NZ First Leader Winston Peters yesterday threw down what could end up being a constitutional challenge to the legitimacy of the Prime Minister.
Peters has made public a letter saying he wants the Prime Minister to advise the Governor-General to delay the September 19 election to November 21 because of the restrictions that the current Covid-19 lockdown is placing on election campaigning.
The Prime Minister, in turn, is maintaining her intention to make an announcement tomorrow morning on whether there should be a delay.
That announcement will be accompanied by a request from Jacinda Ardern for Dame Patsy Reddy to dissolve Parliament.
If the Prime Minister refuses a delay, then NZ First could advise the Governor-General that she no longer enjoys their confidence and should not, therefore, dissolve Parliament.
It’s possible to see the publication late yesterday of the NZ First letter as a not-too-subtle warning to the Prime Minister that this is what New Zealand First is planning.
This is a game of political poker, and the Prime Minister is not without cards.
She could call NZ First’s bluff and gamble that National might not support a vote of no confidence.
It is widely believed that both National and Labour’s polling shows that the public did not appreciate National’s attempts last week to challenge the Government over its management of the latest Covid-19 outbreak.
Removing the highly-popular Jacinda Ardern from office on the brink of an election campaign because of a political manoeuvre masterminded by Winston Peters might risk a further plunge in polling.
NZ First’s argument against a September 19 election date is founded on the belief that it makes ordinary election campaigning impossible.
“Community transmission in Auckland has already massively disrupted electioneering, with all political parties suspending their campaigns,” the letter says.
“Given the uncertainty around when Auckland will be able to move to alert level 2 – at the earliest a decision will be made on Friday, August 21 or, alternatively, Wednesday, August 26 – the ability for parties to campaign for a September 19 election is already fatally compromised.
“The concept of holding a ‘free and fair’ election is directly related to the public’s perceptions of political legitimacy, legitimacy of the outcome, as well as trust and confidence in the integrity of the General Election, the campaigns that precede it, as well as deliverability.”
In a press statement yesterday afternoon accompanying the release of the letter, Peters said that in 1984, when Sir Robert Muldoon called a snap election, parties still had 29 days to campaign. In 2002, when Helen Clark went to the polls early, parties had 44 days.
“If September 19 is confirmed political parties will have only six days to campaign before overseas voting begins on September 2 and nine days before advance voting begins,” Peters said.
“Special voting was extremely rare in those two earlier elections (with 90 per cent of votes cast on Election Day in 2002), with voters having to qualify for a special vote.
“There is no comparison between special voting then as opposed to now, where it is a commonplace alternative to voting on Election Day.
“Indeed, only 44 per cent of votes at the 2017 General Election were cast on Election Day.”
Peters concludes his letter to Ardern by saying that if September 19 is “preferred by you, we will make our position, when we ceased campaigning on August 12 and then expressed again on August 13, known publicly, for transparent constitutional reasons, as we cannot agree with any decision that undercuts political legitimacy and undermines New Zealand’s ability to hold a free and fair election.”
And then: “We would appreciate a prompt response to allow me to talk to my colleagues before a final decision is made.”
The letter does not say what the final decision will be about.
But the press statement ends: “We are releasing our letter of August 14 for the sake of transparency, and because we be Governor-General General of New Zealand needs to know that the majority in the House of Representatives favours an election delay.”
Given that the Governor-General has no discretion but to accept the advice of the Prime Minister on when the election date should be, the suggestion that Peters would want to talk to his colleagues if Ardern does not recommend a delay and then the statement that the Governor-General needs to know that a majority in Parliament is opposed, are heavy hints that New Zealand First is considering withdrawing confidence from the coalition Government.
The Greens last night indicated they would stick with whatever Ardern decides.
“We’ve said that it should only move on the advice of the electoral commission otherwise, it’s sort of seen as political,” Greens co-leader, James Shaw, told POLITIK last night.
“People are clearly playing for time and advantage.
“I think there are two problems with delaying it.
“One of which is that it’s clearly in some party’s best interests to call for delay.
“And secondly, if you were to move it to say, November, 21, there’s no guarantee there won’t be another outbreak three weeks before that, so then what do you do?
“Delay it again.”
National was saying nothing. They clearly don’t want to be part of an initiative led by Peters even though they have been strongly arguing for a delay.
The Prime Minister is also keeping a low profile ahead of her promised 10.00 a.m. announcement of her decision.
She has cancelled her usual Monday radio and TV slots and will be replaced by Chris Hipkins and Grant Robertson.
Even a statement from her office last night could be sourced only to a spokesperson.
It said:” “The Prime Minister has proactively sought the views of the leaders of every political party represented in Parliament this afternoon about the election date. A range of views has been expressed that the Prime Minister has taken on board.
“The Prime Minister will provide an update tomorrow morning once she has also reviewed the most up to date health information on the situation in Auckland.”
If Peters does move to withdraw confidence, he will rely on principles established in 1995 by then-Governor General Sir Michael Hardie-Boys.
“Once political parties have reached an adequate accommodation, and a government is able to be formed or confirmed, the parties could be expected to make that clear by appropriate public announcements of their intentions,” he said.
In other words, the Governor-General does not in the first instance require a vote in Parliament to determine whether the Government has the confidence of the House; statements of support — or opposition — from all the party leaders will be sufficient.
That means all Peters has to do to bring down the Government, is issue a press statement.
Whether he does will depend on what date the Prime Minister names as election day and whether Peters can get the support of National and ACT.
Today is going to be fascinating.