At the 2023 election New Zealand will face the starkest choice between left and right in decades – The Guardian

It is almost certain that a minor party from either the left or right will decide who forms Aotearoa’s next government – and they will want their voice heard
Since tossing out the first past the post electoral system in the mid-1990s, New Zealand governments have had a centrist streak.
There have been turns of the dial one way or another, but these were generally reined in by centrist parties that were essential to forming government – usually NZ First or United Future.
At times these centrist parties have not been essential – Helen Clark and John Key held enough seats in their first terms to govern without them, and Jacinda Ardern won enough seats in 2020 to govern without anyone else. But these three prime ministers themselves are fairly centrist figures, and crucially, no one on their left or right had the power to force Key or Ardern into unpopular positions.
This all looks set to change at the 2023 election, unless current polling changes dramatically.
Realistically two governments are on the cards: a rightwing coalition between the centre-right National party and the further right Act party, or a leftwing coalition between centre-left Labour and the further left Green party, with a very leftwing Māori party possibly in the tent.
Neither of these options represent the politics of the past. While Act held some small roles in the last National government, the party never had the power to actually call the shots with Key – as he could always turn to United Future and a (very different) Māori party for votes.
If National wins in 2023, leader Christopher Luxon looks set to have far less power than Key, as Act have retained a steady support base of about 10% and none of the other parties will help him form government. Act will be keen to make Luxon prime minister – but also to shape his agenda.
The Act leader, David Seymour, will want to be in cabinet and have input into fiscal policy. While National and Act agree on much, Seymour will want to push further right faster than Luxon, and there are areas of passionate disagreement where Act will probably look for concessions.
These disagreements are often in areas where National and Labour concur, leaving political space for Act to pounce on.
Act gained a lot support by opposing the ban of military-style semi-automatic weapons after the 2019 Christchurch terror attack. That new base will want to see some movement. It also opposed the National-Labour housing accord that allows the construction of three-storey housing in most New Zealand’s cities without laborious consultation. This is a deeply contradictory position for a supposedly libertarian party, but Seymour will have gained some solid nimby votes, and National have been feeling the pressure on it.
Act has also leaned into the culture wars more broadly, demanding a referendum on co-governance between government and iwi, which has been built into treaty settlements for years. National is unlikely to grant such a vote – but Seymour will look for other ways to signal to very conservative voters that something is being “done”.
Seymour has other big ideas – from a top tax rate of just 28% (it is 39% right now) through to “income management” for sole parents and jobseekers. Not all of these ideas would get a look in during negotiations, but some would – and they would take New Zealand quite a lot to the right of where it got to under Key.
What about the other side?
The Greens had the power to bring down Labour governments in 1999 and 2017, but both times opted to be constructive partners. It’s worth noting both of these points were at the ends of long periods of opposition for the left.
This won’t be the case should Ardern scratch out a win in 2023 that is entirely reliant on the Greens support. Like Act, the party is polling not far from 10%, and its base is extremely tired of a government that it sees as needlessly in thrall to the political centre.
It would also be a third term, with a fourth extremely unlikely – meaning the Greens and many in Labour will want to make big bold policy changes.
The Greens’ demands will centre on climate change, drug law reform, and spending policy.
The party will want farmers to pay far more for their emissions and go a lot further on the wider decarbonisation of the economy. The party’s policy isto replace the emissions trading scheme with a carbon tax, but even if it doesn’t go that far they will want a higher price for carbon and perhaps chunkier policies like carbon tariffs.
But the radical push will come in social and economic policy. The Greens are still reeling from the loss of the referendum on personal cannabis use in 2020, and don’t see the slim win of the no vote as ending the debate at all. A push to decriminalise not just cannabis but all illicit drugs is likely.
On economic policy the party pushed for a guaranteed minimum income funded by a wealth tax at the last election. It is as unlikely to get this as Seymour is to get his 28% top tax rate, but both will be pushing hard.
Having said that, both the Greens and Act are limited by their position on the political spectrum. Since a National-Greens or Labour-Act government is plainly ludicrous, Ardern or Luxon would be able to stand up to their “junior coalition partner” quite a bit. But there are many ways to make life hell for a government without actually leaving it, so either potential PM will need to work hard to keep these parties onside.
That, or New Zealanders scared of a government dominated by either the right or left will flock to a centrist party. Winston Peters hasn’t given up yet.
Henry Cooke is former chief political reporter for New Zealand news organisation Stuff
This story was updated on 18 November 2022 to correct New Zealand’s top tax rate and clarify that the Green party proposed a policy of guaranteed minimum income, rather than universal basic income.


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