Election results 2020: 12 giant questions still to be answered

Originally published by The Spinoff

We know Jacinda Ardern will be the PM, but what else needs to get sorted out in the coming weeks? Alex Braae runs down the questions we’ll get answers to soon, along with a few that you might be wondering about.

ANALYSIS:

The voters deliver the mandate, but then it’s up to the politicians to figure out what to do with it.

Over the next couple of weeks they’ll be hard at work deciding who gets what jobs, and what sort of governing arrangements will be used.

Apart from that, the election result needs to be digested and processed. Party caucuses will be meeting for the first time today, and inside those rooms they’ll be thrashing a few issues out.

So what are the key questions that need answering from here? Here’s the top 12.

Does Labour govern alone, form a coalition, or some other arrangement?

The most pertinent point here is that Labour doesn’t need anyone else’s votes in Parliament. No matter what they do from here, they have the numbers to pass bills and budgets, which in practical terms is basically what governing involves.

However, they could also decide to bring either the Greens, or Māori Party MP Rawiri Waititi, on board. This could either be through a formal coalition, a confidence and supply arrangement, or even just a memorandum of understanding.

It seems highly likely that at a minimum a memorandum of understanding will be signed with the Greens, who have also in the past made such deals with National governments to advance common policy interests.

Waititi is less likely, as the Māori Party is effectively the opposition to Labour in the Māori electorates.

A formal coalition with the Greens hasn’t been ruled out by Ardern, but she seems in no rush to push the idea.

So far, her position has basically been that while it’s good to find consensus where possible, Labour has a mandate to govern alone if they choose to, and it would be best for governing arrangements to be straightforward.

There’s also the question of whether it would actually be in the Greens’ interests to make a close deal, or accept ministerial positions.

Because they lack leverage on the numbers, it’s quite possible they’d only be offered shared glory on whatever Labour planned to do anyway – and Green MPs might in turn find themselves unable to criticise the government, or be caught in the spotlight for policy failures.

Does National roll Judith Collins or keep her in charge?

Short term? There’s very little chance Collins will be pushed out of the job in the next few weeks, and she has indicated a desire to stay on.

Longer term, that’s a much more open question. A few MPs are known to have leadership ambitions, like perennial challenger Mark Mitchell, or new Botany MP Christopher Luxon.

At some stage either or both of them is almost certain to have a crack. But these sorts of thing don’t happen by themselves – there has to actually be a challenge mounted, and without that it’s very hard to see the National caucus simply deciding to get rid of Collins with a no-confidence motion.

What's the future for Nick Smith and Gerry Brownlee?

Right now, Collins is not saying either way whether the two long-serving National MPs who lost seats should stick around as list MPs.

She told Radio NZ that “they should make their own minds up on that” and “I’d absolutely be happy to support them if they chose to stay, if they choose not to – it’s entirely up to them.” That sort of answer was repeated on whether she personally wanted them to stay.

It’s not yet clear what that decision will be, and it might not be made immediately anyway. But with just nine list spots available, there might be pressure from the wider party for those two MPs to free them up for someone else.

Conversely, there might also be concern that the party will lack potential ministerial talent if those two go.

What will the impact of special votes be?

We’ll find out how the overall votes are changed by special votes in just under two weeks. Basically, a special vote refers to anyone who cast a vote outside the normal practice of an enrolled voter going to a polling booth in their electorate.

So these could be postal votes, or people who enrolled to vote on the same day they voted, or people who voted in another city to where they’re registered, or votes from overseas, among other reasons.

And there’s a pretty massive number – so far the Electoral Commission has estimated there are around 480,000 special votes to count this year.

In broad terms, special votes tend to deliver a boost for Labour and the Greens, sometimes to the point of giving either or both an extra seat in Parliament.

Writing on Public Address, Graeme Edgeler estimated how the overall vote would change if the 2020 specials were roughly in line with 2017 – in this situation, Labour would gain a seat at the expense of National.

However, the permutations about who will still be an MP after the final declaration is a bit tricky, because some electorate seats could still be decided on the specials, and that will have ripple effects.

Which electorates could still be decided on the specials?

The biggest change would be if Waiariki switched. On the preliminary results, it has been won by the Māori Party’s Rawiri Waititi, over Labour’s Tamati Coffey. But the margin is only 415 votes. If that did happen, the Māori Party would be out of Parliament altogether.

There’s also the distinctly unlikely possibility of the Māori Party winning enough party votes on the specials to bring in a list MP on Waititi’s coattails – if so, that would be co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer.

Apart from that, there are a few seats with narrow margins. Shane Reti’s margin in Whangārei is very slim at just 164 votes, Chlöe Swarbrick only leads by 492 votes in Auckland Central, and Denise Lee is only 580 ahead in Maungakiekie.

When will we actually have a new government formed?

At this stage, the timetable is to have it done within two to three weeks.

What happened to the "wasted vote"?

Party votes cast for parties that don’t get enough to make it into Parliament get reallocated to those that do. They get reallocated on a proportional formula, based on the parties that did get into Parliament.

This means that there are often slight distortions – parties that make it into Parliament end up with a slightly larger share of seats than their party vote would indicate.

For example, Labour has just over half the seats in Parliament, and secured just under half of all party votes cast.

This time around, between 7-8 per cent of all votes cast went to parties that didn’t end up making it in. If Waiariki flips and Rawiri Waititi loses, that will go up by another 1 per cent. That’s relatively high – in 2017 it was less than 5 per cent, and in 2014 it was under 7 per cent.

What happens to the ministerial positions vacated by NZ First?

All of a sudden, Labour has some pretty big jobs to fill, and arguably doesn’t necessarily have MPs ready to step in at a moment’s notice.

These include deputy PM, defence minister, foreign affairs minister, minister for Oranga Tamariki, forestry minister, infrastructure minister, regional economic development minister, racing minister, a few others, plus a bunch of associate ministerships and parliamentary under-secretary roles.

This list is of course the rundown of the jobs done by NZ First MPs over the last three years, in some cases quite capably and competently.

Defence in particular will be tricky, as whoever gets the job will be following in the footsteps of an actual military veteran in Ron Mark. Racing minister – a job created for Winston Peters – might simply be abolished.

The loss of NZ First might also mean Labour is more keen to work out some arrangement with the Greens. They had ministers outside Cabinet in the last government, and may well do so again to fill holes that Labour can’t fill from their own ranks.

Who becomes deputy PM?

Theoretically, this shouldn’t be a question – Kelvin Davis is the deputy leader of the Labour party, and therefore should become deputy PM.

But the thing about being deputy PM is that you might end up having to do quite a long stretch as acting PM – think about Winston Peters stepping in while Ardern was on maternity leave in 2018.

The performance of Davis as a minister has been reasonably strong, but his performances in Parliament and in front of media scrutiny have often been patchy and weak. And that’s a pretty crucial part of the job – to be able to look like everything’s under control while the deputy is minding the shop.

So who else could it be? The natural picks would be someone like Finance Minister Grant Robertson, fix-it minister Megan Woods, or everything minister Chris Hipkins.

If a formal coalition is made with the Greens, it could be one of either James Shaw or Marama Davidson. The other long-shot possibilities would be someone like Andrew Little or David Parker, but beyond that it’s hard to see a case for any candidate.

Speaking of Chris Hipkins, does he stay as health minister?

Some jobs are likely to be shuffled around quite a bit over the coming weeks. Hipkins took over health up until the election, but given his workload, it’s possible he’ll give up either health or education.

If it’s health, there are basically two leading candidates. Tāmaki Makaurau MP Peeni Henare is the current associate health minister, and has made no secret of his desire to step into the top job.

The new Labour caucus also includes Dr Ayesha Verrall, an infectious diseases specialist and researcher. She also put significant work into strengthening the country’s Covid response this year, and has been a DHB member. That’s a lot of relevant on-the-job experience.

Does Winston Peters remain in charge of NZ First?

That’s probably up to Peters himself, and so far he’s given no indication that he’ll be stepping away.

But it seems likely that the wider party wants to keep going and contest the next election, which means they’ll need a leader who can campaign hard. That could still be Peters – at 75, he still had enough stamina to get through this one. But will that still be the case in three years?

Of the MPs who are leaving Parliament, the most likely options are deputy leader Fletcher Tabuteau, who has long been close with Peters, outgoing Defence Minister Ron Mark, outgoing Minister for Children Tracey Martin, or outgoing Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones.

But the key words there are “outgoing” – will all of them still be up for another go in 2023, and for the long slog that awaits them outside Parliament this term?

Do we have to keep caring about politics now that the election is over?

Afraid so – now the real work for the politicians begins.

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