Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Meanwhile, opposition

In the aftermath of an election in which the government is changed, the recently-defeated prime minister remains in the role in an acting capacity until the incoming prime minister receives a Royal consent to form government.. This is the way it’s always been, and will be unless our form of government is changed some day.

This means that the New Zealand Labour Party, as the second-biggest party in the new Parliament, will become the Opposition when Parliament is sworn in, and the Labour Party Leader will become Leader of the Opposition. The Leader of the Opposition, after consultation with the party’s Members of Parliament, will appoint spokespeople for each of the government’s ministerial portfolios or the topics those ministries focus on. Other parties in Parliament may also appoint spokespeople, too, but those from the official Opposition are always seen as having more weight, mainly because they’re essentially a government-in-waiting (this is similar to what in the UK Parliament is called a “Shadow Cabinet”, and instead of spokespeople, they have “shadow ministers”).

The bigger question, of course, is, what now? Labour will need to organise itself fairly quickly in order to be able to hold the new government to account. The first order of business will be to select a Leader of the Party, and right now, the current leader, outgoing Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, will remain Labour Leader. He said, "I think right at the moment, the Labour Party need some stability and some continuity as we transition out of government and into opposition,” and I think that’s exactly the right call, and, anyway, Labour Party rules require the leadership to be re-examined 90 days after an election loss, so there’s no need to rush.

On Election Night in 2008, then Prime Minister Helen Clark announced she was stepping down as Labour Leader, something that’s been blamed for creating chaos in the Labour Caucus, leading to five Leaders before they won government again in 2017. Whether that assessment of Clark is deserved or not, it’s nevertheless true that the chaos helped keep National in power for three terms—and very nearly four. Chris Hipkins doesn’t want to see a repeat of that chaos—no one wants that either (except National?).

The time in Opposition will also give Labour the chance to give its MPs experience handling the equivalent of ministerial portfolios, and that will be good for the MPs and the party: It has around a year or so to establish itself as a government-in-waiting. With so many experienced MPs out because of the election, there’s an opportunity to refresh.

Today, too, List MP and former Labour Leader Andrew Little announced he would not take his seat in Parliament, which means that the next person on Labour’s Party List will enter Parliament instead (we won’t know for sure who that is until November 3, when the final results are declared).

Little became Labour Leader after the party lost the 2014 election, but in the run-up to the 2017 election, Labour was languishing in the polls and looked to be headed for its fourth defeat in a row, so Little resigned and Jacinda Ardern became the new Leader of the Opposition and went on to victory. Little made his public announcement today on Twitter (above, in his usual lighthearted style), and was praised for choosing as selfless an action as in 2017, because his departure clears the way for someone else.

It’s unknown who else may choose to leave, but Grant Robertson, Caretaker Finance Minister, and also Deputy Prime Minister under Jacinda Ardern, switched to the Party List this election and is widely expected to leave Parliament at some point.

A few other List MPs may do the same, but Electorate MPs won’t because doing so it would trigger a costly by-election. Chris Hipkins, who is the MP for Remutaka, Has pledged to remain the Electorate MP for the three years of this Parliament, and said:
"I've made the commitment to the people of my electorate each three years when I put my name forward that I'm committing to three years, and regardless of what role I play during that time, I owe that to my constituents who place their faith in me to be their local MP."
Personalities aside, there’s the bigger issue of mission: What, exactly, will Labour present as an alternative to whatever it is the new government ends up doing? In the election, National offered slogans with little or nothing behind them, Act and NZ First offered often frighteningly extremist ideas mixed with dogwhistles and pandering to the anti-government brigade. As for Labour, well, it didn’t offer much vision at all.

To win the 2026 election, Labour will need to present a positive vision for New Zealand that is both aspirational and clearly differentiated from the parties on its Left and to its Right. I believe that means it needs to return to its Centre-Left roots, and then it needs to sell its vision in a world overrun with misinformation, disinformation, and negativity of all sorts. I don’t envy the job they have in front of them—but I’ll certainly be commenting on it.

For now, thought, the important thing to know is that Labour will be entering Opposition as a stable caucus looking to refresh and re-energise so that it can do the job it needs to do to win the 2026 election. I think it can do it—and I also think that the National-Act (plus or minus NZ First) government will help them do it. More on that in another post.

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