Opinion: New Zealand’s next general election is probably no longer than 15 months away. The period of restraint – the three months before an election during which, by convention, governments make no specific new policy decisions or appointments – is only a year away. Time is running out for the Labour Government to unveil and implement new policy directions or make substantial changes to policies already in place.
It has been clear for some time that despite the bold and confident promises of 2017 and 2018, there will be no substantial improvements in housing by the election. The 50,000-60,000 new affordable homes promised by KiwiBuild (10,000 a year) will not have materialised – indeed, little more than 2,000 homes have been built so far – while more than 27,000 people (more than five times the number of 2017) languish on public housing waiting lists. Although house price increases have slowed from their 2021 peaks, the median average cost of a house today is about $850,000 – nearly 27% higher than in 2017. So, it is hard to see how Labour will campaign on its housing record, yet that was one of its flagship policies before it came to government.
Labour was going to “fix” the health crisis in 2017. Today, with nursing and medical staff shortages at unprecedented levels there is more uncertainty in health policy than at any point since the early 1990s. In part this is because of Covid-19, but the public health system is also in turmoil because of the advent of Health New Zealand and the abolition of district health boards since July 1. Doctors and nurses, already under considerable pressure, are uncertain about how care provided to their patients will be affected by the recent changes.
Most of the new health system’s managers are in interim roles only, and primary health services have no clarity of funding or role beyond about the next six months. The Government is unlikely to be able to provide much more certainty, let alone improved services to the public, before the election, which will make it very difficult for it to claim to have “fixed” the health system as it promised in 2017.
Labour also promised in 2017 to reduce levels of child poverty, but in May this year the charity KidsCan reported that child poverty levels were the worst it had seen in the past 18 years. The huge surge in the cost-of-living over recent months, and the highest annual inflation rate since 1990, will be aggravating this situation. The Government has acknowledged this through its recent decisions to extend half-price public transport and the reduction in fuel tax until the end of January next year – but it still faces the quandary of what to do then. Either choice is unpalatable – extend the subsidies through election year, no matter their cost, or withdraw them and hope there is a fall in inflation to offset the consequent increase in household costs and further pressure on family budgets.
Overall, the current political situation has a peculiar feel to it. Both Labour and National look increasingly like modern-day Mr Micawbers – just sitting by waiting for something to turn up
Beyond these issues, Labour’s plans for bold “transformational change” the Prime Minister once spoke of are stalled or facing strong headwinds. Three Waters has become far more controversial than the Government ever expected and is likely to feature strongly in the forthcoming local government elections, with many candidates around the country campaigning against the plan. In a similar vein, plans for co-governance arrangements seem stalled – the Cabinet has yet to sign off on the Government’s proposals, and there are clear signs of disagreement, or at last unease, among ministers about what might be intended.
None of this makes pretty reading for the Government in the lead-up to election year. National Party sympathisers are becoming more and more confident that current circumstances represent the type of shift in public opinion that will lead to a decisive change of government next year. But there is insufficient compelling evidence yet to suggest this is the case. Although the rolling average of public opinion polls is starting to show a small lead emerging for the National/ACT bloc, it is still too fragile, and therefore retrievable by Labour, making it premature and unwise to draw too many conclusions about what will happen next year. Nevertheless, it is a fair early conclusion that Labour will lose its current outright majority in the House and therefore be much more reliant on the Greens and possibly Te Pati Māori to form any future government.
Labour deserves credit for its resilience despite the current political situation. Its indifferent record of achievement and the prevailing circumstances would normally see it trailing far behind at this stage of the electoral cycle. Yet it is still in a competitive position. This may be because of the leadership of the Prime Minister, although that has not been much in evidence on the domestic front in recent months; or still lingering approval for the initial Covid-19 response, although that is waning. But it may also reflect a feeling that, after all its internal upheaval of recent years, the National Party is not yet ready to govern.
Overall, the current political situation has a peculiar feel to it. Both Labour and National look increasingly like modern-day Mr Micawbers – just sitting by waiting for something to turn up. Labour is banking on possible improvements in the international economy leading to a fall in inflation and improvement in living standards, while National is hoping things will continue to go wrong for Labour, so that it will benefit.
New Zealand faces significant challenges over the next few years but neither major party is yet showing the passion and enthusiasm one would usually expect of parties in the lead-up to a general election. Could it be that given the unprecedented international uncertainties, from climate change and the war in Ukraine to the pandemic and the various domestic policy challenges, there is a latent feeling in both parties that 2023 may not be the election to win?