Election 2020

A few thoughts on National's future direction...

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I'm not endorsing any of the candidates for National Party leader. I'm sorry to disappoint, but I've been very fortunate to work with all of those who are either in or are thinking about contesting, and I don't think it'd be appropriate for me to declare a preference one way or the other. While I have my preferences on who I'd like to see, and I have my reckons on who I think will win, what is ultimately more important to me is to see an change in the direction and tone that the National Party takes in the two and a half years leading up to the 2020 election.

Being in opposition is hard work. I haven't worked for or been involved with National when they've been in opposition, so I made a point of talking to a lot of people who were there before 2008 to get their thoughts on what National needs to do this term.

The challenge of opposition, especially when you've just been removed from Government, is a difficult one. You're balancing up three themes to your work:

  1. Defending the legacy of your time in Government
  2. Holding the new Government to account over its promises and its mistakes
  3. Positioning yourself as a credible Government in waiting for the next election.

Once you get beyond the first term of opposition, those themes narrow down to themes two and three, as typically the Government has, by then, largely undone the policies from your last time on the Treasury benches that they were likely to target anyway.

On that note, I've been thinking about how National could have better positioned a couple of recent initiatives to satisfy all three of those themes. These are the "Save our regional highway projects" and the "Protect NZ jobs" campaigns.

Broadly speaking, these campaigns largely mirror ideas I shared in my blog "Possible opposition strategies for the 52nd Parliament". The issue I have with both of them is the way they've been framed. While many of the regional highway projects in the petitions enjoy significant local support, people generally mobilise best when it comes to saving whales, or other endangered species, "saving" a road that hasn't been built is a hard concept to sell. Likewise, "Protect NZ jobs" feels to me more like a title Labour would have given to a campaign against a free trade agreement or to introduce tariffs or other Fortress New Zealand economic policies from the 1970s.

To be fair, I didn't really address this when I did my original blog. Possibly I should have if the ideas I'm writing here are being picked up and run with, though I can't give away all my good ideas for free! (hint hint - call me!).

Keep NZ Moving.png

A simple change in the framing of them could have created a much better impression. "Save our regional highway projects" should have been named "Keep New Zealand moving", while "Project NZ jobs" should have been "Keep New Zealand working".

You still have the same general purpose of the campaigns, but the emphasis is changed. The framing of the campaigns isn't any longer seemingly about preserving some sort of Key/English status quo of policy. Rather you have the broader, and much easier to sell, message that National is all about keeping New Zealand growing and moving forward to make it a better place to live, work, and raise a family, all the while as framing Labour as wanting to put the brakes on that progress.

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The words "Save" and "Protect" are useful from an emotive sense, but you have to have a genuinely emotive issue to get people engaged if you're going to use them. The ultimate end game might be to save a roading project that's under threat, but the message you want to tell voters is that you're working hard so that their roads, and therefore local economy, keeps growing and moving forward.

I think this is at the heart of putting National in the best position to win in 2020 regardless of whoever is leader. You have to find a way to not only combine those three themes of defend, hold to account, and Government in waiting, in nearly everything you do, but also have them all flow towards that third point of being the next Government.

It's something that has to be reflected in all National's messaging, it's policies, and how its Leader and MPs conduct themselves. They need to be the party that has a vision to keep New Zealand growing, moving, working, healthy, happy, safe, and so on. It's an concept that will require a lot of policy rework, some bold and innovative ideas that steal a march on Labour's claim to be the future focused party. And ultimately, it'll mean that the above graphic of "Keep New Zealand moving" will need to have some trains, buses, and maybe even light rail in it too, and not just roads.


And before you jump all over me about design aesthetics, I've literally just whipped those up from my sickbed with a grumpy toddler in the house. So I won't claim it's my best work, just a starter for 10.

Possible opposition strategies for the 52nd Parliament

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It is the rule in war, if ten times the enemy’s strength, surround them; if five times, attack them; if double, be able to divide them; if equal, engage them; if fewer, defend against them; if weaker, be able to avoid them.
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter III: Strategic Attack

With Parliament getting back underway next week, I thought it'd be useful to briefly take a look at some of the strategies that each of the opposition parties might use over the coming months. These ideally play to the strengths, and avoid the weaknesses that each party has.

National

National is in the interesting position of dominating the opposition benches in a way no opposition party has in the MMP era. With only David Seymour in ACT to share the benches with, they won't face the issues that Labour did in opposition where they were frequently outshone by New Zealand First or the Green Party. There were plenty of times when Winston Peters, Russel Norman, Metiria Turei, and more recently James Shaw, all seemed to be more effective leaders of the opposition than whoever was at the helm for Labour.

With that in mind, National still does need to stick to its knitting - the economy, law and order, and supporting provincial New Zealand. With mixed messages already coming out of the Labour-led government about the future of the economy and their spending plans, National needs to seize on these inconsistencies, and any bad economic news that might arise, and stick it squarely on the Labour-led government and it policies.

National also needs to be ready to identify inconsistencies in policy positions between the three parties in government and pounce on these to fuel the internal tensions with the government and the parties themselves. With the Green Party and New Zealand First diametrically opposed in many policy areas, there should be plenty of opportunities to highlight these differences, especially in Question Time. They should have particular fun in finding contradictory statements from the Green Party and New Zealand First, then forcing the relevant Labour Minister, or the Prime Minister herself, to pick sides in these disagreements.

With a view to the 2020 election, National also needs to take the fight to New Zealand First and Labour in rural and provincial New Zealand. With more than half of New Zealand First's vote coming from extremely strong National Party seats, National should be able to take enough support from New Zealand First to ensure they're not in Parliament after the next election. Going after Winston Peters' Provincial Pork Barrel will be difficult, unless the entire thing ends up as a series of useless white elephants.

Where National can do well is by picking its battles in the provinces. For example, if there's a provincial roading project that's shovel ready and construction was due to start soon, the local National MP, should be leading a campaign to save that project from the review of all projects that is party of Labour's policy platform. These have to be projects that have either just, or are about to, start construction, or are going through the resource consent process already, instead of ones that were still very much on the drawing board.

The local MP should be looking to run petitions, ask both written and oral questions in Parliament, and work the hell out of the Official Information Act to ensure that if a project is cancelled in their electorate, they've forced the government to expend the maximum amount of political capital in doing so.

National does, however, need to pick its battles. Issues like Auckland's Regional Fuel Tax might be better left to go through to the keeper, given there seems to be relatively widespread support for it. Likewise, National should generally be supportive of the social initiatives that Labour is looking to rollout to try and solve child poverty, while encouraging them to make use of the Social Investment approach that was gaining traction.

In terms of the House, where National could play Labour, the Green Party, and New Zealand First off against each other to progress legislation in a relatively quick manner over the past three terms, as well as to get progress on issues on the Business Committee, Labour doesn't quite have the same option this time, with National able to decide how fast, or slow, it wants legislation to progress in the House and through Select Committees. Though National will need to be careful it doesn't end up looking more like the US Republicans if it does so.

Also, while it might be tempting, National has to avoid Labour's mistake of barking at every passing car, or overplaying the hand they're given by a government mistake. Being in a perpetual state of outrage over every little indiscretion didn't get Labour anywhere fast, and National needs to remember that and stay focused on the major issues.

With that in mind, while they're busy battling away on the above, National also has to be working on developing bold and innovative policies that they can take to the 2020 election. Labour's "Future of Work" roadshow offers a model of how to do this, though obviously National has to avoid the mistakes Labour made when it came to launching the final results of it. Instead, National needs to go around New Zealand, listen to people, hear their concerns, their ideas, and their dreams, and then come up with, or look overseas for, policies that can help address those things.

Because while National may hope for the best - that is either New Zealand First or the Green Party implodes before 2020 - they should prepare for the worse - that the government makes it through the term in reasonable shape and that they'll be campaigning against a popular, charismatic, and much more experienced Jacinda Ardern than the one who tripped over several times this past campaign. Unless National can find their own personality solution to match Jacinda Ardern, their best option is to take innovative and exciting policies to the 2020 election.

ACT

If ACT is to survive it needs to reinvent itself, and fast. David Seymour looks set to get one question every three weeks in Question Time, which is hardly going to make things easy to score zingers in the House. Seymour's End of Life Choice Bill will help with his profile as he champions an extremely important and topical issue, and he may even get helped if it does go to a public referendum too, as it'll provide even more profile for Seymour's role in helping make this happen.

Seymour will also fight tooth and nail to save Partnership Schools from being closed, and that's sure to provide a lot of ammunition for him as Chris Hipkins is forced to confront parents whose children have been failed by state schools.

Rodney Hide's old hat of Perk Buster has also sat largely untouched since he left Parliament, and it's possible that Seymour could gain some traction and headlines out of that. There look to be several government ministers and policies that will be implemented that could be ripe pickings for Seymour if he goes down this tract. And with little to do during Question Time, Seymour would do well to target this as an area of opportunity, especially as it will help differentiate him from National.

But outside of that, Seymour needs to fundamentally change ACT. I don't think New Zealand culture has ever particularly warmed to the very libertarian ideas that ACT has come to represent, or even it's name for that matter! Instead, Seymour and ACT need to find a way to put a Kiwi flavour into that approach. They need to accept, for instance, that New Zealanders seem relatively comfortable with the government's role in our economy and society being roughly where it is now, somewhere in the order of 30% of GDP.

While it's also good that ACT has moved away from its previous flat tax rate positions, it's still proposing some quite drastic cuts. Where ACT might do better is building on Seymour's previous work around tax bracket creep, where wage inflation means that more and more people progressively end up in higher tax brackets, and instead focus on matching increases in the tax brackets with inflation instead to ensure people don't find their wage increases progressively eroded.

So where does that leave ACT? I think the Partnership Schools issue might be the nucleus of where ACT can invent its own Kiwi flavoured libertarianism, one that accepts that the government does, by virtue of our small size, have a role to play in New Zealand's economy and society, but that the government should use its role to enable New Zealanders to have choices about how they interact with that.

Partnership Schools are, in essence, about giving families choices to help their children get an education where state schools have failed them. How this might translate to other sectors it's hard to say, for instance you're hardly going to have a choice of police forces. But in health, for instances, you might be to get rid of the crazy system of having to enrol at a GP practice, and instead enable people to go to whichever GP they choose for the same price. I can't pretend to be a policy expert on this, but it's clear that ACT's libertarian approach as it stands needs to be changed to better reflect Kiwi values.

If there's a minor party split, when is it likely to happen?

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New Zealand has a mixed bag when it comes to minor parties surviving a full Parliamentary term if they've entered into a coalition or confidence and supply agreement. Since the first of these was signed in 1996, if you exclude agreements with single MP parties, five have failed and five have succeeded. Though the United Future split in 2005 nearly made it to the election, falling about a month short.

Survived

Progressives 2002 - 2005

NZ First 2005 - 2008

ACT 2008-2011

Māori Party 2011-2014

Māori Party 2014-2017

Failed

NZ First 1996 - 1998

Alliance 1999 - 2002

United Future 2002 - 2005

United Future 2005 - 2007

Māori Party 2008 - 2011

That makes for a 50% chance that either NZ First or the Green Party will experience a schism during this Parliamentary term. That being said, We haven't had a minor party combust in Parliament since the 2011 election. This might suggest parties are learning to manage the pressures of these arrangements better, but then again the Māori Party had three MPs in the 50th Parliament and two in the 51st Parliament, which likely lends itself to better stability.

Here's the length that each of the five failed coalition or confidence and supply agreements have lasted.

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Given that the Labour and United Future confidence and supply agreement did nearly last the term, if you exclude this from the results, it drops both averages for agreements with the Labour Party and overall agreements to 711 days.

If there is a split, and there's a roughly 50% chance* one of the two parties will splinter, when is it likely to happen? Using the averages in the above table we're looking at a period anytime from 7 October 2019 through to 12 February 2020. Excluding the United Future 2005 split, leaves us squarely on 7 October 2019.

When you think about it, this makes sense as to when a split might occur. It's roughly 12 months out from the next election and both the major and minor parties in the agreement, but especially the minor parties, are beginning to flex their muscles to differentiate themselves from their partner and demonstrate some independence to get attention and show voters why they still matter.

If you want to look at a broader time period on the above numbers, the earliest a split might occur is 24 May 2019, and the latest (excluding the 2002-2005 United Future split which did run for three full years if not the full Parliamentary term) would be 19 February 2020.

It's also likely that by this point, most, if not all, of the undertakings made in the coalition or confidence and supply agreement have been, or are being delivered, and the two parties are having to negotiate on a policy-by-policy basis.

Usually it's taken a specific policy decision or external event to cause underlying tensions to erupt into a schism. In 1998 it was the sale of Wellington airport that triggered NZ First's breakup, for the Alliance in 2002 it was the build up of tension following a string of poor poll numbers and an internal party perception of subservience to Labour, and for the Māori Party in 2011 it was Hone Harawira's objection to National Party policies.

As the issues over the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary this weekend past illustrated, there are differences in policy and ideological approaches between NZ First and the Green Party that Labour is going to be stuck in the middle of trying to bridge. While these will be easy to manage in the early days as each of the minor partners is this agreement focus on getting there policy wins on the board, as we close in on the 2020 election, the pressure on the two minor parties will grow, especially if Labour remains, as I expect they will, very popular under Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

While National will struggle to put pressure on the Greens, they will be able to squeeze NZ First's support by targeting their voters in rural areas and provincial cities. If National is successful in doing that, and they could very well be, then with the added combination of Winston Peters' advancing years NZ First may well be the ones to give out first.

Which is why Winston Peters is pushing so hard for his Waka Jumping Bill. He can see the dangers that lie ahead for his party, and he's trying to nullify them before it's too late.

*In terms of the 50% chance of a split, I've calculated this off the five failed and five successful agreements featuring parties of more than one MP. If you drop the United Future confidence and supply agreement of 2002 - 2005 from this list, as it very did nearly run the full Parliamentary term, you could also argue that the Māori Party agreements from 2011 to 2014 and 2014 to 2017 should be considered as one and the same, largely because there was significant continuity between them.

National's most and least valuable electorates

Big party vote wins in 10 key electorates with significantly higher than average voter turnouts proved to be the backbone to the National Party's remarkable 44.4 per cent party vote total.

I've decided to kick off a series looking at the most and least valuable electorates for National, Labour, New Zealand First, the Greens, The Opportunities Party, and the Māori Party to see if they dispel, or confirm, some of the commonly held myths about our political parties, as well as looking at some of the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities they present to the parties. To do this I've looked at the top 10 and bottom 10 electorates for each of those parties in terms of how many votes they contributed to their party's overall party vote tally.

I'll work through the parties in order of party votes received this election, so we'll kick off with National. It's clear that the backbone to National's support confirms the commonly held perception that affluent and rural areas back National heavily. So no surprises there.

What I think is interesting though is how high the turnout is in those electorates too. The top two electorates for voter turnout - Rodney and Selwyn - delivered National 15.16 percentage points (pp) and 14.61pp more party votes than National would get on the night. Even in Waikati, the third highest turnout where National's share of the party vote was the lowest of their top 10 most valuable electorates, it was still 9.40pp higher than the end result.

Those top 10 electorates delivered for National 20.96% of their overall party vote tally this election, despite only representing 15.8% of overall party votes cast across the entire country. National's ability to not only win big in terms of party votes, but also in terms of turnout in these 10 seats. You'll see later this week that Labour has the opposite problem, in that its support is somewhat more evenly spread out around the country.

Unsurprisingly, the seven Māori electorates are the seven worst performing electorates for National, with Te Tai Tonga delivering National 12.47% of the party vote in that electorate being the only standout. But as National doesn't campaign in those electorates I've removed them from this analysis as it doesn't really tell us anything we didn't know before hand.

Where things get more interesting is when you start to look at National's least valuable electorates outside of the seven Māori electorates.

Manukau East, as I've written previously, was the sole electorate in the country to experience a swing to the right. While that, and the fact that National also grew their party vote in Manukau East too, will be welcome news for National, it's also National's second least valuable electorate in the country (excluding the Māori electorates as discussed above). Likewise other electorates where National did grow their share of the party vote in Auckland like Māngere, Manurewa, and Kelston, are all electorates with some of the lowest voter turnout rates. So again, National can be pleased it's won some extra votes in those seats, they're not in big enough quantities to make a meaningful difference.

What is interesting is that of the top 10 electorates for turnout, only Wellington Central makes an appearance in National's least valuable seats.

When you start to look at the broader picture, 39.7% of National's support comes from its top 20 seats, and 67% of it comes from half of all electorates, illustrating just how dependent National is on those electorates with large turnouts voting for National in large numbers. 

While this is clearly a strength of National's, it's also their key weakness. Should they lose even a few percentage points of support in those key seats, it has a much larger effect on National's overall prospects. If you were Labour looking ahead to the 2020 election, you'd be asking yourself the two questions of how to you maximise your own turnout in your safe seats, but also how can you steal back some gains from National in what are some pretty clearly defined geographical areas, the rural fringes of Auckland and the inner city suburbs of Epsom, Tāmaki, and the North Shore.

I think these a selection of electorates that, if National can maintain their strength in those top 10, could also soon join them, they are:

  1. Coromandel (6th for turnout, 50.98% party vote for National)
  2. Ōtaki (10th turnout, 46.03% party vote)
  3. Whangarei (11th turnout, 44.85% party vote)
  4. Northland (15th turnout, 46.18% party vote)
  5. Wairarapa (16th turnout, 48.64% party vote)
  6. Taupō (17th turnout, 53.74% party vote)
  7. Tauranga (19th turnout, 52.62% party vote)

What ties all these electorates together is that they all have much higher than average voter turnout rates, and they all party voted for National at a higher rate than the rest of the country. I think Whangarei and Northland could be very interesting in that regard, as with Shane Jones and Winston Peters respectively in those electorates, they boosted New Zealand First's party votes there too, meaning that if New Zealand First implodes this Parliament, then National stands to benefit greater.

Coromandel, Ōtaki, Wairarapa, and Taupō electorates are all what should be strong, provincial electorates for National, and Coromandel and Ōtaki in particular should lean that way further through a combination of rapidly aging populations and in Ōtaki's case especially, some massive infrastructure projects in the works over the coming five years.