As the Covid-19 hits NZ hard, and the country may have to be held in lockdown longer than originally intended, the issue whether the general election on September 19 should be postponed looms larger. It has already been canvassed in some media, but the PM, Jacinda Ardern, last week insisted there is no plan to postpone the election “at this stage”.
As well as the general election two referendums are due to be held on September 19.
There have been calls for the formation of a government of national unity, as well as calls for the general election to be postponed. Opposition Leader Simon Bridges instructed all of his MPs to put their election campaign on hold.
Ardern was reported on Radio NZ as saying:
“As you can imagine we take everything into account as we’re moving through. But at this stage obviously, my immediate focus is what’s happening in the next four to eight weeks rather than that far down the track.“
While ministers are preoccupied hour-by-hour with dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, others within the coalition almost certainly will be canvassing the election options.
From one side, Labour Party strategists may be swayed by evidence from their own party polling which points to Ardern’s personal ratings touching new peaks. And then NZ First, whose chances of re-election were looking slim with public polls showing it below the 5% threshold , may now think it could coat-tail Labour back to power.
Headlines like this one in the Dominion-Post— “In the Survivor jungle, PM is ahead of the game”— have been used over text reading:
“The calm, compassionate, charismatic Jacinda has stood out as not only the one you want to take home to the family, but also to run household, business and country”.
In the NZ Herald , political editor Audrey Young wrote:
“It seems that brilliant is the new normal for PM Jacinda Ardern”.
Young contended that Ardern has been brilliant at making and communicating momentous decisions that take NZ into the unknown.
“As Ardern put it so well in her final speech to Parliament this week, the government had no time to waste. It could not plan for every intricate detail before the lockdown because every hour waiting would have meant before more people exposed to Covid-19”.
Few will quibble that Ardern has outshone many other leaders with the communication skills she has deployed. So key voices in Labour’s inner circles may see their chances of winning a second term as dependent on catching the wave of popularity Ardern is riding at present. No need to postpone the election, as some pundits are urging.
That argument will be reinforced if there is clear evidence – by August, say – that the government’s campaign to defeat the coronavirus has succeeded.
Labour MPs will be pleased if they can escape awkward questions on the hustings about the initially slow and chaotic response to the Covid-19 outbreak, the early failure to test/quarantine those returning from overseas-infected countries and the shortage of essential items like ventilators, masks and gowns, as well as the confusion over community testing.
What if the battle is still being waged? Or in the aftermath unemployment has reached the levels predicted by economists, and thousands of businesses especially in the tourist and hospitality industries, have collapsed?
Already it looks as if the recession NZ is heading into will be deep. Even substantial businesses may be driven to the wall.
Queues of the jobless outside Work & Income offices are no great advertisement for any governing party.
In that context postponement might be the sensible political option. Yet there are downsides to that as well. NZ’s recovery could be both protracted and painful.
Living standards will have fallen. Mountains of debt incurred in the recession will have to be repaid. The policies Labour campaigned on in 2017—reducing child poverty, eliminating homelessness, restoring mental health capabilities— will be in tatters.
So to hold the election on September 19 poses a dilemma that even a political genius might find hard to resolve.