Election 2020 is going to be a huge mess

OPINION: Next year’s election is going to be extremely messy.

Think 3am on Saturday night on Courtenay Place. Or any time and any place during 2014. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at a beach cleanup in Wellington. It’s unlikely to be the last cleanup she’ll tackle.

Elections are rarely boring or straightforward. When I joined the press gallery in mid-2017 I despaired at the fact that the first election I was set to cover would be a predictable slog between Andrew Little and Bill English. Then Metiria Turei made a speech admitting to benefit fraud and things got extremely interesting.

But 2020 could well be more chaotic. Here’s why.

Statistics NZ Chief Statistician Liz MacPherson had no real choice but to resign this week.

The report into the census botchup was incredibly damning. And while the problems mostly appear to have occurred one level down from her, you can’t really fire an entire layer of management. 

But MacPherson is staying on until Christmas, which means she will be in the hot-seat at the Representation Commission, which decides the boundaries of all of our electorates. This somewhat secretive body is typically chaired by a former judge and also features representatives from both the main parties –this year Rick Barker for the Government and Roger Sowry for National.

This could get awkward, as National is demanding that data from the census not be used to draw up any new electorates. Instead, leader  Simon Bridges is  insisting that the old electorates – based on the 2013 census – be used in their place. Given the Government isn’t planning on another census until 2023, following through on this could well result in two elections with old electorates.

It remains to be seen how far National will take this matter. It is easy to loudly register your discontent, but going to court or seriously torpedoing the commission is a whole other matter. It’s very hard to imagine the party refusing to stand MPs in any new electorates –  probably in Auckland – but doing so would put  it in a strange position.

Yet National has the potential to seriously destabilise the election with this attack, and it’s got the Government worried. Even though electorates are extremely unlikely to decide who gets to form governments under MMP, attacking the legitimacy of an election is a potent tool rarely used in New Zealand politics.

The Government can point to the independent report out this week which found that the population data garnered from the census and other sources would be of sufficient quality to build electorates out of, but National’s argument has strong emotional resonance: They screwed up the census, so should we really allow them to screw up the election too? Instead of just attacking the Government, you attack the entire system.

There’s also already-controversial changes to election rules. Since the basket-case of an inquiry into the last election won’t be done in time,  Andrew Little has moved to make voting more accessible next election, most notably by allowing people to register to vote and cast their vote on election day.

A study on how same-day enrolment/voting affected the last election suggested it increased turnout by as much as 7.6 per cent – quite a bump – and National MP Nick Smith is accusing Labour of screwing the scrum with these changes, increasing the chances of  its own electoral success.

And that’s before we even touch the hot rod of prisoner voting, which wouldn’t actually change the election outcome in any serious way, but could cause serious and sustained emotional debate.

Legitimacy debates are often emotional escape chutes for election losses. You didn’t lose the election because your opponents ran a better campaign, you lost because they cheated. There are plenty of elections around the world where legitimacy debates are legitimate, however – like the United States,  which will be running a presidential election at the same time.

Our electoral cycles match up every 12 years.  Last time, in 2008, the election of Barack Obama sucked up quite a bit of audience attention from what should be the dominant news story of the year. The Government  isn’t too worried about people paying a lot of attention to Trump – indeed, it thinks the forceful contrast between Trump and Jacinda Ardern in news reports will be helpful to Labour.

And National  is not the only party partial to attacking the battlefield rather than the opponent.

One of the things keeping Labour up at night right now is National’s bulging war chest and its clear desire to spend that money pummelling the Government with Facebook ads.

Right now these ads are mostly focused on the “feebate” debate, but the battle won’t stay there. The great thing about Facebook ads for political parties is you don’t have to just pick one message and stick with it as you do on TV – you can spread your money across several attack vectors targeted at several sectors of society; for example, hitting the Government on climate change policy in rural areas and rising rents in urban ones. Then, because these ads are so cheap, you can test and refine them constantly so they get more and more effective.

Facebook ads are a bit of a wild west right now, and National  is hardly the only party to stretch the truth a bit when advertising. The Advertising Standards Authority  has responsibility over them, and has already pinged National for one ad and is looking into another.

But the processing of complaints takes a long while, and to quote Bridges himself, “One person’s misinformation is another person’s fact”. Facebook has stepped up transparency efforts in other countries around political advertising, but these tools are not yet mandatory for political ads here, and no New Zealand-based party has signed on to them so far.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson is right now attempting to set up an independent fiscal unit which would cost election policies for each party, clearly hoping to avoid another “$11b hole” situation. But the legitimacy of this organisation will entirely depend on whether National decides to sign on to it – and there is no reason for it to do so, given voters generally already trust that party more than Labour on economic matters. 


The Government is far from blameless when it comes to the chaos that awaits us next year.

Thanks to a confidence and supply agreement with the Greens and NZ First’s insistence  on keeping its hands clean from any controversial social issue, we will probably see two referendums attached to the election: definitely one on recreational cannabis and quite likely one on euthanasia.

The Government will say that both are binding. But confusingly only the euthanasia one – which isn’t a Government bill – will actually go into law if the referendum passes, making it the only binding referendum on the table. The Government’s cannabis bill will only be set out in “draft” form at the election, and only “binding” if Labour stays in power.

National has already said that it maintains the right to ignore it as non-binding, as it has every right to do – a binding referendum in New Zealand is a law that is already passed but needs a referendum to bring it into force, not a piece of draft legislation still to go through the rigours of parliamentary scrutiny.

Both sides think these referendums will boost turnout for them. The Greens are particularly keen on the cannabis vote getting out their base and keeping them well above 5 per cent. But these referendums will also bring out serious social tensions, serious lobbying campaigns, and a whole lot of distraction from the actual issues of the campaign.

But all of these factors will fade into real insignificance if the storm clouds that began to seriously gather over the US economy in the past week turn into a full-on storm. If there’s a recession to contend with, all bets are off.

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