor-General could allow a period to see if there was confidence in either Ardern or another MP to form a government.

If the parties could come to agreement, then Prime Minister Judith Collins (or, dare we say it, Prime Minister Peters) could command the majority of the House for just long enough to schedule a new election date. 

“We don’t deal in hypotheticals,” the public was told by Peters; it was as if Chekhov’s gun had been hung on the wall for all to witness, but no clarity over whether it was loaded, and with the playwright denying it had ever been seen in the first place.

If that was not possible, then it would be for Reddy to use the reserve powers of the Governor-General and set an election date, possibly with the input of the Chief Electoral Officer.

It is worth noting that the process for resolving such a constitutional conundrum is contested, with no clear instruction manual.

University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis believes it would take a majority of the House throwing its active support behind a new leader, rather than simply withdrawing its support in Ardern, for the Governor-General to reverse course on the dissolution of Parliament and election date.

With Peters publicly confirming Ardern still has the confidence of New Zealand First, Reddy could accept the Prime Minister’s request to dissolve Parliament on the grounds she enjoyed its confidence at the time the decision was made, even if that was to change afterwards.

It all sounds a bit far-fetched, yet such scenarios are certainly within the realms of possibility.

Yet despite explicitly invoking the constitutional issues at play, and saying he had released his letter to Ardern “because we believe the Governor General of New Zealand needs to know that the majority in the House of Representatives favours an election delay”, Peters repeatedly ducked or dead-batted the issue of what exactly his party would do should Ardern not heed his advice.

“We don’t deal in hypotheticals,” the public was told; it was as if Chekhov’s gun had been hung on the wall for all to witness, but no clarity over whether it was loaded, and with the playwright denying it had ever been seen in the first place.

In any case, Ardern now has a finger on her own proverbial trigger.

Will she buckle and defer the election date, or hold tight to September 19 and risk losing her grasp of the premiership, in the short term at least and potentially forever?

Through a purely political lens, there would seem to be a good case for staring Peters down and dealing with the consequences as they arise.

Pulling the pin on yet another coalition government could prove devastating for New Zealand First, already facing an uphill challenge to make it above the five percent threshold and hardly needing more ballast for claims it is not a trustworthy partner.

National and ACT would likewise face enormous criticism for being seen to place their own self-interest above that of the country, particularly when set against a tremendously popular incumbent who excels at being seen to rise above the fray.

The political parties could get their short-term wish of a delayed election, but at a devastating cost whenever voters did head to the polls.

Playing political chicken?

Of course, playing chicken could also backfire for Ardern and Labour.

Would she damage her own brand by seeming to prioritise her government’s re-election over the health and safety of the population? And having already endured erroneous claims of illegitimacy after the last election result, how would the public and politicians react if turnout was to plummet as a result of Covid restrictions?

Given those high stakes, and Ardern’s innate pragmatism, it seems relatively safe to assume we will indeed see a delay to polling day.

After all, there are legitimate health reasons to justify a postponement, even if there is no certainty about what nasty Covid-19 surprises would be around the corner for a November 21 election, or one held at any other time.

Delaying the date within the period that does not require a legislative change would allow for the situation in Auckland and elsewhere to settle down, make it harder for political parties to cry foul in the wake of the election, and still leave a Labour-led government as the prohibitive favourite.

Of course, Covid-19 has taught us to expect the unexpected, and Ardern may yet choose a higher-risk, higher-reward course of action.

Or Peters could blink and back the Prime Minister in a confidence vote, calculating that the costs of betrayal would outweigh any potential benefits of a bit more time to win over the electorate.

Ardern will undoubtedly insist her decision, whatever it is, has been primarily guided by the advice of health officials – and that will largely be true.

But there are constitutional questions that cannot or should not be ignored, and politicians are by their very nature political despite what some would like you to believe.

We are heading into uncertain territory, and who knows what possums or other nasty surprises lurk in the underbrush.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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