Three In A Row! Defying political gravity, Prime Minister John Key wins a third term with a higher percentage of the votes cast than he received in 2008 and 2011. In the words of Martyn 'Bomber' Bradbury, National now enjoys "full spectrum dominance" of the New Zealand political environment. And Labour? Labour seems unaware that its wounds are fatal. That it is dying on its feet.
IT SEEMS such a long time ago, now, but it was only back in March. Looking ahead to the General Election, I wrote: “Unless something hugely dramatic happens between now and polling day, 20 September, the General Election of 2014 is all but over. The National-led government of Prime Minister, John Key, looks set to be returned for a third term by a margin that may surprise many of those currently insisting that the result will be very close. What may also surprise is the sheer scale and comprehensiveness of the Left’s (especially Labour’s) electoral humiliation.”
Well, “something hugely dramatic” pretty much sums up the 2014 election campaign. But “unless” turned out to be an utterly redundant qualifier. Mr Key and his National Party-led government faced one “hugely dramatic” event after another: everything from Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics to Kim Dotcom’s Moment of Truth to Edward Snowden’s XKeyscore. But, not only did these events fail to slow Mr Key’s progress, they actually appear to have accelerated his march to an historic victory.
In achieving the seemingly impossible: securing an outright parliamentary majority under a system of proportional representation; Mr Key proclaims his complete mastery of the New Zealand political landscape. A friend of mine, borrowing the terminology of the US military, describes National’s present situation as “full spectrum dominance”. It’s a hard judgement to refute.
In just about every facet of the political process: leadership, communications, polling, strategic judgement, fund-raising and on-the-ground campaigning, National is (quite literally) streets ahead of its rivals. John Key’s private retention of the Australian-based Crosby-Textor political consultancy, coupled with the constant flow of data from David Farrar’s polling agency, Curia Research, permitted National’s seasoned campaign manager, Steven Joyce, to micro-refine National’s electoral pitch not simply day-to-day, but practically hour-by-hour. The tone and volume of the Government’s propaganda effort (Eminem’s angry copyright protests notwithstanding) was similarly effective. With New Zealand’s rowing teams dominating the sport, the rowing-eight image proved to be a potent political metaphor for coordinated effort and national success.
In describing the efficiency of its machine, I do not mean to suggest that the National Party’s victory was effortless – far from it. The release of Nicky Hager’s book inflicted real damage on National’s campaign – forcing the Prime Minister onto the back foot and sending the party’s poll numbers south. The critical point here, however, is that National’s campaign team was able to monitor the effects of Dirty Politics practically as they unfolded, and to test the efficacy of possible responses. It was this that allowed them to identify the Justice Minister, Judith Collins, as the figure most prejudicial to National’s re-election chances. Her resignation cauterised National’s wounds almost immediately – just as its pollsters knew it would.
And through it all, John Key manifested an uncompromising combativeness which first steadied his supporters and then reassured them that the charges levelled against him were groundless. It also afforded New Zealanders a rare glimpse of the steel beneath John Key’s velveteen exterior. Far from being repelled (as his opponent’s no doubt hoped) the Prime Minister’s supporters were delighted. Mr Key’s smiles and waves are appreciated, but so, too, is the force of his counter-punches.
Overall, the image presented to the electorate was one of John Key as the embattled matador. Alone in the arena, he faced charge after charge from a seemingly never-ending succession of bulls. But with every twirl of his cape and flash of his sword the pile of dispatched cattle-beasts grew higher. The crowd cheered. The roses rained down. “Bravo!” shouted 48 percent of New Zealand. “Three more years!”
As the dust of combat settles, the identity of the Matador’s defeated attackers is revealed. Among them is the political corpse of the redoubtable Hone Harawira, his thick hide pierced by multiple lances. And sprawled alongside this mighty bull of the North, his blundering sponsor, the massive German beast called Kim Dotcom. Some distance apart lies the slim political carcase of the brave little steer known as Colin Craig – his wide-eyes still staring imploringly up at the crowd. (Missing from the pile are the bodies of those bulls whose horns actually drew the Matador’s blood: Nicky Hager, Glenn Greenwald, Edward Snowden.)
But in all that vast arena, the most pitiful sight is that of the old bull called Labour. Its ancient hide is pierced and bleeding; around its mouth a bloody froth. The Matador’s sword has penetrated the unfortunate animal’s lungs and heart, but the poor creature still stands there, defiant. Panting noisily, quivering legs about to fold beneath its battered body, Labour seems unaware that its wounds are fatal. That it is dying on its feet.
Only two bulls continue to circle the Matador – albeit at a safe distance. Snorting derisively, New Zealand First and the Green Party promise to go on fighting the good fight.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 23 September 2014.