Opinion: In a few days the final phase of the 2023 election campaign begins with the start of early voting. At the last election 48 percent of voters cast their votes before election day, and this year election staff have apparently already been told to expect that most votes this year will be cast well before election day.

This changes the dynamic of how the campaign will run from the start of next week. The serious parties, major and minor, will be focusing much more strongly on securing their own vote and maximising supporter turnout than trying to attract significant new numbers to their causes. Their messaging will become more nuanced and aimed at those their canvassers have identified as likely to vote for them, to make sure they do so.

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This is especially so for Labour which, if the polls are to be believed, is now staring down the barrel of a very large election defeat. Labour has fallen in each of the last seven opinion polls this month, and is in a desperate situation. It has made many bold new promises in that time.

These include increasing public housing by 6,000 units; boosting Pharmac’s funding for new medicines by $1 billion; and a comprehensive climate change manifesto. All these commitments are designed to play well to traditional Labour constituencies, and are designed more to lock in their support – and their votes – before election day, than to ever be implemented by Hipkins’ dying government.

The tone of Labour’s overall campaign – more attacks on National than promotion of what it has been doing in government – confirms Labour’s focus is increasingly on being a viable Opposition than remaining in government. That makes sense, given doubts now emerging among even its own MPs that Labour can win the election. This approach will intensify over the next couple of weeks.

It is by no means certain New Zealand First would respond positively to a last-cab-off-the-rank invitation from Luxon

National too has to focus on the votes it has already attracted ahead of those it has yet to attract. It has been between 6 and 14 percentage points above Labour in the last nine public opinion polls, and in most of them has had the numbers to form a majority two-party coalition with Act, its stated preference.

National’s biggest risk now is complacency – the sense among its supporters that the election result is a foregone conclusion, so voting is not the priority it should otherwise be. That is why Luxon is spending so much time warning voters that all MMP elections are close, and that the prospect of a Labour/Greens/Te Pāti Māori government is still a live one, unless people proactively vote for change.

Luxon’s announcement he would be prepared to “pick up the phone” to New Zealand First as a “last option” if that is what it takes to change the government needs to be seen in that context. The tone of his remarks makes it clear that is the last thing he wants to do, and would only happen if he was desperate for support.

By raising the prospect of working with New Zealand First, Luxon was arguably focusing far more on his own soft supporters than inviting New Zealand First into the tent. His intention seems to be to remind those soft supporters, possibly dallying with supporting New Zealand First, that the best way to avoid the uncertainty of working with New Zealand First would be for those supporters to vote National.

Luxon’s approach to dealing with New Zealand First has been clumsy all year. Time will tell whether this latest move is a masterstroke which will lock soft National supporters back into line, for fear of the chaos working with New Zealand First would potentially cause, or whether it will just drive more of them into New Zealand First’s arms, on the grounds National will work with them anyway.

Either way, reading too much into the likely upshot from Luxon’s announcement is premature. Although New Zealand First has been above the 5 percent party vote threshold in seven of the last nine opinion polls, about half those polls show National and Act on course to form a majority coalition on their own.

Also, given New Zealand First’s track record of seeking to be centre-stage in any post-election negotiations, and hold all the cards to itself for as long as it can to milk maximum self-advantage, it is by no means certain New Zealand First would respond positively to a last-cab-off-the-rank invitation from Luxon.

Luxon’s announcement has also made life more difficult for Act. Already facing difficulties over various candidate selections, and with its dream run of the last two years over as National has strengthened, Act is now struggling to hold the line at its previous support level.

National’s announcement about New Zealand First pushes Act into the background at the very time it needs to be asserting itself as the potential strong, viable junior coalition partner in an incoming government. Reinforcing this point will become an even greater priority for Act over the next couple of weeks.

Given Labour’s parlous state, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori are perhaps in the best position of all. They can use the next three weeks to not only bolster their own vote, but also to chip away at disillusioned Labour voters looking for somewhere to park their votes until Labour becomes a viable option once more. None of the other small parties has achieved any cut-through during this campaign, which comes as no real surprise, nor are they likely to in the home-straight run to election day.

For all parties, the next three weeks will be the grimmest of the campaign, but for different reasons. The common challenge facing all of them, though, will be how they continue to swim strongly upstream when most people have probably voted already and therefore switched off listening to what any of the parties have to say, let alone promise.

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