Jacinda Ardern has vowed to fight on for change in New Zealand government as coalition talks begin between the two major parties and kingmaker New Zealand First’s Winston Peters.
Speaking outside her Auckland home on Sunday, Ardern said she was feeling positive and rested after Saturday’s election stalemate, which saw the ruling National party win 58 seats and Labour 45 – both short of the 61 needed to form a government in the 120-seat parliament.
Peters, an unpredictable populist, was left as the kingmaker after winning nine seats.
Dressed in her now trademark red Ardern looked optimistic as she addressed reporters, telling them she would make her first approach to Peters as soon as she could and would speak on Sunday to James Shaw whose Green party won seven seats.
The Greens support was expected to lie with Labour though Ardern said this wasn’t guaranteed. She had not received any assurances from Shaw that he would not back National – though the two parties’ ideological clashes would make it a highly unusual and fraught partnership.
Ardern was flanked by the most senior members of her team, including finance spokesperson Grant Robertson and deputy Kelvin Davis, who may play a crucial role in talks with Peters. Both come from Northland in the North Island and have a relationship that goes back decades.
Ardern smiled as she explained the next phase of her “let’s do this” campaign, and seemed far from defeated despite the prospect of weeks of an unresolved government ahead of her.
It seems Ardern is following the advice of those who know the veteran Peters well, and giving him the space and respect he needs to consider his options.
“There are conversations to be had over the coming days and I intend to have them. It seems clear to me though, this morning, that Mr Peters in particular wants to take a bit of time. That’s something that I completely understand,” said Ardern.
“The special votes will be incredibly interesting … I don’t want to make too many predictions about what they will produce but I am hopefuly we’ll see a bit of a lift out of them.”
Shortly after Ardern’s press conference Bill English also adressed the media, saying a two-party coalition would be more stable for New Zelanders. Former National prime minister John Key said Saturday’s result was “fantastic”.
“My staff are in touch with Mr Peters staff to arrange a phone call which we expect will happen in the next few days and negotiations will begin from that point,” said English.
“I think it is pretty clear-cut a two-party coalition would be more stable. It would have a narrower range of issues to resolve and you could practically operate government with sensible communication. We will be proceeding with negotiations with NZ First to make sure that would be the case … and our position is almost 1 in 2 New Zealanders have supported National.”
Ardern dodged questions from reporters about “what went wrong” with her campaign, after early optimism failed to translate into more gains.
“The majority of people have voted against the stats quo, it is up to us then to see if we can produce government from that,” said Ardern, refusing to be cowed by lower-than expected votes for Labour after their huge surge in popularity shortly after she took over the leadership on 1 August.
Ardern also said the “flavour” of NZ First’s campaign was “against the status quo”, hinting that Peters and his supporters may also be ready for a change in government after three terms of National.
Up to 15% of the vote has yet to be counted as the special votes roll in from around the country and overseas. Past elections have shown overseas voters in particular tend to favour Labour and the Greens, which could mean a crucial extra one or two seats for Labour, which may help them in their negotiations with the minor parties.
The special votes will be counted in the coming weeks, and it is likely discussion could drag on till 7 October. Ardern said she and Peters needed all the information collated before getting down to the nitty-gritty.
“There are a number of factors that will be in play in these negotiations, including what shared views and common ground we have to work from,” said Ardern, who said Labour and NZ First had similar values regarding education, forestry and a desire to get on top of the housing crisis.
Shaw did not rule out throwing the Greens’ seats behind National, but said it would be “very difficult” as his party had campaigned for a vote for change – meaning Labour at the helm.
Australian Labor leader Bill Shorten sent his congratulations to Ardern on recovering so many votes from the public in such a short space of time.
“I think the dust is still yet to settle and the counting is still yet to be concluded,” he said on Sunday morning. “But it certainly shows that people should never underestimate Labor, and I think New Zealand Labour came from behind to give it a pretty good shake.”
Australian Labor managed a similar feat during the 2016 election, coming within a hair’s breathe of victory after being dismissed by pundits leading into the polls.
Ardern said she had not had a chance to speak to Shorten but expected that she would have a conversation “as soon as we are both able”.
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