Bryce Edwards: Jacinda Ardern’s successful and clever election date shift

5:21 pm on 20 August 2020

By Bryce Edwards * for The Democracy Project.

Analysis - Has the election been saved from becoming another victim of Covid-19? Quite possibly. The issue of when to hold the election had come under serious scrutiny due to the increased restrictions and changed focus necessitated by the outbreak of community transmission of Covid-19. There were major problems with how democratic and adequate the electoral process was shaping up to be, with voting day scheduled for a month's time, on 19 September.

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Photo: RNZ/Vinay Ranchhod

By pushing the election out by a month to 17 October, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has ensured there is a greater chance of the election process being more democratic. At the same time, she has further enhanced her leadership reputation by avoiding what would have looked like a self-serving attempt to keep to a date that advantaged her own party.

This is what I've argued in a column this week for The Guardian, saying public participation and engagement was in serious question, even if electoral authorities had been able to make the mechanics of voting possible in just a few weeks. Without a proper campaign, full debate and consideration of the big political questions might not occur, and voter turnout might even drop below the 69.6 percent recorded a few elections ago.

By choosing the "Goldilocks option" of October, instead of Labour's own preference (September) or her opponents' (November), Ardern has "blunted all criticisms, while yielding the least possible ground to opponents."

Reaction from the political editors

Journalists and other political commentators have pointed out that Ardern had little choice to delay the election, but has nonetheless handled the issue with aplomb.

Newsroom political editor Sam Sachdeva says her decision is unsurprising and pragmatic - "the Prime Minister's innate conservatism and instinct for compromise was always likely to win out" - and it would have been a bad look for her to try to continue with a September election given the virus outbreak.

Sachdeva also stresses how smart her choice of date is: "It is also shrewd in that it is not quite what New Zealand First wanted (a November 21 election), nor National (some time early next year), nor in all likelihood Ardern herself, taking some of the politics out of it."

Herald political editor Audrey Young also argues Ardern's decision is both smart and correct, saying it "would have looked self-serving" not to delay the election, as well as going against her general use of "a precautionary approach" in dealing with the pandemic.

Stuff political editor Luke Malpass also endorses the decision: "Ardern has reached a sensible compromise that takes into account both the practical undertaking of an election and, even more importantly, the appearance and reality of fairness. The exercise of democracy has to be fair, and has to be seen to be fair". He points out that every political party appeared to be driven by self-interest with regard to choosing the date, and it "is worth noting that Labour was just as self-interested in initially wanting the date to stay the same, as the other parties were to move it."

Newstalk ZB's political editor Barry Soper fully endorses the prime minister's decision, declaring that "The winner was democracy, the right of parties to get out and campaign".

But he's clear Ardern had no choice but to delay, despite her own preference: "There was no appetite on the ninth floor of the Beehive to delay this year's election by a month, but the alternative was too ugly for Jacinda Ardern to contemplate, and even worse for the Governor-General Patsy Reedy to have to cope with. The latter could have been forced to answer a knock at the door up at Government House, opening it to Judith Collins and Winston Peters telling her Ardern didn't have the confidence of the House to dissolve Parliament and they were forming a government."

Soper believes Ardern is being "either optimistic or naive when she adamantly declared she wouldn't be changing the election date again", and he says it's out of sync with "these unpredictable and dramatically changing times".

The Spinoff political editor Justin Giovannetti reported on the decision, emphasising the pressure that had been building on Ardern to go with a delay, and concludes she "has forestalled a brewing political crisis". He points out that New Zealand "is now one of the few countries to delay its national election due to the coronavirus", and outlines that it "is only the fourth postponement of a general election in New Zealand's history" (with the others occurring in 1917, 1934, and 1941).

BusinessDesk's Pattrick Smellie says "Ardern has taken the conservative option" in delaying the election for a month, and believes: "The most important part of her statement today is her emphatic statement that she will not move the date again herself".

Reaction from newspaper editorials

Newspaper editorials have endorsed the prime minister's decision. The New Zealand Herald suggests that, given current circumstances, New Zealanders aren't fully informed of the political options for the election, nor the referendums. It says the campaign has been "severely impacted" by "the ghastly return of the Covid-19 coronavirus", necessitating a delay to voting.

The most important impact of the delay, the newspaper says, is that "the extra 28 days offers voters ample time to hear, see and consider the overtures from our political applicants." And although Ardern might have been tempted to stick with an earlier election date, this "may have jarred with the mantra from this government to be kind." But there is now less chance that voting activity will contribute to "further outbreaks stemming from queues at polling stations or contamination at booths."

Editorials in Stuff newspapers says Labour's opponents made a good case to delay the election, and the prime minister "showed the right combination of flexibility and backbone by moving the election date a month back" regardless of whether this was out of genuine "social responsibility" or "shrewdness".

Opponents might still complain that the date hasn't shifted far enough, but they risk looking "nakedly opportunistic" or "petulant" (especially, National, which has refused to do anything more than "acknowledge" the new date).

The newspaper argues that without a delay the "government would surely have faced three years of carping about its legitimacy", and that it's a good thing for their Covid-19 response to be "put to the test for longer than initially planned".

According to the ODT, there were good reasons for the government to continue with the September date, but the decision to delay is wise because it lances the possibility of the election's legitimacy being challenged. The newspaper says the prime minister now rightly wants the focus to remain on combating the virus rather than the election, and yet all the political parties will also have a better opportunity to get their policy positions across without compromising the public's health.

Reaction from political commentators

All political commentators appear to endorse the election date decision, or at least the cleverness of Ardern for making it. Writing in The Herald, National Party-aligned PR professional Matthew Hooton says the announcement "was politically masterful. It is enough of an extension to avoid accusations of unfairness against parties other than Labour, which risked the election looking illegitimate. But it was not Winston Peters and Judith Collins' preferred date of 21 November, which would have made Jacinda Ardern look controlled by her Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition".

Newstalk ZB broadcaster Mike Hosking endorses the change of date, and strongly criticises various academics who argued in favour of sticking with a 19 September election, saying "to seriously contemplate, as our political wonks at universities were, simply to carry on as though nothing had happened is to undermine the entire political process, not to mention tradition and simple fairness".

Hosking says going with a September election would make New Zealand look terribly undemocratic: "What do you think the world would make of a country where the government's major party launched their campaign, then locked a solid chunk of the country down, made freedom of movement tricky for the rest of it, and had the official Opposition with no launch at all?"

Also endorsing Ardern's choice, Kate Hawkesby likewise suggests an earlier election wouldn't be very be democratic: "it would be simply undemocratic to have rushed through what's arguably the most important election of our lifetime. The focus right now, especially for those in Auckland and for business and tourist operators, is not an election but how to survive. On top of that we are voting on two very important referendums and we need to be able to do that fully informed, with time to make considered decisions. And that's before we even get to policy, which has been put on ice announcement wise. How do we vote when we don't even know what the policies are yet?"

Will the delay change the outcome?

In my Guardian column, I suggest that the delay is unlikely to have any significant impact on the fortunes of Labour and National, but is instead more likely to affect the minor parties fluctuating around the 5 percent MMP threshold, and that "a shift of a few percentage points is highly possible and could still make a huge difference", especially in terms of coalition partners for Labour.

Luke Malpass argues in his column that the extension of the campaign won't make much difference: "It is hard to see that this month's delay will materially change the polling, unless new and significant mistakes and bungles are revealed. The New Zealand electorate tends not to be capricious. If voters trusted government's handling of the issues last week, there is no obvious reason why anyone will have changed their minds."

Matthew Hooton argues it's unclear whether National will benefit from the extended campaign: "Ardern has given National just enough time to show they have something exciting to offer - and, equally, just enough time to prove they don't."

Similarly, Sam Sachdeva says: "Candidates and parties now have more time to win over the electorate - but they also have time to make mistakes as well, and there is no guarantee of which way they will go." Yet, it could still have a major impact: "Ardern and her ministers will face pointed questions about the border management regime and the oversight of managed isolation and quarantine facilities, given the likelihood the latest outbreak originated from there and the admission that testing had not met Cabinet's expectations. But Collins too will be under pressure: can she find the right note in responding to this crisis, or will she tilt too far towards negativity or the outright conspiracising that her deputy leader Gerry Brownlee displayed last week?"

According to Pattrick Smellie, Labour is at risk given the extra four weeks: "That is plenty of time for Labour's stratospheric polling numbers to take a knock, particularly as the expected fourth quarter economic downturn is exacerbated by the knock to confidence and activity caused by the latest lockdown. Firms are already considering fresh redundancies because of the impact of the Auckland lockdown. Extending the wage subsidy should soften the impact, but this second round outbreak has been sobering for the whole country and hits firms already eating deeply into reserves after the first extended lockdown. It is clearer than it was that we will be dealing with this virus for a long time yet, and the consensus on how to deal with it has been shaken. Any further delay to polling represents a huge risk for Labour that its previously unassailable political position will prove difficult to maintain."

Mike Hosking is also of the belief that the delay is good for Labour's opponents: "It's good for National, which gets a launch, and a platform to argue alternatives. And it's good for New Zealand First, which gets time to save itself. It was always going to be closer than many of the Labour acolytes thought. But now, with another month and yet more bungles to spin, the tide on a government that's messed it up and failed to deliver is going out."

On Labour's situation, Hosking says: "Every day beyond September 19 is a day the government has to explain this current mess. The border breach, the lack of testing, the very reason we are here is because it has failed to deliver what it said it had."

In contrast, Kate Hawkesby argues that Labour will benefit from the public voting once the country is out of the current crisis: "I actually think it's in her best interests not to rush the election. The further away it is, the further we are from the horror memory of lockdown, the more freedoms we're enjoying, the happier we are. That all reflects better on the government. If we went to the polls off the back of another lockdown - still grumpy about our lack of freedoms and worried sick about our businesses and bottom lines - we may punish the government for it."

Finally, for a very different view on elections, suggesting that modern methods of campaigning aren't so reliant on physical interaction, see Jennifer Curtin and Lara Greaves' piece 'Jacinda Ardern delays New Zealand's election to allow conventional campaigning - but where are voters really getting information?'

* Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

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