(Written for NZCPR Weekly - www.nzcpr.com)
Let’s get the congratulations out of the way first. National’s election triumph was as emphatic as they get, at least under MMP. Admittedly, it’s rare for a government to be tossed out of office after only one term: it last happened in 1975, and the circumstances then were unusual. Norman Kirk had died in office and the Labour Party leadership had been assumed by the mild-mannered Bill Rowling, who was ill-prepared to deal with the aggression and firepower of a political streetfighter named Muldoon.
But for National to strengthen its hold on power after one term, especially following a year as challenging as any in memory, was some feat. Colin James reports that it’s only the fifth time in 75 years that a first-term government has increased its vote. (Labour did it in 2002, but not as resoundingly.)
Perhaps desperate to inject some drama into a dull campaign, the media talked up Labour’s chances, arbitrarily declaring Phil Goff the winner in two bland TV debates; but it only served to demonstrate – again – that political journalists in Wellington are poorly equipped to read the public mind. Even the predicted narrowing of the gap in the last stages of the campaign never happened.
The vital statistics – 60 seats for National (up two) and 34 for Labour (down nine) – tell only part of the story. Even more striking was the fact that in Labour strongholds such as Christchurch East, Te Atatu and New Lynn, National won the party vote. That humiliation was compounded by Labour’s loss of well-regarded up-and-coming MPs such as Stuart Nash and Kelvin Davis, and by the thrashing handed out to glamour candidate Andrew Little in the previously ultra-marginal seat of New Plymouth, Little’s home town. The ambitious former union boss still gets into Parliament at No 15 on the Labour list, but his star has lost a lot of its lustre.
So, a romp for National. But this was an election where the sub-plots were more interesting than the main action on centre-stage.
Everyone commented on what a great campaign the Greens ran. Certainly they seemed to pick up a lot of former Labour supporters, and their electoral appeal can only have broadened since the departure of polarising figures such as Sue Bradford and Nandor Tanczos. In fact it looks as if the Greens are re-positioning themselves as a mainstream party of the centre-left (watch out Labour) rather than one on the beansprouts-and-sandals fringe. Russel Norman’s stylish suit and tie are a clue to that; the eccentric garb of the late Rod Donald is already a distant memory.
But just wait: the Greens have yet to be fully tested. They have never been exposed to Minor Party Curse, the fatal affliction that strikes small parties once they formally become part of coalition government arrangements. That’s when the stresses start to tell and party discipline starts to fall apart.
As long as a party remains outside government, as the Greens have done, it can safely occupy the moral high ground. Its high-minded principles are unlikely to be compromised. But the moment a party is drawn into a coalition, deals are done and principles get stretched. Ambitions are unleashed and tensions arise between idealists and pragmatists. It happened to the Alliance and it happened to ACT – both parties, like the Greens, with a strong ideological base. Being in government also means a minority party is subjected to much more intense media scrutiny. All things considered, the Greens might have a more assured future if they remain in opposition. A memorandum of understanding with National may be as far as they can safely go.
Then there’s Winston Peters, whose comeback was the big story of the night. (Obviously, someone forgot to drive a stake through his heart.) Peters too has an unhappy record in government. This may explain why he declared before the election that New Zealand First wouldn’t align with either National or Labour – although as with all Peters’ hand-on-heart declarations, that vow could be relied on only for as long as it was expedient for him to stick to it. So Peters is back doing what he does best, which is opposing.
Being in government never suited him; the burden of office, with its requirement to toe the line, curb his tongue, make decisions and accept some form of collective responsibility, was far too onerous. Heck, he was probably even expected to read briefing papers. No, at his age (66) it’s much more fun huffing and puffing from the cross-benches, feuding with the media, stoking the fears and prejudices of his ageing support base and holding court at the Green Parrot. Already there are hints that Peters will set out to hijack the first sitting of the new parliament, as only he can, by using it to divulge the transcript of the secret conversation between the two Johns, Key and Banks, at the Café Urban.
And finally we come to ACT, a Shakespearean tragedy that has unfolded in slow motion. Its disintegration began with the acrimonious leadership struggle that split the party after Richard Prebble’s departure in 2004 and now we are observing the painful last act (pun not intended).
Where did they go wrong? Well, it’s clear that the leadership contest between Rodney Hide, Ken Shirley, Stephen Franks and Muriel Newman created tensions that have never gone away. (Deborah Coddington, who left Parliament in 2005, still can’t comment on her old party without sounding as if she’s settling scores.) Under Hide’s leadership, ACT’s focus drifted away from the party’s founding principles, thus deepening the divisions. In embracing the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s law-and-order agenda (a worthy enough cause, but hardly consistent with ACT’s classical liberalism), Hide strayed perilously close to Winston Peters territory. His foray into television on Dancing with the Stars – a misguided attempt to court mainstream popularity – not only devalued the ACT brand but gave the media a fresh excuse to belittle the party by showing endless replays of Hide dropping his dancing partner. The David Garrett sideshow didn’t help either, and neither did perkbuster Hide’s credibility-damaging acceptance of an overseas holiday paid for by the taxpayer.
For all that, Hide was a capable, committed and hard-working politician who knew the ropes and made some significant gains in parliament. So it seemed churlish and high-handed that when Don Brash launched his hostile takeover bid for ACT, he made it clear that Hide had to go. That now looks like a bad mistake. ACT has lost one of its most effective performers and Brash’s own political career is probably beyond resuscitation. History will record that while the former Reserve Bank governor's principles were unimpeachable, his political judgment was too often woefully astray. ACT is now represented in Parliament – nominally, anyway – by a man with no history in the party and no record of commitment to its philosophy. John Banks has some admirable personal qualities, but he presents the absurd image of a man wearing an ill-fitting suit tailored for someone else.
But back to National. Will the Key government show more daring in its second term than it did in the first? It has the excuse that the global economic crisis calls for bold action, but it could just as easily argue – and probably will – that a period of international uncertainty is no time for making radical changes that might create anxiety. And of course it won’t have an eager-beaver ACT caucus prodding it to take bolder steps to arrest our relative economic decline. So while we can expect modest reforms in such areas as welfare, youth wages, accident compensation, partial privatisation of state assets and the Resource Management Act, no one’s bracing themselves for tough action to curb the state spending binge that began under the Helen Clark government and has continued largely unabated under National. Stability is likely to remain National’s soothing mantra. The horses mustn’t be frightened.