Is there a difference between a powerful government and a house of cards?

The 2020 general election produced the most powerful government New Zealand has ever had since proportional representation (mixed member representation) began in 1996. With three year terms we have now had nine elections under this system. For the first time we have elected a majority government. The first eight elections required coalition partners. But can a government with so much power also have the fragility of a house of cards?

Last September Labour won an absolute majority and therefor mandate to govern alone. It opted to enter into a governing arrangement with the third biggest party, the Greens, but not as part of a formal coalition. National as the main opposition party was thrashed including losing badly to Labour in provincial New Zealand. While we have had previous strong governments under Prime Ministers Helen Clark and John Key (and Bill English), none were in such a powerful position as Jacinda Ardern.

An eternity ago

It seems an eternity ago now but seven months earlier the polls were advising that it was a neck-and-neck race between Labour and National with the latter slightly ahead. In other words, it was 50:50 whether Ardern would be one of our few one term prime ministers. Labour’s earlier lead arising out of its impressive handling of the response to the terrorist Christchurch mosque murders a year earlier had evaporated.

Labour was not seen on delivering on matters that made a significant tangible differences for the better to people’s lives including poverty, our rundown health system and affordable housing. This was despite Ardern claiming in the lead-up to the 2017 election that Labour would lead a transformational government and subsequently asserting that 2019 would be the year delivery. Transformation never eventuated and 2019 was more like a year of non-delivery.

But then came Covid-19 and the Government’s willingness to follow the science and ability to provide masterful leadership which justifiably earnt high public confidence. It was justly rewarded electorally in September.

Political fickleness

Politics can be fickle. In 2002 Helen Clark led Labour to a resounding election victory thrashing National. But, on the back of an appeal to racism in a speech a couple of years later by its new leader Don Brash, not only was Labour’s huge lead in the polls lost but National leapt well ahead. Labour managed to pull this back by adopting more tangible policies such as ‘working for families’ and making the student loan scheme interest free enabling it to just scrap through in the 2005 election.

In 1972 Labour was elected with a massive majority; three years later National returned to office also with a massive majority. In 1978 National only just retained office with a razor thin majority despite Labour winning the popular vote.

In Queensland the state Labour government was decimated in 2012 with its 51 seats reduced to 7 following a nearly 16% swing against it. In the very next election Labour successfully returned to office.

Labour’s victory last September was due to its crisis management skills from the terrorist attack to Covid-19. One effect of its success combating Covid-19 was an unedifying leadership crisis within National. But there is fragility underlying Labour’s support because of too much non-delivery that the so-called NZ First ‘handbrake’ can no longer be blamed for.

Making a tangible difference

If Labour isn’t seen to be making a tangible difference in people’s lives in areas such as poverty, housing, and the accessibility of health services, it is electorally vulnerable in 2023. We need to see substantive progress being made through specific measures. These include strengthening collective bargaining and introducing fair pay agreements to improve wage and salary incomes, implementing its welfare advisory group’s recommendations including benefit levels, addressing the workforce vulnerabilities and crises that affect our health system, not allowing centralised health bureaucracy to make decisions that affect the health and well-being of communities, and improve housing affordability (through supply and prices). If we don’t see this an election defeat in 2023 isn’t implausible.

If Labour proceeds with creating massive ‘mega-DHBs’, thereby further distancing people living outside the main centres from health decision-making that directly affects them, Labour can kiss goodbye to many of the provincial seats that it won so well last year.

Labour can’t rely on continuing leadership difficulties to impede National’s ability to get its political act together. Already Judith Collins has made a remarkable transformation since her disastrous election campaign. She now sounds like a human being. It is not impossible that by the end of the year National’s percentage polling improves to the mid-30s which is likely to strengthen her leadership and National’s performance in the next election. But this could also happen with a leadership change depending on the person and Labour’s tangible performance in government.

So what is the difference between a powerful government and a house of cards? Depending on the circumstances, very little.

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