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From Chris to Christopher – Aotearoa New Zealand gets a new Prime Minister

17 October 2023

News and media


Image of Parliament House in Aotearoa New Zealand

ANZSOG Practice Fellow, Sally Washington, reports on the results and implications of Aotearoa’s October 14 general election

Saturday night delivered a change of government in Aotearoa. It reversed the ‘red wave’ of the 2020 election where the Labour party won an absolute majority and were able to govern without a coalition partner – unprecedented under the Mixed Member Proportional electoral system. As outgoing Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said in his concession speech “When the tide comes in big, it goes out big”. The National party’s win on the weekend was referred to by one commentator as a “bluenami”. National’s 50 seats when combined with ACT’s 11 seats gives the centre-right a slim majority. But whether they need to bring Winston Peter’s New Zealand First party into the tent depends on ‘special votes’ (overseas voters, and those who voted outside their electorate), over 500,000 of them and about 20% of voters. So, the results won’t be finalised until after 3 November when those votes have been counted. In the meantime, there is a caretaker government.

What happened and where?

National capitalised on the desire for change, asking voters if they felt better off than six years ago. While global events like Covid and inflation trends are beyond the control of a small dependent economy at the bottom of the world, the “Let’s get New Zealand Back on Track” message resonated. Changing leaders, losing a bunch of ministers through various scandals, and a range of challenges like severe weather events probably didn’t help Labour argue they were a safe pair of hands of “In it for you”.

Labour lost big in Auckland in previously safe red seats. Word on the street is that this was payback for Auckland’s extended Covid lockdowns. Even former Prime Minister Dame Jacinda Ardern’s seat, which she won by 20,000 votes in 2020, hangs on a knife-edge. Auckland central remained Green and two of Wellington’s typically safe red seats flipped to Greens, keeping the mayor Tory Whanau, from the Green Party company in the capital.

More concerning for Labour is that they also lost Māori seats – the country is split into general electorates and seven Māori electorates; Māori can choose to be on either roll. These are traditionally Labour seats. But Te Pati Māori (the Māori party) who took one seat last election and brought two MPs into Parliament in 2020, won four of the seven seats this time, including that of current Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta, who was ousted from her seat and 27-year parliamentary career by 21-year-old Hana-Rawiti Maipi-Clarke. Takuta Ferris won the Maori seat that covers the whole South Island, beating Labour’s Rino Tirikatene whose extended family has held the seat for many decades. Ferris performed well in the Kaupapa Māori (Māori issues) debate and targeted young voters; Maori are 17% of the population with a median age of around 26 compared with 39 in the general population. Labour’s Māori caucus is depleted but Māori voices will still be heard in Parliament.

Key personalities – Chris versus Chris

Chris must have been a popular name in the day and there were plenty in this race, including the leaders of the two main parties Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, and now Prime Minister elect Christopher Luxon. The election was dubbed “Battle of the Chrises”. Luxon (who prefers to be called Christopher) is former CEO of Air New Zealand and comes from a corporate executive career. Mentored by former Prime Minister Sir John Key, he has had a meteoric rise from first time MP in the 2020 election, to incoming Prime Minister. Quite a feat. He will have his work cut out for him with scant ministerial experience in his front bench and having to work in a coalition with more right-leaning ACT (whose leader David Seymour is politically savvy) and potentially so-called Kingmaker 78-year-old Winston Peters who famously chose Labour over National to bring Jacinda Ardern to power in 2017. Mr Peters and New Zealand First’s election slogan was “Take our country back” – it’s unclear from whom (especially given he was Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister just three years ago), but as he said while perched on a horse looking like the kiwi Marlboro Man – “this isn’t my first rodeo”. Luxon’s taunt that Labour, the Greens and Te Pati Māori as a left block would be a “coalition of chaos” boomeranged back on him as it looked increasingly likely he would have a 3-way relationship to manage.

And what about policy – hard come, easy go?

In an insightful article, London based kiwi journalist Henry Cooke wrote about what will happen to Labour’s legacy, noting that the previous Key government didn’t do a massive cull of Helen Clarke’s policies, but that Luxon likely would reverse a good deal of the Ardern/Hipkins policies. That includes getting rid of the Māori Health Authority, reversing the controversial water reforms, and returning to indexing benefits to inflation rather than wage growth (meaning a reduction of $2billion dollars to beneficiaries). ACT wants a referendum on the Treaty of Waitangi but National has said that’s not on the agenda. New Zealand First also thinks the Treaty is referenced too much and compares ‘garden variety’ Māori to Māori elites; Winston Peters himself and his Deputy Shane Jones are both Māori.

Arguments about whose fiscal hole was bigger was a constant throughout the campaign. To pay for promised tax cuts, National is banking on revenue from a foreign home buyer’s tax by opening up high-end property to international buyers. If New Zealand First is in the mix they would likely oppose that. Labour’s promise to take GST off fruit and vegetables was derided by National as saving you a few cents on ‘your carrots and bananas’. This was criticised by economists as being administratively difficult and a blow to Aotearoa’s simple ‘GST on everything’ system. Economists in general said both parties’ fiscal plans were inflationary.

The public service is in for a hiding.

Claims of cutting the ‘bloated bureaucracy’ and ‘wasteful spending’ were a feature in election rhetoric. Government departments have already been asked by the outgoing government to find 1 to 2 percent savings on baselines. The incoming National government will ask them to add an extra 6.5% savings on top of that. ACT has called for a cut of 15,000 public service jobs; leader David Seymour said he dreamed of sending Guy Fawkes in to deal to the Ministry of Pacific Peoples. He said he was ‘joking’. But is the bureaucracy bloated? As a percentage of GDP ‘government production costs’ are 24% in Aotearoa which is about the same as in Australia and a whisker above the OECD average of 23%. In any case, the public service is likely to be trimmed.

Fun facts – interesting electoral tidbits

Voter turnout was down – 78.4% of enrolled voters voted compared with 82% in 2020. Low turnout is usually worse for left-leaning parties.

Overhangs and deaths – the overall makeup of Parliament will be affected by two electoral foibles. Overhangs happen when a party gets more electoral seats than their share of the overall vote would command. Te Pati Māori got four (maybe more) electoral seats but only 2.6% of the vote. The result is extra seats added to Parliament. The result of that is that the winning party and coalition need more seats to command a majority. Overhangs might mean National needs New Zealand First to ensure a majority. An extra seat might also be added because an ACT candidate died during the campaign. That means a by-election on 25 November. The likely National party winner is already in Parliament as a list MP, so he will become an electorate MP and the next person on the National list joins the team heading to Wellington.

Party donations – National Party President Sylvia Wood was asked if having full coffers in election donations had made a difference or was ‘fair’. Newsroom’s Marc Daalder gave regular updates of the numbers. If nothing else, more dosh means more for advertising, better parties, and slicker campaign events.

Aotearoa is unlikely to have a government sworn in until after special votes are counted and we know the full size and composition of Parliament. Labour MPs will be saying goodbye to many caucus colleagues this week while National, ACT, the Greens and Te Pati Māori will be welcoming new ones. Cabinet meets as usual – the country still needs to be run and there are international issues like the Middle East to discuss – but the Prime Minister elect and his team will be increasingly brought into the discussion as Chris progressively hands the reins over to Christopher.