The post-election postmortem

by Jane Clifton / 10 December, 2011
Jane Clifton looks ahead to three more years under National, and where Labour and the minor parties are heading.

It has often been said the biggest loser of this election campaign was the media. Show us a party and we’ll poop it, point us toward a parade and we’re there with the irrigation tanks. But at the risk of further joy-killing, this has to be said: those celebrating the return of the National Government for a second term had better make the most of it, because it’s looking rather unlikely to happen again. John Key will not be able to appropriate Michael Cullen’s famous post-victory battle cry, “We won, you lost, eat that!” “We won, you lost … your turn next time” is more like it.

Because the punchline to this election is that National has probably already lost the 2014 election. Aside from the obvious bummer, that the global economy’s ructions will make this a pig of a term to be in the Beehive, National faces so many unavoidable no-win decisions it beggars belief that it can maintain its current high level of popularity. And unless it can do at least as well again next election – and no government in history ever has – it’ll be a rare two-term administration.

If the advance votes are right, New Zealand will have voted to keep MMP, and MMP will always favour the formation of Labour-led governments because of the way our enduring political parties tend to fillet up. That National, overwhelmingly the most popular party, only just scraped back into office, underlines this tendency. This is not because New Zealanders are more left-leaning than right. By world standards, we have high voter mobility between our two major parties. The left’s edge is down to a confluence of now fairly entrenched tendencies regarding the smaller parties.

The most striking is the propensity of the grumpies, undecideds and elderly to migrate in meaningful numbers, almost overnight – typically to Winston Peters. We smarty-pants commentators and analysts had got into the habit of dismissing the Winston as a spent force, and good for no more than a couple of per cent. But as has happened before, when one of the major parties is looking particularly weak, Winston is a magnet for its disenchanted supporters. He has a genius for making himself seem relevant on the smell of an oily rag. He is also, obviously, a pied piper for the elderly and, handily, this is a growth market.

Quite where these votes will go when Winston has bummed his last smoke from the press gallery is unclear, but unnatural as it is, politics abhors a vacuum. Someone will fill it, because it’s now clear the Winston Effect is an ingrained political habit with us. And springing as his party did from Winston’s personal feud with the National Party, it will always be much more likely to support Labour than National.

The second and probably more important pro-left factor is the Greens. Out of the often bizarre X Factor-like parade of new political parties cooked up in the 90s when MMP was introduced, the Greens are the only genuine survivors, having maintained a 5%-plus bedrock of support, and built on it steadily. And as hardly needs saying, they would rather sauté giant West Coast snails in leaked Rena oil and eat them on GE cornbread than ­support National.

So the left has been far more successful at expanding its potential territory than the right. Actually, let’s be even clearer about this: the right has been certifiably incompetent. So head-bashingly useless, in fact, that it ended up being accidentally saved by its worst enemies. Both John Banks and Peter Dunne should by now have written big smoochy thank-you cards to Winston, because he is the only reason they are in Parliament. Both were on course to lose their seats till the spectre of a rapidly fattening Winston forced National voters in Epsom and Ohariu to hold their noses and vote for the undeserving pair.

Oh, the perversity. It’s almost certain the only reason Winston got over the line was the fallout from the infamous tea party, which only took place in an effort to save Banks’s behind. It’s an ill wind and all that. And the lone vestigial Act and United MPs should send another soppy card to Labour and to the anti-MMP campaign, because had these two not been so inept, Winston wouldn’t have had the base-vote from which to launch his tea party ­insurgency when the opportunity arose.

Labour’s admirably bold announcement that it would raise the age of NZ Super automatically kicked Winston’s vote from moribund to active. (Without adding a skerrick of advantage to Labour, by the way. We commentators gave them big points, but you can’t bank compliments.) Then the anti-MMP crusaders put up those big posters with Winston holding his famous “No” sign. Did voters remember that this was a picture of Winston making a twerp of himself over the Owen Glenn donation? No, apparently quite a few of them thought, “Oh look, there’s Winston saying no to Mr Key!”

So now Labour is left to do the traditional post-election-loss self-disembowelling ritual in Winston’s shadow. Although Labour got 27% of the vote and Winston only 7%, Winston came in on a mighty upswing, and Labour’s caucus has been husked. Guess who’s going to use up the most oxygen in Parliament?

Labour’s leadership race is turning into another X Factor cattle-call, with more than half a dozen hopefuls auditioning. Realistically, whoever gets the nod will only be a caretaker leader until a serious contender emerges more fully developed. Right now, the caucus is only fixated on who of their colleagues most appeals to them. In time, it will occur to them that a better choice might be the person who most appeals to voters.

As has been wittily remarked, it’s a case of too many Davids and not a single Goliath. Although it’s true the biblical David was the winner, as yet none of the three –  Parker, Cunliffe or Shearer – shows signs of having a magic slingshot. If, as appears most likely, David Parker gets the jobit'll be Bill English all over again. Up close, English is an impressive operator, with a flinty Southlandic charm. But none of this comes across in public. He led National with all the public aplomb of an edgy stock and station agent in an itchy suit. The public will struggle to "get" the bland-seeming Parker in exactly the same way.

Unfortunately, they will “get” David Cunliffe only too well if he gets the job. They will see that he is smart, eloquent, competent and confident – and boy, doesn’t he know it. Cunliffe’s ingenuous vanity is almost endearing up close, and would pass unremarked in American or even Australian politics. But in New Zealand, where modesty is viewed as a social responsibility up there with immunisation and lawn mowing, it will be quite a novelty. And not necessarily an asset.

David Shearer has much more potential voter appeal, given both his affable persona and his heroic CV in foreign-conflict resolution and humanitarian aide. But he has hardly set the world on fire in his first term, and will likely struggle to get caucus votes. And he had better hope he doesn’t get the job this time, because history practically mandates that the first couple of post-crisis leaders don’t last. It’s worth remembering how many frogs Labour and National kissed in similar down-cycles before planting a smacker on Prince Charming: Labour two and National three.

Shane Jones, whose work rate would also need to improve before colleagues would invest in him, is another longer-term prospect. Like Shearer, he has cross-party appeal, which is vital for Labour’s future. Neither man is a doctrinaire, hard-left operator, but rather more centrist. Jones’s self-deprecating humour – which coexists remarkably well with his tendency to be pompous – has amazingly hoist him over that infamous hurdle: the Curious Incident of the 50 Grubby Hotel Videos in the Night time.

As Damien O’Connor’s trend-beating victory on the West Coast suggests, it doesn’t hurt to be seen as an overtly red-blooded bloke. On the party’s left, the other longer-term options are Grant Robertson and Andrew Little. Robertson’s political skill and Lange-esque geniality mark him out as a party star whatever role he takes, but he’s not that well known to the wider electorate yet. Little’s experience and profile make him an automatic candidate at some stage – but it wouldn’t be manners for the brand new MP to put himself forward just yet, especially after such a poor showing in New Plymouth.

Ideally, Labour will choose either Parker or Cunliffe, and bring up Shearer, ­Robertson or Jones as deputy, and will staunch the inevitable collateral blood-loss when the best future candidate emerges over time. [Update: There are now two Davids left in the leadership race: Shearer and Cunliffe.]

This is traditionally the time for commentators to say irritatingly hindsighted things about where the parties went wrong and who ran the best campaign. The consensus among most of us backseat drivers was that Labour put up a good fight. However, this know-all is dissenting from the pack on this one. Labour showed punishable ambivalence by openly leaving its leader off its billboards, and off individual MPs’ brochures. That he then performed better than expected in TV debates could hardly be expected to lift Labour’s vote – and obviously didn’t much – because the tacit subtitle running under him was that his own party thought him a liability.

Having put him in that hideous position, the party then didn’t trust him simply to do his best. His performance style changed from one TV debate to another, indicating people were “at” him with new and ever-dafter ideas. Whoever told him to do all that belligerent pointy carry-on, and repeatedly address the PM as “John!”, as if the name was code for “You bastard!”, should be horse-whipped.

Similarly the smirking and laughing he suddenly affected in that last debate. Goff has been given – and in fairness, has accepted – so much poor and contradictory advice since becoming leader that his authentic self is now almost undetectable. Yet most New Zealanders intuit that he is, underneath all the attempted packaging, a thoroughly decent person who, had he enjoyed more support and less faddy, desperate pushmi-pullyu management from his colleagues and staff, would have made a good prime minister.

As for the prime minister we have, we can only wish him luck for all our sakes. His economic and fiscal plans, modest as they are, are heavily conditional on the unpopular plans to float part of several electricity companies – and that might not be feasible given market conditions. So Key is damned either way on that front.

The Maori Party, which appears doomed electorally, will have to play hardball over policy trophies in a bid to survive and to convince the Maori electorate it isn’t cosy with the dreaded Tories, but just exploiting them. Winston will portray this as rampant separatism and Hone will deplore the sell-out to colonialist forces. This is as close as you’ll get to a love triangle in politics.

The continuing management of Canterbury’s restoration will remain problematic, despite the somewhat counter-intuitive swing to National in that traditionally Labour city. Emigration to Australia, Pike River, the national standards – treacherous territory surrounds the Government wherever it treads, not all of its own making, even less within its control.

But perhaps National’s biggest challenge is the management of its biggest asset: Key himself. No one in politics can stay as popular as he has become – not in the mainstream. Winston can ride the waves at the margins, but for Key, it’s all downside potential from here on. Thanks to the tea party fiasco, we finally got a good look at the non-relaxed Key. He didn’t, as reported, “storm off” or get testy, but he did go unmistakably cold behind the eyes, and his body language was unusually tense in the last two weeks of the campaign. It wasn’t a slipped mask. But it was a reminder that sunny political weather doesn’t last, and being liked can only take a leader so far. After the voters’ love affair with Helen Clark wore off, she perfected a handy technique for tricky situations: the death-stare and the injunction that it was “Time to Move On”. It was remarkably effective. Key has as yet no fallback position from his Mr Nice Guy setting.

After a few rounds with Winston, he will probably find one quite quickly.

The shooting gallery

The strop factor has returned. After three years of a kinder, gentler debating chamber, Parliament is about to get seriously noisy again. For many years, the House's daily business operated heavily on what I like to think of as ley lines of testosterone that used to connect various stroppy individuals from each party, putting the action on a hair-trigger setting. If Trevor Mallard was on his feet, you could see Rodney Hide or Ross Meurant straining forward in their seats ready to have a go, too; John Banks couldn't sneeze without automatically activating Richard Prebble and Winston Peters, and so on.

Last term, however, the ley lines went dormant. Rodney was suddenly chin-deep in ministerial responsibilities, and although Trevor and Tau Henare had their moments, the element of danger was greatly reduced. Unexpectedly, Hone Harawira was on his best behaviour in the chamber, and even in his itchiest moments, Trevor couldn't bring himself to respond to Paul Quinn's boorish interjections.

Speaker Lockwood Smith got most of the credit for the new dawn of (mostly) polite parliamentary debate, with question time especially -flowing, without pedantic and rancorous bickering. But then, Smith didn't have to deal with Winston. Even his terrifying predecessor, Margaret Wilson, found it easier to turn a blind eye to Winston's blatant sophistry and subversion of standing orders. He could pick a fight in an empty room, and now, with fellow strop-meisters like his ex-colleagues Tau and John Banks to flick his on-switch, the expression ™Point of order, Mr Speaker∫ will be on high-rotate. (Or, to render it in Winstonian, "Poinavordah, Mspegh!")

Winston's own team has a couple of known excitables: Andrew Williams, the former North Shore mayor and demon midnight texter, and Denis O'Rourke, a feisty local body veteran whose Irish is usually in the "up" position. And they don't come much more Irish than National's Maggie Barry, a gardener and journalist who brings new meaning to the term flower power.

Honourable mention here should also go to David Cunliffe, who – especially with the possibility of elevation to the leadership – can always be relied on to bring a level of melodrama to proceedings. His famous post-2008-Budget speech was like the aria from Pagliacci with special falsetto bits never before attempted. He has expanded his repertoire into populism, as seen in his now-notorious Mana bus speech on the campaign trail, where he lapsed into argot to call the prime minister "the greasy follah in the blue suit!"

To paraphrase Bette Davis, fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy democracy.
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