Self-Destruct Mode? The moment he accepted the candidacy of David Garrett, a man who'd admitted to stealing the identity of a dead child to secure a false passport, Act leader Rodney Hide placed the entire edifice of the New Zealand Right at risk. The seismic pulse from the Garrett scandal threatens to destroy not only Act but also John Key's hopes for a second term.
IT NEVER RAINS but it pours. As if a real earthquake in Canterbury wasn’t enough, John Key now faces an earthquake in Epsom.
And it’s a big one. The extraordinary revelations concerning Act MP, David Garrett, have not only put paid to his political career, but the aftershocks seem certain to destabilise – and ultimately destroy – the whole Act Party.
John Key cannot stand aloof from these developments. Act has always been a critical factor in the electoral calculations of the Centre Right. Bluntly speaking: National’s ability to form a stable government depends upon Act’s unequivocal support. Remove Act from the political equation and the Centre Right’s electoral problems no longer have a solution.
TV3’s political editor, Duncan Garner, disagrees. He insists that Act and the Maori Party are interchangeable factors in this equation: that Mr Key’s shrewd decision to lure the Maori Party into the Centre-Right tent in 2008 has given National all the insurance cover it needs to rebuild an effective administration if Act falls over.
I’m not so sure. By 2011 conservative New Zealand voters may have had about as much of the Maori Party as they’re prepared to swallow. A year from now the unease surrounding the repeal of the Foreshore & Seabed Act will undoubtedly have been heightened by the ramifications of a "Constitutional Review" – the last (and potentially the most divisive) item of unfinished business in the Maori Party’s confidence and supply agreement with National.
It’s equally possible, of course, that by 2011 Maori voters may have had enough of "their" party’s association with National. There are strong indications that a second term National Government will intensify its public-spending cuts; throw open the gates to foreign investment, increase immigration and sell-off what remain of New Zealand’s public assets. Such a hard-right programme is unlikely to enthuse the Maori Party’s base.
Not that the Maori Party needs to worry. It’s political location in the Maori – as opposed to the General – electorate shields it from any sort of Pakeha backlash. This gives the Maori Party the extraordinary advantage of being able to switch allegiances with impunity. If the party’s leaders are of the view that they (and the Maori people in general) have got about as much as they can get from National, there is nothing to prevent them signalling their willingness to negotiate a new deal with Labour.
No, I wouldn’t be relying upon the Maori Party if I were Mr Key.
Which takes us back to Epsom. Can Mr Key rely upon the good burghers of Mt Eden, Epsom, Parnell and Remuera to be guided by the winks and nods of their National Party friends forever? Is it reasonable to expect Epsom’s voters (among the most sophisticated in the country) to make themselves permanent accessories to this blatant "gaming" of the MMP electoral system?
Let’s not forget, Mr Hide’s seat – like every other electorate seat – is won or lost according to the rules of First-Past-the Post. So, let’s assume (on the basis of the 2008 results) that there are roughly 38,500 votes up for grabs in Epsom, and that about 8,000 of these are rock-solid National voters who simply refuse to vote strategically. Let’s further assume that there are another 8,000 "Left’ (Labour, Green) voters, and about 2,500 hard-core Act voters. That leaves a "Strategic Vote" of around 20,000 electors.
What would happen to Mr Hide if a person with impeccable conservative credentials emerged from the leafy streets of Epsom declaring that: "Enough is enough! If National isn’t prepared to choose a decent candidate – someone who still adheres to its traditional values and is capable of articulating its ‘compassionate conservative’ philosophy – then someone else will have to do the job."?
An accomplished and successful woman, subscribing to the new "Big Society" ideas of David Cameron’s British Tories, could quite conceivably split Epsom’s Strategic Vote in half – gathering up most of the Left Vote as she swept past (especially if Labour and the Greens declined to stand a candidate). That would leave Mr Hide about 5,000 votes short of the total needed to keep Act in Parliament.
If Mr Key persists in relying upon Act’s gaming of the MMP system to secure the numbers he needs to govern, then something resembling this scenario will almost certainly unfold.
The problem, of course, is that if Mr Key does do the decent thing, and severs all ties between National and the discredited Act Party, he will be left several seats short of the total National needs to remain in office.
He could, of course, appeal directly to the New Zealand electorate for an unequivocal and unencumbered mandate. Unfortunately, no single party (even under FPP) has won more than 50 percent of the popular vote since 1951.
Mr Garrett’s earthquake threatens to reduce much more than Act to rubble.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 21 September 2010.