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Dunne Speaks: Lockdown Bad News For Small Parties

As the government starts to work on how it can move the country on at some point from its current Alert Level-4 status, the other political parties will be starting to think about how they can re-enter the fray and normal political debate can resume. After all, and not surprisingly, the focus of recent weeks has been almost exclusively on the Prime Minister and the senior team around her, with other political parties, with the occasional exception of the National Party, getting barely a look-in. Yet an election – still scheduled for September – is looming, so all of them will be trying to work out the best time to resume the usual political contest.

An inevitable consequence of the lockdown has been that almost every politician outside the top circle has been rendered largely irrelevant for the time being. National has been able to reclaim some relevance through its Leader’s positive chairing of the Epidemic Response Select Committee, but it is still very much on the government’s terms. He has properly judged that this is not yet the time for a resumption of full-on political engagement, so has focused instead on areas where the government’s lockdown approach looks particularly vulnerable – like for instance the apparently slack approach to protecting the border. At some point, though, he is going to have to the make the call to go further and resume the normal Opposition function if his party is going to appear as anything more than a pale imitation of the government at election time, whenever that might be.

But National’s challenges here are small compared to those facing the other parties – New Zealand First and the Greens in particular. The way the government has approached the pandemic crisis has effectively side-lined them and left them largely irrelevant. Not only have their particular issues been pushed off the agenda, but also, and more importantly, the government has so far demonstrated, albeit perhaps inadvertently, that it does not need their inputs to manage effectively. This was painfully and absurdly demonstrated by the New Zealand First Minister of Defence’s revelation that he has set up a virtual command post at his home, that no-one seems either to have noticed or taken any account of, leaving him to sit in splendid isolation. The Greens just seem to have disappeared altogether.

Before the Covid-19 crisis emerged both these parties were beginning to define themselves more separately from the Labour-led government they are part of to sharpen their brand definition and secure the support of their particular niches in the lead-up to the election. According to the last polls before the lockdown, neither could have been absolutely confident of their current electoral prospects. New Zealand First was consistently polling below the threshold for re-election and the Greens were hovering at or just above the threshold.

Historically, New Zealand First has always done better at election time than preceding polls suggest, although until now always from the position of being outside the government at election time, and the Greens, also from outside government, a little worse. For both, therefore, the election lead-up has normally been critical to their eventual prospects, especially both will have suffered some of the inevitable taint of having been part of the government since 2017. Yet this year circumstances seem likely to deprive them of their usual election year opportunity. But there is nothing they can do or could have done to prevent that, nor would the public have appreciated any overt politicking at this time by either of them to try to re-establish their position.

To make matters worse for both, there is the potential that the Labour Party, through its handling to date of the crisis could be a major beneficiary in terms of public support. While there are still many hurdles for it to cross and much opportunity for missteps that could cost public support, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that if New Zealand by election time is looking to have come through Covid-19 reasonably well, Labour could reap a significant electoral dividend. However, that would most likely come from currently soft New Zealand First and Green support. Every poll since the last election has shown National’s support to have remained pretty solid, so the likelihood of a significant crossover vote to Labour even in these circumstances is small.

But here is the problem. Current electoral mathematics mean that the Labour Party needs to have both New Zealand First and the Greens pass the 5% threshold to be confident of remaining in government after the election. Failure of one or both of these parties to cross that threshold will greatly increase the prospects of a National-led government emerging. Polls since the end of last year had already been showing National ahead, and able to form a government with the support of ACT, putting more pressure on New Zealand First and the Greens. A surge in Labour support now at the expense of New Zealand First and the Greens could have the unwelcome effect of seeing both of them out of Parliament altogether and Labour paradoxically out of office.

Before the Covid-19 outbreak Labour was showing small signs of understanding the need to give both New Zealand First and the Greens the space and freedom to differentiate on key policy areas to secure their electoral brands. Hence the Prime Minister’s remarkable tolerance of Shane Jones’ persistent and wilful breaches of the Cabinet Manual’s provisions on Ministerial conduct, and the various concessions to the Greens. However, once Covid-19 burst upon us, the government’s response quickly reverted to the old two-party approach. There was a belated, grudging acceptance of the role of the Opposition in a Parliamentary democracy (albeit one on hold for the duration) through the establishment of the Epidemic Response Select Committee chaired by the Leader of the Opposition, but there has been no obvious attempt to involve the government’s support partners in the process. They, along with many Ministers and all of the government’s backbench MPs, as well as most of the Opposition, have been left to twiddle their thumbs, irrelevant on the side-lines.

The perverse upshot may be that while the Prime Minister and her Labour colleagues win the battle against Covid-19 they could end up losing the war to secure a second term in office.

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