Michael Bassett: Victory By New Zealand's Labour Would Lead To Instability

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Michael Bassett, a minister in the 1980s Lange Labour government, is a political historian who won a Qantas Media Award in 2004 as New Zealand's best political columnist.]

New Zealand's 2005 election was always the Labour incumbent's to lose. Yet there's a 70-30 chance Prime Minister Helen Clark will emerge in two weeks' time as Labour's first leader to win three elections on the trot. With 218,000 special votes yet to be counted, our odd mixed member proportional system could yet produce a small shift in the final tallies.

Not since 1993 has so much hung on specials. They could produce one more seat for either the centre right or the centre left, but the centre left seems the more likely recipient. And even if Saturday night's 50 seats for Labour, and 49 for Don Brash's National Party prevail, Clark holds the stronger negotiating hand. However, stable government for three years is unlikely. The margin is too fine.

Under first past the post that operated until 1996, National would probably have won on Saturday with a minority total vote, as Robert Muldoon did in 1978 and 1981. National nearly doubled its party vote to 39.6 per cent from 2002, and took 11 mostly provincial seats off Labour. It now holds the most electorate seats.

Brash, a former Reserve Bank governor, preached a simple message about reducing taxes, restoring family values and one standard of citizenship. It resonated with middle New Zealanders who work, seek opportunities for their children, and resent constant Maori grievances. At 65, Brash's is a new, refreshingly non-political style. Dissembling is foreign to his nature.

But occasionally it landed him in trouble with journalists who were pro-Labour to the core. In the last days there was a surge towards Brash in most parts of the country except in the New Zealand Herald's catchment area where last Friday the O'Reilly media monopoly dumped an old rogue poll on voters suggesting an illusory last-minute rush towards Labour. This staunched Labour's ebbing tide in Auckland city and the party secured 40.7 per cent of the total party vote, only 1 per cent below three years ago.

Sharing 80 per cent of the vote between them, the two major parties starved into anorexia the minor players who had fed at MMP's trough. New Zealand First's Winston Peters, ageing, increasingly erratic and portrayed by a cartoonist last week as a cornered rat, survived along with six colleagues, but lost the electorate of Tauranga he'd represented for 21 years. His party has only half its 2002 support, but he could still determine the eventual outcome. Peter Dunne's United Future, in agreement with Clark this last term, but less keen for a repeat, has been cut to three seats from eight. He could serve in either leader's cabinet, on conditions. The Greens will probably survive, if narrowly, with six seats, not nine. The ebullient Rodney Hide's centre-right ACT which had nine, is down to two, courtesy of his unexpected snatching of a blue-ribbon Auckland seat from under National's nose. It was a stark case of strategic voting; punters used one of their votes to rescue him for the centre right, while loyally placing a tick for National in the second box, in effect getting two MPs for the price of one, since Hide's opponent got in on National's list.
National's caucus gets 24 fresh faces, several of them with substantial track records -- diplomats, a top lawyer, a prominent secondary school principal and a medico. While his party has grown to admire Brash, and has much to thank him for, his future is unclear given that he's unlikely to become prime minister this time. But in his finance spokesman, forex trader John Key, National has discovered a new star. Polls show the public much preferred his tax package to Labour's where 300,000 more families would become welfare recipients. Improvements to the shape of tax and other reforms could emerge from behind-scenes brokering if there was a will. But nobody is holding their breath.

Only one thing seems certain: until the next election, which could come sooner rather than later, New Zealand is unlikely to enjoy electoral stability.

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