Opinion: The precise shape of the new government in Aotearoa New Zealand remains uncertain. Nevertheless, it will undoubtedly be led by the National Party and can reasonably expect to survive at least three years.

As foreshadowed by multiple opinion polls, the 2023 election witnessed a dramatic fall in Labour’s public support. Whereas in 2020 Labour received half the party vote, in 2023 it secured less than 27 percent. Accordingly, it will lose about 30 seats. This constitutes one of the most extraordinary changes in the fortunes of a major political party in the nation’s history. It was also one of the Labour Party’s worst election results since the 1920s, albeit comparable to the dismal results in 2011 and 2014.

How might the outcome in 2023 be explained? And what are the key lessons for governance and policy-making from the experience of the sixth Labour-led government (2017-2023)?

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First, Labour’s exceptional election results in 2020 were the product of a highly unusual set of circumstances: a global pandemic; a widespread perception that the government was handling the pandemic competently, at least by international standards; a popular and personable Prime Minister; an unpopular National party leader in Judith Collins; and a political culture in which substantial numbers of electors no longer identify strongly with a political party, thus creating conditions for major and rapid shifts in electoral preferences. For all manner of reasons, Labour was bound to lose significant public support in 2023 regardless of its overall performance in office, its leadership, the state of the economy, and the revitalised leadership of the National Party under Christopher Luxon.

But to lose so much support so quickly suggests other factors were in play. Without doubt, Jacinda Ardern’s resignation in early 2023 was a major setback politically.

The Government was too slow to recognise that the Covid-19 variant Omicron could not be defeated via lockdowns, however strict or protracted, and that public patience in the latter part of 2021 was wearing thin

Bad luck during 2020-23 was also a critical factor, with all manner of damaging events either beyond the Government’s control or over which ministers had limited influence. These included an ongoing pandemic with rising opposition to Covid-related restrictions, a growing anti-vaccination movement, and huge pressure on health services; the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022, with its negative global impacts on energy costs and food price inflation; a residential property price boom followed by a significant slump; a never-ending series of severe weather events and related damage to private property, public infrastructure, and livelihoods, with no fewer than 17 declarations of states of emergency during the first 10 months of 2023; and a substantial increase in copy-cat ram-raids, particularly by disaffected youth, no doubt aggravated by the adverse impact of Covid-19 on the schooling system and much higher truancy rates.

Many governments, of course, suffer bad luck. Few, however, lose almost half their electoral support within three years. Hence, the Labour government’s actions almost certainly contributed to its defeat. The following factors likely played a role.

1. The Government lost the political narrative. It became increasingly unclear, especially during 2022 and 2023, what ministers were seeking to achieve. A clear, cogent long-term strategy was absent. Meanwhile, the narrative that the Government was ‘failing to deliver’ and ‘mismanaging the economy’ gained momentum.

2. The Government was too slow to recognise that the Covid-19 variant Omicron could not be defeated via lockdowns, however strict or protracted, and that public patience in the latter part of 2021 was wearing thin. Also, the reluctance to entertain a dialogue with the leaders of the protest movement at Parliament in early 2022 served to intensify a perception that ministers were unresponsive and indifferent to legitimate public concerns.

3. The Government sought to design and implement a raft of major structural, regulatory, and policy reforms simultaneously (for example health care provision, water services, vocational education and training, resource management, freshwater management). But it failed to recognise the bureaucratic limits, in terms of analytical and administrative capacity, to undertake ambitious reform agendas; neither did it properly explain and justify its chosen reforms.

4. Senior ministers repeatedly endorsed the concept of ‘co-governance’ but seemed unwilling or unable to explain precisely what it meant, including when, where, and how it should apply, and what it meant for notions of equal citizenship rights and democratic governance.

5. The Government made a series of significant policy blunders. These included various poorly designed housing policies during 2018-20, a decision in March 2022 to reduce the fuel excise duty and road user charges (contrary to its climate change goals), the failure to respond to the serious funding problems facing tertiary education institutions, and a campaign pledge in August 2023 to remove GST on fruit and vegetables (which was fundamentally at odds with the party’s long-standing tax policy commitments). At the same time, ministers abandoned any commitment to serious tax reform or other policy measures to address gross income and wealth inequality.

6. Confidence in the overall competence and integrity of the Government was undoubtedly shaken during 2023 by an ongoing series of resignations of ministers over evidence of unethical or illegal conduct.

Here are a few lessons for the new National-led government: set clear policy objectives and communicate them well; be consistent and principled; prioritise and sequence the desired reform agenda; keep a close eye on emerging and creeping policy problems; expect multiple ‘black swan’ events and be willing to change tack; demonstrate high ethical integrity; respect legitimate protest; and avoid short-term tactical decisions that undermine vital long-term goals.

As Professor of Public Policy at the School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington, Jonathan Boston specialises in managed retreat and is a member of the Government's Expert Working Group.

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