Antipodean election junkies are preparing for a double dose tomorrow as voters go to the polls in New Zealand and the Australian Capital Territory. Elections here and abroad have given progressives little to cheer about in recent years, but New Zealand at least looks certain to change that.
If the polls are remotely accurate, the only question is whether Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government can achieve a majority in its own right, which no party has done since proportional representation was introduced in 1996, or if it needs outside support, which it should find readily to hand from the Greens.
A Labour win of one kind or another has looked beyond doubt since the onset of COVID-19 at the start of the year, in which time the conservative National Party opposition has gone through three leaders.
Despite the acclaim Ardern garnered internationally in the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque shooting last year, it is only in this time that her ascendancy has appeared beyond question.
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Ardern’s rise to power after the 2017 election was not so much an electoral triumph — the incumbent National Party won ten more seats than Labour — as one of post-election horse-trading, with Labour forging a minority coalition with Winston Peters and his populist New Zealand First party.
Nor did the immediate pre-COVID polling suggest Ardern’s reelection to be a foregone conclusion, although the notion that she was headed for defeat, so beloved of News Corp Australia commentators, leaned heavily on a selective interpretation of one pollster (Colmar Brunton) while ignoring three others (YouGov, Reid Research and Roy Morgan).
Polls in the campaign period have had Labour in the high forties, which would leave it just short of a majority under a pure model of proportional representation.
However, the bar is slightly lower under New Zealand’s mixed-member proportional system, which locks out parties that fail to clear a 5% threshold or win one of 72 single-member constituency seats.
That seems likely to exclude New Zealand First, which has struggled to crack 3% throughout this year, unless Peters has succeeded in winning a legion of new fans with his viral takedown of a COVID-19 conspiracy theorist earlier this week.
Between New Zealand First and various minnows, around 7% looks likely to go to waste, in which case 47% would get the job done for Labour — which is more or less where the polls have them.
Back home, Andrew Barr is hoping to secure a sixth term for the ACT’s Labor government, which for all but one term has depended on support from the Greens or — to give a sense of the government’s longevity — the Australian Democrats.
By the normal rules of the electoral cycle, that should leave the Liberals well primed to ride the “it’s time” factor to power.
However, the local Liberal operation is blighted by a doctrinaire bent that is jarringly out of tune with Canberra’s liberal ethos — a case in point being Zed Seselja, a two-time Territory election loser who now holds the Liberals’ ACT Senate seat, and one of the prime movers behind Peter Dutton’s leadership insurgency in August 2018.
True to form, the Liberals have been led since 2016 by Alistair Coe, a young conservative opponent of same-sex marriage and abortion.
The ACT also has a proportional representation system, which divides the territory into five five-member districts.
The Liberals won three seats out of five only in the southern Canberra district of Brindabella in 2016, and must now do so in another two to lock out Labor and the Greens.
A favourable redistribution may help get the job done in the western suburbs district of Murrumbidgee, but it would take a formidable swing to get them over the line in any of the other three.
However, a path to minority government could emerge if Labor loses a seat in the northern suburbs district of Ginninderra to Bill Stefaniak, a former Liberal leader now running under the banner of the Belco Party, which presents as locally oriented and ideologically neutral.
If both these stars align, the ACT parliament could finally become something more for the Liberals than a training ground for future senators.