Sunday, November 12, 2023

New Zealand’s in between days

New Zealand still doesn’t have a government, due to a lot of factors, none of them unusual. In the meantime, the Labour-led government remains in place, acting in a caretaker role until a new government is formed, which is also not unusual. However, there was an unusual change this year cause by the results of the General Election last month.

Because of section 6 of the Constitution Act, all the current Ministers tenure was scheduled to end at 11.59pm last night, Saturday, November 11. That would have left New Zealand without a government until the National Party and its support parties can sign a coalition agreement and be appointed by the Governor General.

To avoid leaving New Zealand without a government, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins consulted with National Party Leader Chris Luxon, the presumed incoming Prime Minister, to advise the Governor General to “to reappoint the current ministry to operate in caretaker mode until the new government is appointed.”

It as a simple fix to to the problem, and agreed to by the leaders of the current and incoming governments. However, there was a small complication: The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nanaia Mahuta, lost her seat in the election, and since she wasn’t on the Labour Party List, she left office at 11:59pm last night. Grant Robertson was appointed as the Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In announcing the arrangements, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said: “This solution to a constitutional quirk has been amicably agreed and we continue to consult closely with the incoming Government on all key decisions.” All very of matter-of-fact—and I was struck by the shockingly stark contrast between the peaceful transfer of power in New Zealand being “amicably agreed” and the attempted coup in the USA on January 6, 2021.

However, that doesn’t mean we don’t have rightwing freakouts over the formation of the new government. Every day seems to bring more and more moans from the Right about how awful it is that this process is taking so long, how it somehow “proves” that our MMP electoral system is “awful” or “a disaster” (and similarly aggressively negative terms). As is so often the case, the rightwing freakout is utterly unjustified, and it’s flat out wrong—one might even say “ignorant”, if one was feeling uncharitable.

As of today, it’s been 29 days since the 2023 General Election. The time between the election and the official formation of government took 61 days in 1996, the first election under MMP (which was also a coalition with Winston Peters and his rightwing populist New Zealand First party). The shortest amount of time was 11 days in 2008. Overall, the average has been 28.67 days between the election and the formation of government.

The “slowness” this year, then, is still far short of 1996 and will remain so—that was always obviously going to be the case. This year, in fact, things have moved quite fast—especially when you look at the obstacles.

First, the National Party didn’t do as well as it had hoped. While it was never really possible that it would win an outright majority in Parliament as Labour did in 2020, they still hoped to have enough seats that they could govern with only the hard-right Act Party. Because the two parties combined failed to win enough seats to command a majority in Parliament, they instead have to form a deal with Winston (as part of his election campaign, Winston had flat-out refused to work worth Labour after the votes were counted, and Labour Party Leader Chris Hipkins returned the favour).

On election night, there were a number of seats that were too close to call, and the final makeup of Parliament would depend on the Final Results. This made things even more delayed as the results of several seats were subject to recounts. That, in turn, delayed the final writ from the Electoral Commission, and a new government couldn’t be formed even if the three political parties had agreed to a coalition agreement in mere hours—in fact, they couldn't even really begin full negotiations until the final results were announced. The recounts are now pretty much finished, and they haven’t really changed anything, as expected. Negotiations have been fully underway for about a week. 

Another complicating factor is Winston personally. The word “mercurial” may be the nicest way to describe him and his behaviour. He’s always been a political opportunist, seizing on the latest political passions—especially negative ones—to gain votes. So, in order to placate his supporters, Winston may well demand things National and Act don’t want. Or, it may just be his narcissism that drives him to demand things, no matter how unreasonable. Add to that that the fact that he and the leader of the Act Party both bitterly criticised each other in the campaign, and it was pretty obvious that coalition negotiations between the two were likely to be prickly.

All of which means that a delay was to be expected. It was obvious on election night that there was absolutely no possible way this could go any faster. That aside, the process is well within the range of time it’s taken ever since the MMP era began in 1996, something that's easily knowable.

In sum, then, people who are beside themselves over this process of forming a new government need to chill out. A new government will form soon enough, and then everyone can get back to complaining about it. That, too, is predictable.

Time between Election Days and Government being formed, 1996-2020:

1996 election: Election Day was October 12, government began December 12 – 61 days later (a re-elected government).
1999 election: Election Day was November 27 government began December 10 – 46 days later (a new government).
2002 election: Election Day was July 27, government began Aug 15, 2002 – 19 days later. (a re-elected government).
2005 election: Election Day was September 17, government began Oct 19, 2005 – 32 days later (a re-elected government).
2008 election: Election Day was November 8, government began November 19, 2008 – 11 days later (a new government).
2011 election: Election Day was November 26, government began December 14, 2011 – 18 days later (a re-elected government).
2014 election: Election Day was September 20, government began October 8, 2014 – 18 days later (a re-elected government).
2017 election: Election Day was September 23, government began October 26, 2017 – 33 days later (a new government).
2020 election: Election Day was October 17, government began November 6, 2020 – 20 days later (a re-elected government).

“Governments in New Zealand since 1856” – NZ Parliament
”General Election DaysNZ History, Ministry for Culture and Heritage
“List of New Zealand governments”Wikipedia

The title of this post made me think of a song (of course), the 1985 single “In Between Days”
by English band The Cure [WATCH].

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