And so after ten stop-start weeks of campaigning under the shadow of Covid-19 the country heads tomorrow to one of the most predictable election days since 1990.
Because there have been so many early votes — by Wednesday night nearly 1.6 million people had already voted — Jacinda Ardern will likely know she has been popularly elected Prime Minister by 8.00 p.m tomorrow night.
Two polls yesterday (Roy Morgan and One News Colmar Brunton) confirmed that Labour is sitting on between 46 and 47.5 per cent against National on between 28.5 and 31 per cent.
Because there is likely to be at least five per cent of the vote going to small parties who do not meet the threshold Labour will need to get around 47.5 per cent be able to govern alone; any lower and it will require the Greens.
Labour sources last night seemed confident they could achieve this.
But last night in the last TV debate of the campaign, it was Labour’s potential relationship with the Greens that produced one of the few fiery exchanges between Ardern and her main opponent, National leader, Judith Collins.
Perhaps because of the Covid restrictions, perhaps because of the shortcomings of the other TV debates, the two leaders, though they have argued with each other, have not really directly clashed over policy this campaign.
But last night they did..
It began with a question to Ardern asking if she would implement the Greens call for a wealth tax.
“No,” said Ardern.
“I’ve made my view absolutely clear that New Zealanders deserve certainty on something as important as tax policy.”
Asked if she believed her, National Leader Judith Collins, as she has been doing since the weekend said: “I believe that she will, in fact, implement it if she gets the chance.”
A fired-up Ardern said this was a desperate political strategy to try and get votes and it was wrong.
“This is a blatant campaign of misinformation that I’m putting an end to,” she said.
“I’ve made my views absolutely clear, and my intention absolutely clear.”
COLLINS: ”You can’t afford to say that when you know that the Greens and their welfare policy that they want to put in will add another 12 billion dollars a year to the welfare budget. How can you possibly afford that and give them what they want?”
ARDERN: “ACT want to freeze the minimum wage for three years. ACT wants a flat tax rate. Will National implement that?”
Collins continued to insist that Labour had broken many of the promises it has made during the last election campaign.
The pair continued to talk over each other with Ardern appearing to get increasingly more angry.
“Politics, of course, is a place where you will have a lot of back and forth,” she said.
“But I would never stand here and blatantly call someone a liar.
“And that is, unfortunately, is what Judith Collins is doing now.”
POLITIK understands that Collins’ campaign with its insistence that Labour will introduce a wealth tax when Ardern is equally insistent that it won’t is being questioned within the National caucus.
Perhaps mindful of that, TVNZ Political Editor, Jessica Mutch-McKay asked Collins if she lost the election on Saturday why she should stay on as National leader.
“Because I’m doing a very good job,” she said.
“Nobody can say that I’m not putting everything into it.
“And I think that we need very strong leadership and we need someone who can make decisions.
“And I’m that person with the experience to do it.”
Asked the same question, Jacinda Ardern simply said no.
Later she was asked at the post-debate media conference why she would do this.
“I’ve been in politics long enough to know that if you don’t successfully lead your party to an election victory then it’s time to move on and that is what I would do,” she said.
“And it’s certainly been my experience in politics.”
Maybe, but her party has a long record of allowing losing leaders to stay on. Since the first Labour Government lost power in 1949, Labour leader Walter Nash lost three elections; Norman Kirk lost one before he became Prime Minister; Bill Rowling lost three; Mike Moore lost two, and Helen Clark lost one before she became Prime Minister.
In contrast, the National caucus has been much more brutal. Only Keith Holyoake and Jim Bolger survived an election loss over the same period to go on to lead the party into another election.
However on Saturday night the spotlight is likely to fall not so much on the two main parties as the small parties and also some key electorate seats.
National’s pollster, David Farrar, was last night forecasting the party could lose Hutt South (Chris Bishop); Wairarapa (Mike Butterick); Maungakiekie (Denise Lee); East Coast (Tania Tapsell) and Auckland Central (Emma Mellow).
There are also questions about Nelson (Nick Smith) and Whanganui (Harete Hipango).
If they lose their electorates, Bishop, Smith and Hipango would be likely to make it back on the list.
But there are other electorates National is worried about, and Labour is obviously hopeful about. Both Hamilton seats are in doubt hence the reason both leaders visited the city this week.
Whatever, the National caucus is likely to be much smaller with between 38 and 40 MPs according to yesterday’s polls. That’s a reduction of between 14 and 16 on current numbers. Labour will be much bigger; probably 60 MPs.
The other big interest point on Saturday will be the small parties, particularly NZ First.
The Morgan poll had it at 2.5 per cent while One News Colmar Brunton had it at three per cent. Though those figures look bad for NZ First, and some of its MPs are resigned to a loss, there may be hope.
Both polls last election under-reported the NZ First vote. Colmar Brunton reported them at 4.9 per cent four days before the election, and they got 7.2 per cent of the vote. Roy Morgan had them at six per cent a fortnight before the election.
On the party vote, Ardern was keeping all her options open.
“I’ve shown that I can work both with New Zealand First and the Greens,” she said.
“I will make whatever option NZ voters deliver work.
“What I am very clear on, though, is that we will get things done faster with a strong mandate.
“And that’s what I’m asking for Labour.”
Collins, on the other hand, choosing words carefully, said the National caucus had decided not to work with NZ First.
Collins also indicated that she was not overly keen on the electorate deal that National has done in Epsom to allow ACT leader, David Seymour, to take the seat.
At her post-debate press conference, she explained why she had been unable to dop anything about it and alluded to what has been her central problem this campaign.
“I think you’ll realise that it’s important that when I took over, I took over partway through what was actually happening,” she said.
That also meant that Collins inherited a party slogan, “Strong team; more jobs; better economy” that began to unravel as the campaign wore on. Clearly, with three leaders in two months, the strong leadership claim looked ridiculous and when Finance spokesperson, Paul Goldsmith, made a $4.9 billion miscalculation in the party’s fiscal projections the “better economy” claim was also unsustainable.
Collins was thus left to make up policy as she went along.
What was never quite clear was what her over-riding goal was.
She finally spelled it out last night at her press conference.
“I want us to be one of the richest countries in the world,” she said.
“I want us to be that Switzerland of the Pacific.
“But I also want us to be better than that.
“I want us to be a country where every kid gets the chance that they don’t get at the moment and I also want every parent to think well of their child and to think that their children can achieve better than they can.”
She will not be Prime Minister on Monday, and though there have been times on this campaign when she has allowed herself to revert to her “crusher” persona, she will now have her chance to stamp her personality on her party to begin the process of redefining it for the 21st century.
For Jacinda Ardern, tomorrow will be a vindication. Up till now her critics have been able to say she only became Prime Minister in 2017 because Winston Peters gave her the numbers to win a majority in Parliament.
But tomorrow she goes into election day with the highest preferred Prime Minister rating for an incumbent PM going into an election since TVNZ’s polling began in 1984. And she goes in with a high chance that her Labour Party will not need any support party to hold a majority in Parliament. Regardless, Labour will be the highest polling party.
From tomorrow night, she is likely to lead what will truly be the Ardern government.