This post-election business is anything but usual

by Jane Clifton / 24 September, 2017

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Cartoon by Chris Slane for the NZ Listener.

Cartoon by Chris Slane.

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The electorate has spoken, but with Delphic opacity. The maths come down to two mighty but contradictory forces: moral authority versus a growing momentum for change. National has the biggest vote by a convincing margin. But the deployment of votes overall shows “more of the same” is not the majority choice.

Prime Minister Bill English admitted on the hustings that National would have to do some things differently, given what voters were now telling it. But will it get the chance?

Because to make matters murkier, the naughty election fairies have been messing with Winston Peters again.

Last time the New Zealand First leader was a dead-cert to hold the balance of power, but they snatched his king-maker kit off him at the last moment. National didn’t need him.

This time he’s in the balance-of-power zone, but they’ve nicked off with his Northland electorate and two of his caucus. He’s The Man – but with less of a mandate than he needs to exercise a free choice with comfort.

Were he to do other than strike a deal with National, which on provisional results has been returned with a mere two-seat dent after nine years in power, it would be a bold call.  It would take him into that territory euphemistically described on Yes, Minister as “courageous.”

Even so, for the first time in our 21 year history of MMP, the prospect of the party with the biggest vote not forming the Government does not seem unconscionable. The big story of this election is bigger than National, and much bigger than “whither Winston?” It’s that there was an undeniable and growing appetite for change. So while English is right that National has the moral authority to form the next Government, there is a countervailing moral authority that it cannot do so on the basis of “business as usual.” New Zealand First, notwithstanding its modest nine-seat heft,  has the moral authority either to negotiate some meaningful concessions from National as the price for its indispensable coalition support, or, if unsuccessful, to shop elsewhere.

Were he to choose an alliance with Labour and the Greens, the new Government would still risk being seen as “the coalition of the losers.” But with Labour at nearly 36 per cent, and on a clearly-demonstrated rising tide of voter support, there is a psychological comfort zone for it to lead the new Government – just.  But boy, would voters take some convincing. Labour and Green combined are still shy of National’s vote. 

Table: Electoral Commission

That could change once the special vote is finalised in a fortnight, but any additional margins are unlikely to be telling.

National will rue having lost two of its three allies, the Maori Party having failed to prevail over its Labour opponents, and United Future’s Peter Dunne having conceded even before polling day. But National’s support held up heroically. English campaigned superbly given he was suddenly up against a rare phenomenon in the charisma of Labour’s Jacinda Ardern. Still, for a party that seemed set for a zombie-trudge to inevitable victory, it was given a hell of a fright. 

Internally, National will not be as euphoric as a party might be, having just escaped a drubbing.  It has prevailed not just on the strength of its record, but on a fact-fudging scare campaign against Labour. Its Finance Minister and campaign manager Steven Joyce has emerged triumphant on paper, but in practice, his fabrication of a fiscal hole in Labour’s books has severely weakened his grasp on the finance portfolio. The sniff of defeat has further emboldened younger Nats to talk generational change. English will need to make some urgent promotions, including at the expense of some trusted lieutenants to stave off caucus instability.

It practically goes without saying that Ardern has strengthened her hold on Labour. She was installed as a panic move to stave off annihilation, but few dreamed she could bring Labour this close to the Beehive. That she did so with a nearly-bare policy cupboard, legacy of an ultra-cautious predecessor, makes her success the more remarkable.

However, her tenure is, at this stage, the only sure thing from this election result. Whichever coalition combo forms the Government, there are the seeds of instability. Arguably, the  much-mocked possibility of a NZ First-Green Beehive relationship is not the rockiest prospect. It’s with National, his ex-party, that Peters has the biggest grudge. NZ First was a stable, cooperative support partner both times it was in Government – except when it felt relegated and disrespected as a result of a leadership change from Jim Bolger to Jenny Shipley. 

Peters had the goodwill and respect of Bolger’s Cabinet – which had to eat some humble pie to get him onside - but not Shipley’s. That Peters found intolerable. Going into any prospective relationship with this National team, he knows respect is already lacking. He and English have never liked or even rated one another. It’s not a great basis for trust or functionality.

Bolger is understood to have given English advice along this line just last week. Time, perhaps, to get out the whisky bottle and get into a R-E-S-P-E-C-T Aretha Franklin groove.

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