New Zealand: The prospect of a political earthquake

If Labour returns to power on Winston's coat-tails.

They're not there yet, but New Zealanders could be presented with the alarming proposition of Labour returning to power after a mere three year absence. This would be an extraordinary come-back for a thoroughly discredited party which had lost its way after a nine year stint in government. Led by forthright and uncharismatic former Defence and Foreign Minister Phil Goff, support for the Labour Party has failed to surge during the election campaign so far. Polls close late on 26 November. But new opinion surveys suggest that a resurgent Winston Peters, another ex-Foreign Minister and leader of populist fringe party New Zealand First, could re-enter parliament by breaching the 5% barrier. While Peters maintains his team will sit on opposition benches, agreement by NZ First to central Labour policy might enable Goff to take and hold onto power for the next three years.

A rainbow coalition involving the resurgent  Green Party, which could achieve an outstanding result with up to sixteen MPs, the Māori Party and Labour could just scrape into office. Such are the idiosyncracies of the current MMP voting system, the governing National Party-led coalition might fail to hold onto power despite both leader John Key and his party riding highest in opinion polls.

Key came unstuck recently when holding a strangely devised publicly witnessed coffee shop meeting over a genteel cup of tea with senior ACT Party candidate John Banks, whom Key came close to appearing to endorse in preference to National's own candidate for the Auckland constituency seat of Epsom. Sadly for them their conversation was taped, and the police have been called in to investigate. But the furore surrounding the episode has sent Key off-message, harassed as he is by turbulent media interest in the tape's content and the wisdom of conducting the meeting at all, especially in an open forum. Key appears to have lost his lustre, a catastrophe given the presidential nature of National's campaign.

ACT's leader, former Reserve Bank governor (and National Party leader), the septuagenarian Don Brash has failed to make the impact he predicted.

John Key looks tired and despondent, not the demeanour of a man vying for his second term of office. By contrast, the Green Party's Russel Norman and NZ First's Peters have appeared calm and optimistic. Labour's campaign has been shrewd to press home policy differences and reduce media focus on its leader Phil Goff.  Despite this, Goff has enjoyed a fairly good campaign so far by battling hard if somewhat agressively in two televised debates with John Key. Labour's core vote seems to be holding. Importantly too, National's state asset sale programme has gone down like a lead balloon with voters, and this could yet prove the governing party's undoing.

The MMP system throws up a plethora of minor parties and broad coalitions result. So ACT's persistent disarray and consequential unpopularity could leave them bereft of any seats. The politically sophisticated Epsom voters seem set to reject National's apparent political manoevering to facilitate a return into parliament by a tranche of ACT List MPs riding in on the back of John Banks. He is an ex-Mayor of Auckland City who failed to beat a Labour-leaning candidate for the mayoralty when greater Auckland merged to create one local authority. Referring to himself absurdly in the third person, Banks maintained in a recent TV interview he is a man who wins elections, but in saying that he must have conveniently forgotten his 2010 defeat.

United Future, a small centre party representing Middle New Zealand, might return one MP, leader Peter Dunne who is standing in a constituency close to Wellington. Dunne has worked in government with both Labour and National - which ever party gains a majority - and is rewarded with the Revenue cabinet portfolio, a post held consistently since 2005. He appears to lean in National's direction these days, but could that alter if Labour were ascendant?

The Māori Party has been in coalition with National these past three years. But a split which created the Mana Party could yet result in the return to Labour of one or two seats on the (voluntary) Māori electoral roll. 

Coming to National's aid, like a small troop of cavalry, is the newly formed Christian-leaning centre-right Conservative Party, led by Auckland commercial property management entrepreneur Colin Craig. Craig might just oust National's candidate in the Auckland semi-rural constituency of Rodney. Gaining momentum with each week that passes, the Conservative party could enter parliament with several MPs. Their biggest challenge is the geographic spread of their appeal. Achieving nation-wide publicity has been difficult when national TV chose not to include Craig in a minor party televised debate. Recently a support-measuring worm monitored voter receptiveness. None of the politicians filmed registered with viewers in positive territory as they spoke. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, Craig wasn't on that show either.

The sizeable Asian vote has so far been little courted by most players. The exception is Colin Craig's Conservative team which headhunted Paul Young as candidate in the Asian populated Auckland seat of Botany. Young has good voter recognition having come third in the Botany by-election earlier this year. Asians are a rapidly growing, under represented and formidable future force in New Zealand politics, and Craig has been quick off the mark in recognising their potential significance. Other people of Asian origin represent this party elsewhere where Asian people are preponderant.

Conservative use of both new and old media to gain rapid traction has been impressive. 

A further consideration is the Polynesian vote, which typically veers towards Labour. This time, however, the Conservatives have attracted several notable Pacific Island figures like Fa'avae Gagamoe, standing in the south Auckland constituency of Mangere.

It's rather absurd that by beating National in one or even two constituencies, minor parties can enter parliament and form coalitions which save the day for the governing team, but that's MMP for you.

The result appears too tight to call right now. And Key had better rest well and come back with all metaphoric guns blazing, otherwise his days might be numbered. Literally, as there are only eight left before general election day.

Update 22 November 2011: A Labour-led administration might appear attractive to stave off the excess of capitalism. Steven Joyce, the Transport Minister and architect of National's 2008 victory, calculated that a Labour - Green government would borrow an additional NZ$15bn to fund policy commitments. Figures inevitably denied by the parties concerned. But as the US fails to effect yet another debt-reduction plan to deal with the ballooning US$15trn problem there, and the EU struggles to manage the containment of sovereign and corporate debt contagion inside the Eurozone, is this really the right time to be betting on a government in New Zealand which ignores growth and spends more?

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