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by Eva Wagner, Programme Coordinator Rule of Law, Energy and Development Policy

This is the latest edition of KAS Australia's Digital Snapshot - a potpourri of current affairs from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot provides an analysis of selected media and think tank articles, intended to offer an overview of the debate in these countries. The original version includes hyperlinks and links for further reading.

New Zealand has less than 100 days to go to its general elections scheduled for 19 September. Overseas voting commences on 2 September, and domestic advance voting will be possible between 5 and 18 September. This, and the National Party’s recent leadership spill, warrant a closer look at the latest polls.

In February this year, New Zealand polls suggested a close election contest between the governing Labour Party and the National Party in opposition. According to the Newshub Read poll conducted between 23 January and 1 February, National was at 43.3% (down 0.6%) (56 seats), Labour at 42.5% (up 0.9%) (55 seats), the Green Party at 5.6% (down 0.7%) (7 seats), the ACT Party at 1.8% (up 0.4%) (2 seats, assuming it retains the Epsom electorate) and the NZ First Party at 3.6% (down 0.4%) (no seats). The New Zealand Herald concluded from this result that Labour and the Greens would be able to form a government with a total of 62 seats, that National and ACT (assuming it would retain the Epsom electorate) would miss out with 58 seats between them, and that NZ First would not be represented in parliament - unless it won an electorate seat.

By May, several months into the coronavirus pandemic, the situation was a different one. A Newshub Read poll conducted between 8 and 16 May saw Labour rise to 56.5% (up by 14%), the Nationals drop to 30.6% (down by 12.7%), the Greens at 5.5% (down by 0.1%), NZ First at 2.7% (down by 0.9%) and ACT steady at 1.8%. Following the continued loss of voter support, the National Party changed its leaders in an emergency Caucus meeting on 22 May. Todd Muller (and the new deputy party leader Nikki Kaye) took over the leadership from Simon Bridges (and former deputy party leader Paula Bennett). Todd Muller, former spokesperson for agriculture, biosecurity, food safety and forestry, took on the small business and national security portfolio, while deputy leader Nikki Kaye remained spokesperson for education, sport and recreation (see also cabinet reshuffle below). Todd Muller’s new shadow cabinet includes Amy Adams, who reversed her decision to retire from politics, and whom he entrusted with the Covid-19 recovery. Judith Collins continued to be number four on the list and is responsible for economic development, regional development and Pike River re-entry as well as shadow attorney-general. Paul Goldsmith dropped from number three to five on the party list and remained in charge of finance. He is followed by Gerry Brownlee, who is responsible for foreign affairs (see also cabinet reshuffle below), disarmament and the intelligence portfolios. The latter include the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) and the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS). The former foreign minister also remains shadow leader of the house and was engaged as the new election campaign chair. Dr Jian Yang, who was outed as a former member of Chinese military intelligence agencies and the Communist Party of China prior to his arrival in New Zealand in the 1990s, also remains a member of the National Party room. Notably, Todd Muller did not include any Maori in his team. A full list of Todd Muller’s shadow cabinet may be found on the National Party’s website.

The first poll after the leadership spill was taken one week later. UMR (the Labour Party’s preferred polling company) carried-out the poll as one of a regular series of polls for a corporate client. The poll saw the Labour Party ahead with 54%, the National Party at 30% (up by 1% compared to the previous poll held under Simon Bridges’ leadership in the end of April), NZ First at 5% and the Greens at 4%. Jacinda Ardern remained by far the preferred prime minister with 65%, while Todd Muller achieved 13% (compared to 5% for Simon Bridges in the end). Accordingly, the media reported “No Mullermania yet …”.

UMR’s poll was followed by 1 News Colmar Brunton’s poll conducted between 20 and 24 June 2020. This poll showed voter support for the Labour Party at 50% (down by 9% compared to Colmar Brunton’s previous poll held between 16 and 20 May), the National Party at 38% (up by 9%), the Greens at 6% (up by 1%), ACT at 3% (up by 1%), NZ First at 2% (down by 1%) and the Maori Party and the New Conservatives at 1% each. In terms of preferred prime minister, Jacinda Ardern enjoyed 54% voter support (down by 9% compared to 1 News previous poll) and Todd Muller remained steady (compared to the aforementioned UMR poll) at 13%. The New Zealand Herald concluded that Labour, if this were the official election result, would have sufficient support to govern alone. We are also told that - assuming the ACT Party would win one electorate - the allocation of seats would be as follows:

·        Labour Party 62

·        National Party 47

·        Green Party 7

·        ACT Party 4 (if its leader David Seymour were to win Epsom)

·        NZ First 0 (unless Shane Jones were to win Northland)

So, who is Todd Muller - and can he turn around National Party’s fortunes, or will Jacinda Ardern make the race again?

Todd Muller’s official biography shows corporate experience in the agricultural sector. His maiden speech reveals the reason for his turn to politics. In 2014, the new opposition leader said that his election to parliament was the “realisation of a childhood dream, …”, and that his “ passion for the public service since childhood stemmed from two great influences”. One of them, he says, was the World Book Encyclopedia, bought by his parents in 1978. He had “devoured those books, in particular the sections on American Presidents. It fired my imagination to such an extent that I saw myself as a future United States President, constitutional challenges notwithstanding. I even wrote a book as a 10-year-old that saw me elected Vice-President of the United States as a very young man in my 20s, becoming President upon the very unfortunate death of the then President, and then going on to serve 13 consecutive terms until, I think, I died of old age.” His fascination with American politics seems to have continued to date. Todd Muller reportedly travelled to the US in 2016 to observe President Trump’s election campaign. From this trip, he brought back a “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) hat, which he prominently displayed in his parliamentary office until recently. Prior to his election as party leader, the New Zealand Herald wrote about Todd Muller that he “might be a name the majority of Kiwis haven't heard of” but that he “played his part in what would go down as one of New Zealand politics' most viral moments in the social media age”. In November 2019, the then spokesperson for climate change, who lobbied for his party to support the Government’s Zero Carbon Bill, reportedly interrupted a fellow MP. Addressing the Bill, the MP said that she would be 56 years old in 2050, yet the members of the 52nd Parliament would be 49 years old on average. When heckled by Muller, she replied by saying “OK boomer" before continuing. A "boomer", we are told, would be shorthand for “baby boomer” - a person born between 1946 and 1964. And, as Todd Muller was 52, he was a member of Generation X and the reference misdirected.

Baby boomer or not – Todd Muller will have to do more than his predecessor to win the next election. When asked in an interview how he planned to convince swing voters of supporting his party, Muller reportedly replied that the context would change and bring them back. While he understood that the Government had “credit for their [coronavirus] response…”, he said that the country was faced with "the greatest economic challenge of a generation" and that the National Party had the “team … to provide a pathway … out of the situation”. As The Guardian explains, many commentators recognise that the National Party has “reach” under the new leadership. While Todd Muller represented the rural, conservative, traditional side of the National Party and lacked ministerial experience, his deputy appealed to the urban liberal green-leaning National voter and offset his lack of ministerial experience. Meanwhile, National’s Paula Bennett announced that she would not be part of his team after the election. The former deputy party leader was valued for adding breath to the Caucus, and regarded as someone who people could look to, even though they did not traditionally look to National. Three days after her announcement, Todd Muller reshuffled his backbench, leaving the frontbench (the first 12 ranks) unchanged. His predecessor, Simon Bridges, is now in charge of foreign affairs (previously held by Gerry Brownlee). Nikki Kaye took on women, and Amy Adams the drug reform portfolio (important with a view to the upcoming cannabis referendum), from Paula Bennett.

In 2019, the National Party was able to raise more than NZD 1,2 million in donations – much more than the Labour Party with just under NZD 784,000. It will be interesting to see if the two major parties will be able to collect these amounts again in 2020 – and from what sources.


Weekly Snapshot

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Eva Wagner

Neues Portrait

Programmkoordinatorin Rechtsstaatlichkeit, Energie- und Entwicklungspolitik

eva.wagner@kas.de +61 2 6154 9323