Who should I vote for in 2020?

In 2014, I started a personal tradition of writing a bit about my thoughts on my party vote shortly before the election (2014, 2017). This year, I started three months early by explaining a shift in my meta-thinking. I had come to the conclusion that, contrary to conventional wisdom, policy is a poor way to decide who I should vote for. The quality of the people in office, I argued, is the important question. At the same time, I worried that this new paradigm might not actually make my life any easier.

The good news is that it has indeed made my voting decision less stressful. The difficulty of voting “on policy”, which I alluded to at the time but didn’t fully appreciate, is that it requires me to have opinions on everything. Being able to hear policy announcements and not feel like I have to love or hate them has been, frankly, liberating. To vote on people, I still need a conception of what personal qualities I want in MPs, but the answer there is a lot more intuitive, at least to me. (I explained it in the second-to-last section here.)

On the other hand, picking a party based on its people raises questions about how to make the assessment. On whom within each party am I focusing? The marginal list MP based on current polling? Their leader? Do I assess big and small parties in the same way, or do I vary what I’m looking for according to the role that I expect them to fulfil in Parliament? These are all questions to which I’ve yet to find an answer, and this will show below.

By the way, if you’ve already voted, great! And if you haven’t, get to a voting place before 7pm on Saturday. Voting is open now, and you can find your nearest voting place at vote.nz. If you’re overseas, you can vote online. Remember, the only wasted vote is the one you didn’t cast.

Labour

The Labour Party is a team of one, and it’s very clear that they know this. Even my old friend running in Manurewa, who I assure you is very capable and not a party hack, hasn’t really done anything other than harp on about Jacinda Ardern. That woman is a formidable asset, no doubt. I see her in the managerial mould of Helen Clark and John Key. Clear communication is a crucial quality in a prime minister, so I don’t understand why some use “communicator” to describe her pejoratively. But Cabinet is meant to have twenty or so people, and there aren’t even enough reliable hands in Labour to fill the major ministerial posts, much less the rest of a frontbench. Even Mr Key’s government wasn’t as concentrated in its leader as Ms Ardern’s is now.

Indeed, Labour’s policy failures this term have been unusually catastrophic and mostly preventable. It’s fine for a large ambitious policy like KiwiBuild to have a slow start, but this one didn’t have a start at all. Light rail wasn’t just a coalition casualty; it first languished in ministerial indecision for years. This is all forgivable if ministers show that they’re always learning, gaining experience and adjusting plans on the go. But Phil Twyford was frustratingly tight-lipped on both until the day he resigned. He’s since been promoted to fourth on Labour’s list — which isn’t by itself bad, but what does it say about the depth of Labour’s caucus?

Labour is riding high in the polls because of Ms Ardern’s personal popularity. This I can understand. Ms Ardern has been a capable captain through national crises and I’m grateful for her leadership. But we’re electing a Parliament, not a prime minister, and it’s hard to justify voting for more MPs from a party that really only has one, or at a stretch maybe up to five, in their caucus.

National

With Judith Collins at the helm, this was always going to be a hard sell for me. I still haven’t forgotten about how she ditched the 2012 MMP review, citing a “lack of consensus among parties” when it was her own party that objected to the changes recommended by the nonpartisan commission’s review, which her predecessor in her own party initiated. Today, as leader of the opposition, her instinct seems to be to flex or to fight, without regard to civil courtesy or collateral damage along the way. She talks more about being a “fighter” than about working to win the minds of her constituents. Wanting to effectively lock thousands of our own out of the country is defensible, but announcing so with the callousness with which she declared that Kiwis who happen to be in places where they can’t access a test “can’t come back” is not.

Now, politics is a game, and there’s nothing wrong as seeing it as one. But there’s everything wrong with seeing it as only a game, and that is the impression that Ms Collins leaves on me.

National is just not their leader, of course. I’m still satisfied that, for example, Shane Reti would make a fine health minister if left to his own devices. But his considered judgement would be tempered by his leader’s impulses, as would the rest of his colleagues’. To the extent that my party vote supports a team, this is a team that will continue to degrade New Zealand politics until either they replace their leader, or their leader replaces her attitude.

(A quick note on their tech policy: Despite laudable goals, it’s broadly useless. But National’s sin is not being clueless about the tech sector — every political party is. It’s being the party stupid enough to pretend otherwise. Given that the alternative is not even having a conversation, this isn’t really an offence.)

I’ve been fairly scathing about the major parties, so it’s worth zooming out a bit. For the last three years, my summary of New Zealand politics has been, “Labour has an excellent leader but an empty frontbench; National has a decent frontbench but can’t seem to find a leader.” There’ve been some snippets of hope against that, but not enough to make a meaningful dent.

But there’s more weighing on my mind. On current polling, Parliament is set to go down to four parties after the election, the fewest since we adopted MMP in 1996. If you asked the eighteen-year-old me, I might’ve said good riddance. But minor parties have made useful contributions to policy conversations, and each time we’ve lost one, our discourse has gotten a little poorer. I was no Māori Party supporter, but I respected them and I was sad to see them go.

(The 5% threshold continues to be the ugliest part of New Zealand’s democracy. I argued in my submission to the 2012 MMP review that it should be abolished, and I still stand by that position.)

As we turn to the minor parties, then, my question is: What contributions do I see them making in the next Parliament? Remember, in my new framework for voting, I don’t have to agree with them, I just have to think they’ll be valuable players.

Greens

This was the Greens’ first term in government, and despite their roots, I’m satisfied that they’ve shown themselves to be credible partners in government. Moreover, their commitment to their values currently seems more earnest and pragmatic than opportunistic. James Shaw deserves credit for shepherding the Zero Carbon Act through Parliament, including making concessions to gain National’s support. I consider environmental policy to be highly technical, so I’m not inclined to inspect the details, but that commitment to working across the aisle is commendable. A good number of their MPs, including Chlöe Swarbrick and Golriz Ghahraman, are making articulate contributions to public discourse, helping the party punch well above their parliamentary weight. Do I agree with them? Sometimes. But they’re adding meaningful ideas, which is what matters.

I should say, this is an about-turn on my views of them from 2014 to just before the 2017 election, when then-co-leader Metiria Turei resigned. With Marama Davidson in her place, I think they’ve been doing a bit better. If in the last poll before election day they’re polling too close to the threshold, I’ll probably put my vote towards saving them from dying.

(The Green School thing, while bad, is not a disqualifying offence.)

Act

If the Greens have been punching above their weight, Act has been off the scale. David Seymour, its sole MP, has been excellent at capitalising on opportunities to present himself and his belief system as being obviously sensible. Is he right? Sometimes — I’d say more often than he should be, given his political philosophy. What I take from this is that he’s very good at picking his battles, which is a worthy quality in a minor party leader.

Moreover, while the End of Life Choice Act is a conscience issue, it’s admirable what Mr Seymour did to get it over the line. Whether or not I support it — at the time, I didn’t have opinions on it — it’s the same show of earnestness that Mr Shaw showed with the Zero Carbon Act. Mr Seymour alone is correct that, on epidemic management, New Zealand should be benchmarking itself against Taiwan, not America. (Shockingly few people know that Taiwan has had one-third the COVID-19 cases New Zealand has had, and never did a full lockdown.) And where he takes principled stands, even (especially) where I disagree, he’s articulate enough that I have to at least pause and think.

I think Mr Seymour deserves to be rewarded with some new colleagues. On current polling, that seems set to happen comfortably. In fact, possibly a bit much. I worry about how he’ll go with mentoring so many new MPs at once! I’ve love to see their number two in Parliament, but a ten-strong ACT caucus makes me balk before they’ve proven themselves with, say, four to six.

The Opportunities Party

Part of TOP’s sales pitch is that their policy is “evidence-based”, which you would assume would appeal to someone like me. But their manifesto is surprisingly scant on evidence. Their flagship policy, a universal basic income, makes no mention of it. After all, there’s no concrete evidence on a UBI — no jurisdiction has tried it! There are decent arguments for it and it’s probably worth a go, but calling it “evidence-based” would be a stretch.

The better case for TOP, and the case towards which they’ve pivoted for the campaign, is that they’re willing to take bold steps to tackle long-standing problems that the major parties have been too feeble to undertake. This description would also more closely align with their policies, which contain mostly transformative ideas rather than deeply studied ones. Vision, I hasten to add, is an equally admirable thing. Sexy as it sounds, evidence doesn’t hold all the answers. It’s just worth being clear about precisely what TOP brings to the table.

TOP’s leader, Geoff Simmons, demonstrates a command of public speaking on policy to rival the best performers in the Greens and Act. (Communication is important — if your role in Parliament is to inject ideas into the discussion, you need to do so in a way that doesn’t make them sound stupid.) Since they lack media oxygen, information on his colleagues is hard to come by without proactive research. My rough impressions are that they’re a very mixed bag. I’ll probably spend more time trawling through old videos in the next three days to get a better assessment.

It’s worth commenting on a couple of meta-questions specific to TOP. The first is the idea of a “wasted vote”. I don’t really buy into the concept. Tactical voting is a perfectly sensible thing to do — I’ve referenced current polling as a factor several times already — but I also don’t see it as the goal of my vote to be “represented” in Parliament. Constitutional law blogger Graeme Edgeler had more thoughts on this and similar topics.

The second is: Do I apply to same bar to TOP that I do to their incumbent rivals? Its candidates would doubtless chorus “yes”, believing they can meet it, but I think the answer is more subtle. Being a party outside Parliament is hard — no new party, other than splinters, has entered Parliament since the start of MMP in 1996. Plenty have died off, a trend that concerns me. So as new entrants, it’s their potential I’m looking for, rather than their track record.

Māori Party

They’ve explicitly said they’re not after the party vote, and I’m not on the Māori roll, so they’re not on the cards.

New Zealand First

lol no

Advance New Zealand

are you kidding?

With three days to go, it’d be fair to say I’m less frustrated than I have been in previous elections. It’s hard to say exactly why, but I think my decision to throw whether I agree with policies out the window has played a part. It seems like there’s some inverse correlation between the politicians I admire and how much my political values align with them, so dropping the latter consideration removed a painful trade-off. It narrows it down to three minor parties, one of which on current polling is comfortably ahead of where I think they need to be. And I have a somewhat clear, albeit not exhaustive, decision rule for the last two.

Go forth and vote.

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