Opinion: The release of Labour’s nine-point pledge card, after National’s similar version a week or so ago in effect casts the election die. Both parties have now set out their main appeals to the electorate, meaning any last-minute dramatic policy announcements, not already part of the pledge cards, will have an air of desperation about them, and will likely be dismissed accordingly by the electorate.

Early voting begins in three weeks, so the banality of modern election campaigning will be at its peak before then. With Labour and National having now played their big cards, there will be more focus on the minor parties clamouring for support. Their claims will become more extreme and inwardly focused on consolidating their own supporters.

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For example, Act’s threat to give a National-led government support on matters of confidence only, if they cannot reach a satisfactory coalition agreement, is a negotiating ploy, more about confirming to potential supporters how critical Act’s role could be post-election. New Zealand First’s assertion that Māori are not New Zealand’s indigenous people is a cynical and calculated call to arms to the bigot base that has rewarded the party so well electorally in the past. Te Pāti Māori’s claim that National and Act want to see Māori dying 10 years earlier than Pākehā is utterly bizarre but will play well to its core constituency.

Beyond all this extremism and silliness, it is worth remembering that for one or other of the two major party leaders, the election outcome will likely spell the end of their political career. Defeated political leaders in New Zealand seldom get a second chance.

For Prime Minister Chris Hipkins the challenge is especially acute. Only one prime minister since 1935, who took over during a Parliamentary term, has subsequently won a term of office of their own. Peter Fraser took over after Michael Joseph Savage’s death in 1940 and went on to win elections in 1943 and 1946 before being defeated in 1949. Since then, six prime ministers (Holyoake, Marshall, Rowling, Moore, Shipley, and English) who took over during a Parliamentary term lost the next election. On current polling, Hipkins seems destined to join that list.

Holyoake made a successful return in 1960, but Rowling and Moore led their parties to further defeats in 1978 and 1981, and 1993 respectively. Marshall, Shipley, and English all left Parliament during or at the end of the term after they lost office.

It is hard to see Luxon wanting to stick around warming a backbench seat in Opposition should National lose the coming election

As a relatively young man at 45 Hipkins faces the prospect of never returning to office if he loses the coming election. The only prime minister since 1935 to come back as a minister in a subsequent government was Holyoake in 1975, before his controversial appointment as Governor-General. Unlike Britain, which has a tradition of former prime ministers remaining as backbenchers after they have stood down as party leader, in New Zealand, only Nash, Muldoon, Moore, and Lange have stayed on for any length of time as backbenchers.

Hipkins is far too young to become a venerated, elder statesman the way the octogenarian Nash did. And he does not seem the type of personality to be the cantankerous, irascible backbench nuisance that Muldoon and Moore became. Rather, in the event he loses next month’s election, Hipkins seems likely to leave Parliament altogether for greener pastures elsewhere, sooner rather than later.

Labour and National voters seem to be attracted to their respective party despite rather than because of their leaders

For Christopher Luxon, the picture is similar. The National Party has always been more ruthless in dealing with election-losing leaders. In the last 50 years, only Jim Bolger has got a second chance and he went on to become prime minister. Marshall, Muldoon, Shipley, English (twice), Brash, and Collins were either deposed or stood down during the term after they led National to defeat. Given that, and his own extensive business background, it is hard to see Luxon wanting to stick around warming a backbench seat in Opposition should National lose the coming election.

These factors add spice to the remaining weeks of this year’s election campaign. Not only will Hipkins and Luxon be chasing victory for their respective parties, but they will also be fighting for their own political survival, something that seems hard to fathom given their equally lacklustre performances so far. Hipkins has looked uncomfortable in the public eye and somewhat distracted from the whole process. For his part, Luxon’s political inexperience has become obvious at critical points, such as his recent awkward interview with Jack Tame, where he seemed all at sea. Though he has become noticeably more relaxed in public settings, there remain times when he seems uncertain what to do or say.

As their personal ratings – now level-pegging – show, neither Hipkins nor Luxon is inspiring the electorate and igniting support the way Dame Jacinda Ardern or Sir John Key did at their peaks. Labour and National voters seem to be attracted to their respective party despite, rather than because of, their leaders. And the upcoming televised leaders’ debates may not have the same impact of previous years. The burgeoning variety of media platforms makes it unlikely they will attract the widespread audience of recent elections, and two of the three debates occur after early voting has begun, meaning they will be largely irrelevant to many voters.

Neither Hipkins nor Luxon has so far shown sufficient passion or boldness to convince New Zealanders they have what it takes to be an effective prime minister in the difficult years ahead. Both now need to inject more urgency into their campaigns – Hipkins to just get back into the contest, and Luxon to sustain National’s building momentum.

For both, the spectre of defeat and the end of their political careers should provide the spur they need. Otherwise, the last few weeks of the campaign risk being dominated by the smaller parties and their agendas, rather than what the two men who would be prime minister have to offer.

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