Power Play: Is New Zealand heading for a post-election 'limboland'?

12:16 pm on 6 October 2023
National Party leader Christopher Luxon at RocketLab on 5 October 2023 when he promised a Minister for Space if elected into government.

National's Christopher Luxon on the campaign trail on Thursday. Photo: RNZ / Tim Collins

Power Play - As the shared dream of governing together - just the two of them - becomes ever more distant, the panic is setting in as National and ACT contemplate the prospect of also having to work with New Zealand First.

Support for the right bloc has been consolidating in the polls, but a shift in dynamics has seen New Zealand First pick up momentum and ACT take a hit. National's polling has also been falling back slightly, now hovering under the 40 percent mark; the weaker its final party vote, the less commanding position it will have at the negotiating table.

Enter stage left - Winston Peters - with the door thrown wide open by National leader Christopher Luxon in last week's video address, surely the most half-hearted pitch for a political relationship in recent memory.

Nearly a fortnight on and National and ACT are getting a severe case of cold feet, reflected by a series of video messages appealing for party votes to shore up their support and to keep New Zealand First out.

"It's been a long campaign and I'm sure you're over it," is the uplifting opening statement in the latest from David Seymour. "One more seat for ACT is the difference between a stable, responsible ACT-National government and something else entirely".

He wanted to "speak directly" to anyone thinking of staying at home, or voting for a "party who simply can't or won't deliver the change we all need".

"I'm asking you to lend your vote to ACT this election, if you agree we deserve better than a choice of more of the same, or chaos".

And a blast from the blue past: former National PM Sir John Key raising the spectre of "limboland" the day after the election and pushing the message that National needs a stronger party vote to be able to "govern well... without lots of moving parts".

The risk, he warns, is "having no clear election result".

There's already been a policy volley back and forth between National and ACT; National has categorically ruled out scrapping the Zero Carbon Act and, while not quashing it directly, describes ACT's treaty policy as "divisive". For its part, ACT is strongly questioning whether economic conditions will allow a future government to deliver the full suite of tax relief being promised by National without more aggressive cuts.

David Seymour talking to media in Epsom.

ACT leader David Seymour Photo: Jason Oxenham / NZ Herald

At a leadership level, Seymour said he and Luxon had been "getting together and chatting about different options" throughout the course of the year.

"If people do want us to govern, how do we do it effectively together, recognising that while we have a good personal relationship, there are some professional differences between our parties."

National and ACT have enough common purpose to be able to strike a deal if the numbers fall their way. New Zealand First are also motivated to keep Labour out of government, but working effectively with Luxon and Seymour is an entirely different proposition.

Aside from the lack of fundamental relationships, potential sticking points like the foreign buyers' ban and lifting the age of superannuation would not be easy to reconcile.

Peters says, though, political parties are in a "market share" for votes and after the election they will all "put their egos aside" and work to form a government.

While Luxon may not have much of a personal relationship with Peters, Seymour has history - and none of it good - including through the years when the New Zealand First leader was Deputy Prime Minister and a senior member of Cabinet in the coalition government with Labour.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and ACT Party leader David Seymour during TVNZ's multi party debate on 5 October 2023.

The animosity between Peters and Seymour was on show during the multi-party debate on Thursday. Photo: Andrew Dalton - TVNZ

New Zealand First is starting to lay down some boundaries, which could be bad news for National's tax plans. Peters has already asked to see "the spreadsheets" with the numbers behind National's confident claim it could raise nearly $3 billion over four years to help pay for its tax package.

That tax relies upon the current ban on foreign purchases of existing homes being lifted for those costing more than $2 million dollars - another potential roadblock for National, with New Zealand First's Shane Jones telling RNZ the policy would be inflationary and that it was "deeply cynical... to continue to hock off the country to wealthy foreigners".

In the New Zealand First manifesto is a pledge that the age of retirement "will remain at 65 years... no ifs, buts, or maybes". The National Party changed its long-held position of keeping the status quo under Bill English, and the plan to very gradually start pushing up the age, in about 20 years, remains under Luxon.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters at a Papakura public meeting in Auckland on 30 September, 2023.

Winston Peters Photo: RNZ / Tim Collins

Peters continues to campaign with an eye on what the others are saying and doing. He gave Luxon a pass after last week's leaders' debate when the National leader condemned a quote from a New Zealand First candidate as racist, saying Luxon was "not showing experience" and was "sucked in" by Labour's Chris Hipkins when put on the spot.

Luxon says he does not personally know Peters well, describes him as the "last resort" option, openly says he does not ideally want to work with him, and has now gone as far as saying New Zealand First would be an "unstable" coalition partner.

Asked by RNZ what he thought of National's very obvious reluctance to work with him, Peters said his focus was to "carry on and talk to New Zealanders everywhere around this country".

"We're not going to be distracted by these personal attacks. They were inevitable but they're not going to land, they're not going to have impact," he said.

National is also under attack from Labour, with accusations it has been misleading voters about the scale of the tax relief each New Zealand family or individual might get under its centrepiece policy.

The political marketing has been geared towards presenting the benefits in the most generous way and at times the language has slipped into the inaccurate.

People should be aware the largest of the numbers being thrown around (on a fortnightly basis) only apply to an incredibly small number of families, and the numbers quoted also include changes through Working for Families and childcare subsidies - all delivered through the tax system but wrapped up into one package.

The party's tax calculator is available for people to check for themselves.

And it is no easy road on the other side.

Hipkins had to tap out of the campaign after a positive Covid test this week, momentum halted at a crucial point in the campaign - the start of early voting and the last sprint to the finish line - after coming out of the last leaders' debate with a spring in his step. He is back out the road with a huge hill to climb in the eight days remaining before polling day.

Chris Hipkins emerges from his Covid-19 isolation. Photo: RNZ/Nick Monro

A dominant theme of Hipkins' leadership continues - his own people spending political capital when there is little to go around. Ministerial scandals cost him popularity gained after the departure of Dame Jacinda Ardern, and Labour candidates now sounding off about their support for a wealth tax, contrary to party policy, is ill-discipline symptomatic of a party preparing for defeat.

The campaign is certainly feeling chaotic - and we haven't even got to the coalition negotiations yet...

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