Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with Auckland’s skyline behind her – the city she needs to win back. Photo / Sylvie Whinray
“I have said it thrice, what I tell you three times is true!” says the Bellman in Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark as he tries to wish up a snark to hunt.
First leader Winston Peters and other rivals to Labour seem to have adopted the same motto when it comes to confident predictions of those equally mythical creatures: a snap election and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern bowing out before the election.
If they say it enough, or the rumour spreads far enough, they seem to think it will happen.
Peters confidently predicted a snap election at his party conference last week.
Journalists – and the PM – are also frequently being asked about rumours she will step down before that election.
Within a week of Peters’ prediction, a snap byelection was called – in Hamilton West. But here’s why there won’t be a snap election – and also why the PM won’t step down before the election.
The reason there won’t be a snap election – or even an early election – is the same as the reason there may not be one in the UK, where the case for one is a lot more compelling as the ruling Conservative Party there plays pass-the-parcel with the leadership.
Like the Conservatives, Labour will want all the time it has to try and haul its polling back up. It will want time for inflation to ease and the economic outlook to start looking more cheerful. It will want time for Auckland in particular to forget and forgive the last year of Covid-19.
It has more chance of getting there than the British Conservatives.
The main tools to do that will be the next Budget and in new policy for 2023.
After the Budget, winter is here. Labour’s polling got hammered last winter. It will avoid a winter election like the plague and wait until people are feeling more cheerful in spring.
They will also hope it gives Christopher Luxon more time to bungle.
In terms of how they use that time, Finance Minister Grant Robertson has spoken about the “tough choices” that will be required in the handling of the Government’s books.
That is as much a message to ministers as voters: don’t bother Robertson with your spending wish-lists because Robertson will have made the tough choices as Labour prepares for the bare-knuckle fight that Election 2023 will be. And those tough choices will all be aimed at getting Labour back into power.
Its increasingly obvious tax cuts are nudging up his priority list – to blunt National’s offering but in a way he can pitch as “responsible” and delivering to the good old hard-working New Zealander rather than the rich.
So there is absolutely zero advantage to Labour in going to the polls any earlier than they need to – and there is nothing in the form of a constitutional crisis or a risk to government stability here to warrant it.
Which brings us to the second oft-repeated wish of Ardern’s rivals: the speculation about whether she will stick around until 2023.
There appear to be two theories behind this: first, that Ardern has lost her appetite for the job and second, that her popularity is dropping so she might do an Andrew Little and hand over to someone else who might have a better chance.
The flaw in the second theory is there is nobody else who might have a better chance. Little had an Ardern – who was already outpolling him in the preferred Prime Minister rankings. There is no Ardern for Ardern – and Ardern remains well above Luxon as preferred Prime Minister.
As for the first, Ardern showed in the past week she still had fight left in her. Question Time delivered the first showing of a more fiery Ardern we can expect to see more of as she fights her corner in the lead-up to the election.
She delivered a blistering riposte to Luxon’s questioning about Labour’s spending and inflation, aiming squarely at the cost of Luxon’s tax cuts policy – in particular the lack of detail around where the cuts would be made to pay for them.
That is a question Luxon does not intend to answer until much closer to the election and so it is a question that Labour will continue to hammer at. National is relying on voters seeing only the broad brush strokes of its tax cuts policy, and trusting it when it says there is enough waste in Government spending to be able to fund the tax cuts without pruning into critical public services.
But at some point the detail will have to come – if there is any doubt about that, National should remember just how devastating Sir John Key’s 2011 “show me the money” line was to the credibility of Labour’s campaign.
Ardern has also tightened up the messaging around the Three Waters reforms to focus squarely on the hip pockets of voters. Her only response now to questions about the unpopular reforms is to repeatedly point out that if they pull the pin on the reforms, ratepayers will see their rates go up.
It is by far the most effective line she can use. Whether or not people are still willing to listen is a different matter. But it does at least show that Labour has recognised the hip pocket will be what wins or loses them the next election.
A snap or early election would also erode one of Ardern’s key advantages: stability and certainty. At a time of economic and social uncertainty, the worst thing for Labour would be to add political uncertainty onto that bonfire by rushing to the polls or switching leaders.
The recently departed British PM Liz Truss is a stark lesson in that.
Sometimes an early election (rather than a snap election) will be called if the governing party thinks that it will poll better earlier rather than later – and if it senses the opposition is woefully unprepared.
They are not called just because a political party is unpopular and wants to have an election before it gets more unpopular. Almost all politicians think they can become more popular if they have more time.
However, that does raise the other possible outcome – that they do indeed get less popular.
So it pays to bear in mind the words of former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in commenting on the Truss situation: “The truest thing you can ever say about politics is: it can always get worse.”