A majority of Parliament now seems against a September 19 election date, following calls for a delay from New Zealand First – what could happen next?
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has joined calls for a delay to the September 19 election following the country’s new Covid-19 outbreak, claiming there is “no ability to conduct a free and fair election” in the current environment.
However, Peters has shied away from disclosing whether his party would back a vote of no confidence against the Government, should Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern forge ahead with the original date.
Ardern is set to reveal her own views on the election date and dissolution of Parliament at a press conference on Monday morning. However, her coalition partner and Deputy Prime Minister chose to pre-empt the announcement on Sunday afternoon, in what appears an attempt to force Ardern’s – or even the Governor-General’s – hand.
Justifying an election delay, Peters said there would be only six days for parties to campaign if Auckland moved out of Level 3 and the rest of the country out of Level 2 on August 26, with overseas voting beginning on September 2 and advance voting five days later.
“There is now no ability to conduct a free and fair election if the Prime Minister decides to hold the General Election on September 19,” Peters said.
Two prior elections held ahead of schedule – by Robert Muldoon in 1984, and Helen Clark in 2002 – had still left at least four weeks for parties to campaign.
He also cited concerns about the preparedness of the Electoral Commission and NZ Post to deal with “an unprecedented deluge of special votes” in a timely fashion, noting the significant increase in voting ahead of Election Day in recent years.
“Voters are sovereign and when and what day they vote must be their choice, not the Government’s.
“Any proposed staggering of their vote in the election across several weeks is a weakening of and serious interference in our democracy,” Peters claimed.
Speaking to media, the New Zealand First leader repeatedly refused to state whether his party would join National and ACT in a vote of no confidence in the Government should Ardern decline to change the election date – an extreme option available to him should he choose it.
“I’m here to alert the people of this country, dare I say it my friends in the media, to the realities of what we’re facing right now, and I think people are entitled to know all the permutations and ramifications of political behaviour.”
Peters did confirm his party retained confidence in the Prime Minister and the Government at present, although left unsaid was whether that position would change should Ardern ignore his objections: “We don’t deal with hypotheticals,” he said.
Peters released a letter he sent to Ardern on August 14 to convey New Zealand First’s concerns, saying he had since spoken to her about the issue.
“New Zealand First believes we risk undermining the legitimacy of the election result, creating an awful precedent which could be abused by the Prime Minister’s successors.
“People will be driven to the conclusion, in the absence of any empirical evidence to the contrary, that the election date choice is being forced from a minority position to achieve a certain outcome.”
Peters said the party was releasing its letter to Ardern “for the sake of transparency, and because we believe the Governor-General of New Zealand needs to know that the majority in the House of Representatives favours an election delay.”
In it, he suggests October 17 and November 21 as alternative dates, with the latter seeming the party’s preference.
“With two Covid-free cycles from the last community case being the trigger from lowering from Alert Level 2 to 1, that would give the government until October 23 to recover its previous health position.”
A constitutional conundrum
If Ardern nevertheless maintained a preference for a September 19 election, Peters said New Zealand First would make its position known publicly “for transparent constitutional reasons, as we cannot agree with any decision that undercuts political legitimacy and undermines New Zealand’s ability to hold a free and fair election”.
National and ACT have previously stated their preference for a postponement of the election, meaning a majority of Parliament could theoretically hold a vote of no confidence in the Government.
In a thread on Twitter, Wellington lawyer Graeme Edgeler suggested Governor-General Patsy Reddy would likely refuse the dissolution of Parliament, or Ardern decline to instruct it, in the event it was claimed the Government no longer held the confidence of the House of Representatives.
The House could then sit for the Government to move a motion of confidence, Edgeler said. 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 someone else to form a government.
If there was still no confidence in any government, Reddy could use the reserve powers of the Governor-General to direct the timing of the election, potentially taking advice from the Chief Electoral Officer.