Friday 11 June 2010

Going Early

Pretext For Action: National's most emphatic electoral victory came in 1951 when the National Prime Minister, Sid Holland, called an early election to secure an ex post facto justification for his use of Emergency Powers against the Waterside Workers Union. In 2010, it would most likely be the demands of Maori nationalists - rather than the enfeebled trade unions - which provided a conservative government with the pretext for declaring a State of Emergency.

AN ELECTION before Christmas? What are the chances? More to the point, what are the advantages in John Key and the National Party waiting until 26 November 2011 to renew their mandate, when they could go to the country a year early and almost certainly be re-elected in their own right?

An immediate objection to this scenario is that the New Zealand electorate does not respond well to being bounced into general elections before they are due. Political scientists point to the disastrous consequences that flowed from Sir Robert Muldoon’s alcohol-assisted decision to go to the polls early in 1984. It is also argued that Helen Clark’s spurious use of the Alliance’s internal squabbles to call an early general election in July 2002 cost her the opportunity to govern in her own right.

It is certainly the case that had Clark not gone early in 2002, Nicky Hager’s book Seeds of Distrust would have ended up being published four months before – rather than during – that year’s election campaign. Given the devastating blow which the so-called "Corngate" scandal delivered to the Prime Minister’s reputation in July, it is interesting to speculate about the degree of influence Seeds of Distrust’s revelations would still have been exerting in November.

What the pundits often neglect to mention, however, is that the National Party received it greatest mandate ever by calling an early general election. The "Snap Election" of 1951, called to allow the electorate to pass judgement on Prime Minister Sid Holland’s handling of the 151-day Waterfront Dispute, saw his government returned to office with an impressive 54 percent of the popular vote – the most emphatic electoral victory of the post-war era.

So, calling an early election isn’t always a bad idea. What the voters resent – and will punish – is the slightest suggestion that the Government’s reasons for going early are in any way either trivial or contrived. If, however, the circumstances necessitating an early election have been forced upon the government by the actions of others, then there is every chance that the electorate – far from punishing the government – will go out of its way to reward and strengthen it.

What then are the chances of "others" forcing the Key-led Government into an early election? The answer, rather unsurprisingly, is that the chances are negligible.

There are just two ways it could happen. The first, and most likely, is that the rising tensions between National and its partners in power, Act and the Maori Party, could end in the abrogation of either one, or both, of the confidence and supply agreements that allow John Key to govern.

The second, less likely – though potentially much more serious – way in which Key’s hand could be forced is if an outbreak of serious and widespread civil disorder required the declaration of a State of Emergency and the imposition of harsh repressive measures to restore law and order to the country. Basically, the 1951 situation.

Let’s examine the latter scenario. A serious outbreak of civil disorder is met with harsh State countermeasures; this "repression" then leads to the defection of one, or both, of the Government’s support parties. The Government decides to seek a new mandate from the electorate.

The crisis begins with the erection of checkpoints on all the roads leading into Tuhoe Country. Motorists are confronted by masked gunmen who order them to turn their vehicles around.

On the same day communiqu├ęs arrive at all the major media outlets declaring the establishment of "The Independent Tuhoe Nation". Representatives of the "Settler State" are warned that any attempt to re-establish the Crown’s authority will be met by "deadly force".

Armed Police move against the road-blocks and are fired upon. The Police return fire and at least one of the Tuhoe "border guards" is killed. That evening several farm properties are set alight. Pakeha families flee the area.

The following morning the Prime Minister asks the Governor General to declare a State of Emergency. The New Zealand Defence Force is formally requested to "assist the Civil Power". Over the next few days Army and Police units restore order in Tuhoe Country. Eighteen people lose their lives.

Responding to a massive outpouring of anger from Maoridom, the Maori Party tears up its confidence and supply agreement with the National Party. On the same day, the Act Party declares the violence of the preceding days to be the "inevitable consequence of twenty years of racial appeasement" and informs Key that the price of its continuing support will be the abolition of the Waitangi Tribunal and the Maori Seats.

A few hours later, after visiting the Governor-General, Key announces an early election. "More than anything else," he declares solemnly, "New Zealand needs Peace, Reconciliation and Stability."

Five weeks later Key is returned to office on a landslide. National receives a staggering 58 percent of the Party Vote.

It’s an interesting commentary on the state of New Zealand that to devise a crisis scenario equivalent to the "1951 situation" it is no longer credible to cast militant trade unionists in the role of the rebels. In 2010 that honour can only go to militant Maori nationalists.

It would not, of course, require a crisis of such magnitude to precipitate a breakdown in the Government’s parliamentary support arrangements. If it continues, Act’s reckless incitement of Federated Farmers over the ETS will eventually undermine its relationship with National. The same applies to the Maori Party should there be any more decisive Prime Ministerial interventions in all-but-completed Treaty negotiations.

The fundamental point is this: with such a volatile brace of supply and confidence partners, the possibility that, for an ever-expanding number of reasons, either one – or both – of them might withdraw their support can never be very far from National’s thoughts.

But if Act and the Maori Party are only a policy-shift away from spitting the dummy, then surely the smartest thing for Key to do is anticipate the event that sets the dummies’ owners expectorating.

To bolster his support among moderate voters, all Key has to do is annoy Act. To shore up his conservative Pakeha backers he has only to alienate the Maori Party. And if he can somehow contrive to do both – before the All Blacks once again fail to win the Rugby World Cup – then National’s second term is guaranteed.

This essay was originally published in The Independent of Thursday, 3 June 2010.


Anonymous said...

Odd that you refer to 1951 as a "an outbreak of serious and widespread civil disorder". I always thought it was an outbreak of state disorder caused by the lockout and subsequent repression of the unions.

Chris Trotter said...

Indeed it was, Anonymous. Unfortunately, that was not how the public (uninformed as they were, courtesy of the Emergency Regulations) perceived the crisis. Hence National's emphatic election win.

mike said...

Yeah, but what would be the policy basis of Key's "Peace, Reconciliation, and Stability" - more police suppression of Tuhoe?

Surely Labour would try to come up with some kind of olive-branch counter solution. Kiwis might well find that a more peaceful, reconciliatory and stabilising concept.

Lew said...

You wish, Chris.


Bearhunter said...

In your scenario above it would be interesting to see how the Army reacted; whether blood was thicker than training and so forth. Ngati Tumataenga is a pretty well-drilled iwi...

Chris Trotter said...

Well, Lew, an historical imagination can be a curse.

As the endnote says, this posting was originally published in "The Independent" on 3 June - nearly a week before Key announced his Government's "take it or leave it" position on the F&S.

If anything, the potential for trouble with Maoridom is greater now than when I wrote the above scenario.

I don't wish it - I fear it.

There's a difference.

Anonymous said...

@ Bearhunter (and Chris) - I am of the understanding that the Navy is the traditional branch of the armed forces that is called on to intervene in civil disputes.

Anyway, back to topic. There was a leadership dispute in ACT, as we all know, in which the PM suposedly considered (though how seriously is suject to debate), calling a snap election. The result of this would have given National the chance to govern alone, caught Labour on the hop, and guaranteed the current government power until 2012-13 - one then presumes, all of National's first term promises will become null and void, and the neo-liberal extremism urged by the far right would have been unleashed without mercy.

I wouldnt bet on a snap election just yet, but the odds are probably higher than they normally would be.