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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

FAQ: on what date will the next NZ General Election occur?

The next NZ general election will occur at a time of the Prime Minister's choosing - no later than three years after the last election was declared. By law (like in Australia) it will be on a Saturday. The last election was on 8 November 2008 which gives 7 January as the last possible date for the next election.

It is usual for a government to serve a "full term" and hold office for nearly all of the three years - rather than have an early (or "snap") election. Early elections last occurred in 2002 and 1984 - when the Prime Ministers of the day considered the governing arrangements between or within their parties or coalition of parties had become unstable and concluded that their party's best chance of re-election was to hold an early poll. A public disagreement between the Cabinet and MPs within the governing party or coalition has been the trigger event for the PM to call an early election.

Before the last two elections were announced I have given odds on which date the election will occur. At this point in the cycle giving precise odds is difficult, but here is my assessment:

Before starting it must be acknowledged that the Rugby World Cup will determine the date. Not only does it block out all dates 10 September to 22 October it has other major effects the restrict what the PM can do (more later). Also the undesirability to have an election during the school holidays and on a long weekend (eg. Labour weekend which clashes with the RWC anyway, Queen's Birthday and major provincial anniversary holidays) - when many are away from their home constituencies - will also be factors.
Working backwards from the last possible date: The government services officially close between Christmas and 15 January, so it can't be the last three dates because they are administratively impossible as well as undesirable as many people are away on holiday. It would be seen as unwise to let any post-election government formation drift past Christmas, indeed it would be expected that at the very least the Ministers would be sworn in before Christmas and ideally parliament convened before Christmas, so that means the 17th and 10th of December are also highly unlikely dates.

Because the RWC finishes on 22 October and there will be no campaigning during that period it means there must be at least 4 - usually 5 or 6 - weeks to campaign. So the four Saturdays after the RWC 29 October, 5th, 12th and 19th November are also out. This means any late election will most likely be on the 26th November with 3 December being just possible.

However, if there was to be a late election we will know about it a long time before the traditional surprise announcement that we are used to which gives 5 or 6 weeks of campaigning. The RWC means that there is going to be zero incumbency advantage of the surprise announcement should it be late. And if it is it will be the longest election campaign in the nation's history, because the point at which we know it will be called late will be confirmed officially at least 6 weeks before the RWC begins - in July.

Immediately prior to the RWC (6-9th September) the government will host the South Pacific Forum (40th anniversary) in Auckland. This is a major event for the island nations and the NZ government. Any government will have to be formed and sworn in before that event or else it would be effectively without a host and would look like utter ineptitude and disorganisation on our part - as would not having a PM and Rugby minister to officiate at the various RWC events that begin straight after it. Having a caretaker administration doing that would damage our credibility. So we now have to work backwards from those dates.

Even working as quickly as last election when everything went smoothly it would take at least two weeks to install a government - that means the 3rd September and 27th August are out and the 20th of August will be the last possible date - but that too is marginal - and if coalition talks take longer than expected and recounts come into play then it is cutting it far too close to the wire, so 13 August is a more likely date as the last election date before which a late election may be avoided. But the announcement of that date that will give the usual 5 or 6 week campaign will have to be in early July.

In other words if we don't have an election date announced by the weekend of 9th/10th July we will all know that the election date is going to be either the 26th November or 3rd December. That's a 20 or 21 week election campaign!

Parliament will be sitting through most of that and there will be a lot of pressure to use that as a campaign platform and I am unsure whether the politicians or the public will be able to handle the RWC and a campaign simultaneously. I doubt that any political cease-fire during the RWC would hold, even if the official campaign launches were in the week after. For the reasons of the PM losing his incumbency advantage and the RWC and SPF clashes (and the probability that the All Blacks will again not win) it seems to me that both possible late dates are untenable. If the PM hasn't announced the election date on the 11th July then the game is up.

And because we will be anticipating a 6th or 13th August date then the likelihood of him calling it even earlier builds. None of which is good for the party workers or voters because it is winter. A miserable NZ winter. It's not the best time to be door knocking and canvassing and going to the polling station; but legend has it that the uncommitted voters and the lefties are a lot less likely to turn out and so the Tories might think it a good idea.

So now I've convinced myself that under the circumstances it will be - has to be - an early election the question is: how early?

As I stated at the start of this post they need a force majeure relating to coalition instability in order to invoke an early election. Hone Harawira alone isn't going to cause it on the Maori Party side, Peter Dunne is too irrelevant for anyone to take seriously as a reason for doing or not doing anything, and so it may be Act that will have to be used as the excuse to go early.

Act have been highly combustible without any assistance from anyone else and there are many scenarios which could give the PM his publicly plausible reason for going early. Sir Roger pulling the pin and resigning would cause Rodney's nemesis Peter Tashkoff to come in and that would be an immediate caucus implosion. Standing a strong Nat candidate against Rodney in Epsom might make him throw his toys out of the cot as he sees his career going under. Act can already be painted as unstable, so a little bit of weight applied in the right place may tip them over the edge. And as soon as Act looks like its going under then the PM can ask: Do we want the existence of this National government to be dependent on/beholden to the Maori Party?

There is always the remote possibility too that an electorate MP with nothing to lose (like Chris Carter) might try a stunt and resign to cause a by-election. If it is in a seat that will upset National if they have a bad showing (arguably this is Carter's Te Atatu seat where the ornery Tau Henare will stand again) then they will want to avoid this by-election, which they can do only if it is within 6 months of a general election - which will force the PM to name the date - which would not be more than 7 weeks out. While this is not unstable to the government it could be sold fairly convincingly to the public as precipitating a general election because it would avoid the cost of a by-election (or multiple by-elections should Hawkins want to abandon his Manurewa seat early too). This could be done anytime before the early July date.

But if we get into July we have to look back to the most important event in the calendar around that time - the budget. The Crown budget is usually in May - late May. And the legislation for that will stretch into June. Whether the Nats want to campaign on their budget or not could be up to the likes of Carter and Hawkins should they force their hand. This means possibly a late June date.

It could be a very early election and that means that Bill English is going to have to deliver an election budget of goodies - rather than anything that stings or anything too radical that may spook the cautious middle classes who will be waking up to the depressing reality of the endlessness of the recession about this time (and feeling the impact of the GST inflation surge). The Nats have intimated at the last election that they will campaign on a privatisation programme and further rightward policy at the 2011 election, but I'm not sure they will have the space to do it, or the inclination to raise it as a point of difference when public opinion seems to be shifting more towards Labour's re-found economic nationalism. My pick is that whether they have planned it or not the 2011 budget will be the Nat's take-it-or-leave-it manifesto and will be what the election is fought on.

UPDATE | 1PM: The Dim Post opts for 19th or 26th November based on:

* The RWC will provide immediate economic benefits to the country, possibly it will be the only economic ray of light in the government’s entire term
*It will suck up any oxygen for the opposition’s pre-campaign campaigning
*If we win there will be national elation which will surely favor the government, but if we lose then I really don’t think people will punish the government by voting for the Labour Party – the only way that would happen is if the RWC is a logistical disaster that embarrasses the country.
*Key will want to maximise the amount of time he has with his current governing arrangement in which he gets to play ACT and the MP off against each other. His post-election governing arrangement is highly uncertain: he could have enough seats to govern alone, but he could also have a Maori Party-United Future-New Zealand First coalition.
*The whole year will (basically) be an election year and the National Party can easily outspend Labour over time, so the later the election is held the greater the advantage to the government.

The later they go the more risks that accrue, the more random events might get ahead of them - not to mention the potential disaster of a RWC defeat. That will make the cautious thing to do to go early. I'm not sure the longer the Nats wait the weaker Labour will become either.

The by-election scenario is also a factor that must be added. If Labour stage manage Hawkins and whoever else (incl. Carter) to hold by-elections that they will win and that National may perform poorly at it will create a rolling maul of public rejection of the government. The Nats would want to avoid this. Also going early is a decisive Prime Ministerial decision that would disrupt Opposition plans and would give the momentum to National. The two parties always close the polling gap the further it gets to the election and 2002 proved that catching the other party napping maintains the advantage to the incumbent. I'm not convinced that the chance for the PM to be Prime Ministerial at the SPF and the RWC is enough of a boon for them since the longer they go the more the polls will narrow.

The other issue is the Maori Party's agreements, firstly to get the replacement Foreshore and seabed bill into law and secondly the constitutional review. The Nats may not wish to progress these if they are seen as divisive and the MP too might prefer to have them left unfinished so that they can campaign on "finishing the job" rather than being seen as having completed their tasks and so of less relevance to their electorate.

Oh, and speaking of the looming Act implosion. From today's NZ Herald:


At 26/10/10 9:22 am, Blogger Graeme Edgeler said...

There has never ever been a June election in New Zealand (well, since we started having elections on a single day anyway). Nor in any month in the first half of the year.

At 26/10/10 12:59 pm, Blogger Tim Selwyn said...

Yes, it would be nasty to have an election in Winter, but Carter going out in a blaze could trigger such a scenario if the Nats thought that risking a Te Atatu by-election would damage them.


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