Twice, Helen Clark negotiated with Winston Peters to form a government. Once she was successful; once she had to walk away. But never, she says, did she contemplate sending the country back to the polls.

The former Labour leader has emailed Newsroom from one of the most remote places in the world – the South Georgia Islands in the southern Atlantic Ocean, where she is on an Antarctic Heritage Trust expedition – with a firm message for today’s leaders.

“There would appear to me to be no grounds for a second election,” she says.

Both National and Labour leadership have indicated that if neither party is able to form a government with Winston Peters, Parliament could be forced to return the country to the polls for a new election with a clearer mandate.

But Clark doesn’t buy it. “A majority in Parliament on confidence and supply can be found somewhere,” she says. “MMP requires negotiation and compromise, and has not in the past delivered a situation in New Zealand where a government cannot be formed.

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Newsroom has investigated the expense and time required to conduct a second election. In short, there would be very few cost efficiencies that would allow a new general election to be conducted for much less than the $183 million being spent on this month’s election and party broadcasting allocation.

“A second election would be expensive – for the public purse and for the political parties,” Clark says. “It may well, if called, also deliver a similar result to the first one, with voters sending a clear message to political parties that they expect them to work with what voters have said.”

In 1996, Winston Peters negotiated with both Clark and her opponent Jim Bolger for eight long weeks, before eventually opting to go with National.

Then in 2005, Clark’s Labour Party won 50 seats – just one seat more than National on election night, September 17 of that year. Neither could easily form a government, and National leader Don Brash refused to concede defeat until the following month, when National lost a seat on the special votes count.

On October 17, Clark announced a new minority government coalition with the one-seat Progressive Party, with confidence and supply support from New Zealand First and United Future. Winston Peters and United Future leader Peter Dunne became ministers of the Crown outside Cabinet.

Costs of elections and referendums

The negotiations were vexed. That's well-documented. But Clark felt her obligation was to play the hand that voters had dealt her. "At no time after the 2005 election was calling a second election considered."

Indeed, this month's poll is New Zealand's 53rd general election – and despite many unusual combinations and compositions and coalitions of governing arrangements, never once have our parliamentarians failed to agree a government that can pass a vote of confidence – and never once have New Zealanders been forced back to the polls.

University of Otago law professor Dr Andrew Geddis says he'd bet heavily against a second election. In his view, there's political game-playing in the talk of a second election, in which parties like National try to "scare the horses" in order to persuade voters to give their party vote to the bigger parties.

There is no clock for forming a government, he says. Parliament must meet within six weeks of the "return of the writ" on November 9, but there is no legal requirement that a new government be formed by then. It's more a question of political culture – how long a delay will the electorate tolerate, and how long can the operations of government (with a small 'g') carry on without having a Government (with a capital 'G') in place with a full mandate to take action.

Belgium went for 16 months with a "caretaker" government in place, through 2019 and into 2020, but Geddis says it seems unlikely New Zealand would tolerate such a state of affairs.

Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro has given some guidance on this. In a speech in February this year, to the Electoral Commission's national training session for returning officers, she acknowledged the possibility that no government is formed after an election.

"That has never happened under MMP," she said. "Although it has happened in the past that negotiations have taken some time, New Zealand has not under MMP been in a situation where no government can be formed at all."

Whatever happens in negotiations, Parliament is required to sit again no later than December 21. "Even if no new government has been appointed, I will still be required to deliver the Speech from the Throne, on behalf of the caretaker government," she explained. "Parties will then have a chance to move confidence votes and test the support of the House for different governing arrangements."

As negotiations continue and confidence arrangements are tested, the Labour caretaker government would remain in place. No new government could be appointed until the constituent parties receive a positive confidence vote from a majority of the House.

If the parties reached the end of this year or early 2024 without any governing arrangements having been agreed, at some point the parties would throw up their hands and say they need a new election.

"There may come a time when it is clear that a government cannot be formed, and another election is required," Dame Cindy said.

"The incumbent Prime Minister, bound by the caretaker convention, would be expected to consult other parties and seek majority support for the calling of any new election. Members of Parliament are responsible for resolving matters so that the Governor-General is never required to consider dissolving Parliament and calling an election without ministerial advice."

If the leader of the Labour caretaker government – Chris Hipkins, for the time being – advises Dame Cindy to call a new election, the next question is how long it will take to set that in place, and conduct it.

How long would it take?

Andrew Geddis says the timeframe for how quickly a new election can be held is determined by a mix of legislative requirements and practical Electoral Commission needs.

Under 3139 of the Election Act 1993, the writ for an election must specify a "nomination day" – the day by which electorate candidates and party lists must be given to the commission – with election day to be no fewer than 20 days after this.

Given that there would have to be some time for candidates and parties to get their papers to the commission, the effective minimum under the law is about four weeks.

However, complicating matters is the $3.6 million broadcasting allocation given to parties to fund TV and radio ads in the lead-up to an election. The Electoral Commission has to receive applications for this from qualifying parties and then decide who gets how much to spend. That takes time.

And critically, the Electoral Commission has to find polling places and hire back people to staff these. That's all likely to take more than four weeks.

In 2002, Helen Clark called a snap election. She announced on June 11 that election day would be July 27 – a 46-day period.

But Newsroom understands such a tight timeframe at the 2002 snap election would no longer be feasible for the Electoral Commission. That's because so many more votes are conducted as advance votes. In a report three years ago, it advised that the minimum timeframe between calling a general election and election day would now be 14 weeks.

Add to that the requirement for a byelection in the Port Waikato seat, after the death of Act Party candidate Neil Christensen. This has to be conducted in a tighter timeframe, and in a tightly-fought election may well determine whether or not parties have enough seats to form a government. 

Realistically, the 14-week clock may not start ticking until after the by-election – meaning the earlier a second election could be held with trained staff and a credible level of voter participation would be March 2024.

How much would it cost?

This year's election was budgeted for a two-year appropriation of over $179m, for the general election and electoral services, and $3.6m for the expenses for election broadcasting.

To put that in context, $179m is the same amount National believes it will get from taxing offshore online gambling operators – a sum that sits at the centre of its tax policy alongside its foreign buyers' tax, and a sum so large it's been derided by economists and industry experts.

Though, according to Karl Le Quesne, the cost of this election actually works out at $144m. He says it would be inappropriate to comment on any subsequent election while the current one is underway.

But he does provide a breakdown of the staffing for this election: about 20,000 people to help deliver it.

"The fixed term 2023 General Election delivery employees are predominantly based in electorate headquarters around the country, who arrange the staffing, training, delivery of supplies, management and administration support for voting places within that electorate," he explains.

Roles like voting place managers, issuing officers and voter assistants can be for just one day, or throughout the voting period of October 2 to 14.

By the end of the year, or early next year, he expects the Electoral Commission to return to its usual staffing levels for a non-election year of approximately 170 people across the country.

"Our permanent workforce of 170 have a wide range of roles and responsibilities, including maintaining rolls, including a continuous Māori Electoral Option, being ready to deliver an election, referendum or by-election at any time, maintain specialist IT systems, register parties, implement changes in policy, and plan and prepare for future elections and more," Le Quesne says.

Informed observers say there would be few cost-efficiencies to be found in conducting a new election about six months after this one. If the timeframes were tighter, clearly wages for temporary staff would have to be paid for a shorter period – but the flip-side is that more staff might have to be hired to get the work done.

It's likely that many of the returning officers, headquarters staff, polling place officers and issuing officers wouldn't be available again six months later; even if they were, they would still have to be retrained. That comes at a cost.

Then there's the space required to conduct an election. In 2020 there were 1522 advance voting places, 2567 election day polling places – as well as headquarters for electorate returning officers. These headquarters spaces, where the preparations were done beforehand and counting afterwards, needed to be about 500 square metres, per electorate.

All that adds up to a lot of commercial real estate to be leased. For this month's election, the Electoral Commission would have begun negotiating leases nearly a year ago. Being forced to very quickly negotiate headquarters and polling place leases for an imminent new election would come at additional cost, in a competitive real estate market.

Geddis agrees: "It's unclear whether an expedited timeframe would be cheaper – or more expensive."

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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