Mike Williams. Photo / NZME
Last week in politics will be memorable for all of the wrong reasons. Kiritapu Allan’s personal loss morphed into a public tragedy, ending the political career of a talented and promising young Māori.
The events of Sunday evening are any political party leader’s worst nightmare. Chris Hipkins had no alternative but to accept Allan’s resignation.
Situations like this define a leader in the eyes of voters. The Prime Minister’s handling of this calamity was a flawless balance of empathy for the fallen minister and firm resolve that her blunders were terminal.
Criticism of Hipkins for letting Allan resume her duties prematurely following time out for mental health issues doesn’t bear examination. The PM had a long discussion with Allan who assured him that she was ready to go back to work and the following week she impressed senior political journalists when announcing a policy initiative.
Allan has withdrawn her candidacy for the East Coast electorate. This electorate is usually held by National. Anne Tolley held the seat for 15 years before it was won by Kiri Allan in 2020.
Allan’s diligent work in an electorate repeatedly battered by extreme weather has been appreciated locally and she was odds-on to hold the seat in October. Her successor will have a tough job, though Allan’s support for whoever is selected will help.
This means that East Coast, Napier, and the Māori electorate of Ikaroa Rawhiti will have fresh Labour Party candidates and some fascinating battles are promised.
With current polls looking like a dead heat between the left and right, a Labour-led government remains a strong possibility, strengthening the hand of Anna Lorck in Tukituki whose re-election would ensure a Hawke’s Bay voice in a re-elected Labour-led government.
One party that will not be part of a Labour-led government is New Zealand First with its leader, Winston Peters, stating that his party will only support National or sit on the crossbenches. This is a departure from the past and means that a vote for New Zealand First is a vote for a National-led government.
Winston Peters, while claiming to lead a centrist party, has moved New Zealand First to the right, if not the fringe right, with the selection of a publicly anti-mandate candidate to a winnable slot on the New Zealand First list.
This may be a fatal mistake. With Luxon also moving National to right of politics in an effort to win back Act voters, that side of politics is overcrowded.
National’s Christopher Luxon has stated that his party will not seek or accept the support of the Te Pati Māori.
Thus, for the first time since the introduction of MMP, there will be no significant swing party contesting the October election. A straight left versus right battle looms.
The left side of New Zealand politics can take heart from last week’s Spanish election. The local equivalent of National, the Peoples Party (PP), according to literally dozens of polls, was predicted to easily win the snap election with the support of the right-wing Vox party, a sort of Spanish version of Act.
Polls had the PP leading the incumbent Socialist Party (PSOE), Labour’s sister party, by around 10 per cent and the PSOE Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s decision to call the snap election seemed suicidal.
It appeared inevitable that Spain would elect a right-wing government as had Italy and Sweden.
The poll-defying result saw the PP just 1 per cent ahead of the PSOE, the Vox party losing 19 seats. No clear winner emerged.
This astonishing outcome is the result of centrist voters focussing on the Vox policies like its rejection of measures to combat climate change. It cannot have helped the PP/Vox that the election coincided with a blazing heatwave.
This may not mean that the rightward drift in democracies is over, but it is an encouraging sign for Labour, the Greens and Te Pati Māori and offers a possible election-winning strategy.
Just as the Spanish PP could not govern without a coalition with Vox, National could not govern without Act.
A focus on just one often repeated Act policy, the abolition of the winter energy payment, could pay political dividends.
This payment goes to a million and a half beneficiaries and superannuitants. A vote for a National/Act government would cost single voters $400 plus a year and couples about $670.
National’s strong pro-landlord policies will hit 1.25 million renters, creating another big section of voters with no interest in a National/Act government.
This drift to the right by National, Act and NZ First leaves a large gap in the centre where, as Sir John Key knew, elections are won and lost.
If Labour is to lead a third-term government, it will need to bounce back from its setbacks and campaign immaculately for that centre vote.
Mike Williams grew up in Hawke’s Bay and is a former Labour Party president.