"You'll fit in nicely, Russel, just over here - on the left." Could the New Zealand electorate be about to do to John Key in 2011 what it did to Helen Clark in 2002? Apply an ideological check on otherwise unbridled power?
WILL THE GENERAL ELECTION of 2011 be a repeat of 2002? That contest also began with the governing party coasting along smugly in the stratosphere of popular esteem. It, too, was burdened with a bitterly divided coalition partner which had ceased to exist as an effective political force. Its principal political opposition, under a new leader, also seemed incapable of putting a foot right and was plumbing new depths of unpopularity.
If the polls were accurate, said the pundits, the election looked set to deliver the impossible: a governing party with more than half the popular vote, ready to govern alone.
In the end, the political scientists who warned that, under a system of proportional representation, it was next to impossible for a single political party to secure more than half the popular vote, were proved right.
Over a period of six weeks, Helen Clark’s Labour Government shed 14 percentage points. It may have begun the campaign in the low-50s, but the final election tally was just 41 percent. That was a creditable increase of 3 percentage points on its 1999 share of the Party Vote, but still well short of half the votes cast.
There were many reasons for Labour’s rapid shedding of support in 2002 (not the least of which was the utterly unforeseen “Corngate” scandal). The most plausible explanation, however, is that the New Zealand electorate was unwilling to see one political party wielding “unbridled power”.
That unwillingness put a large number of voters in the market for a party ready to act as a political brake on Helen Clark and her Labour Government.
Enter Peter Dunne and his pledge to bring a much-needed measure of “common sense” to the business of government. Overnight, Mr Dunne’s United Future NZ Party was catapulted from margin-of-error territory to a balance-of-power wielding 6.7 percent of the Party Vote.
BUT WHICH PARTY, if any, is in a position to act as a brake on John Key’s National Party in 2011?
If it was to follow the 2002 precedent exactly, the electorate would saddle Mr Key with a coalition partner as far to the left of National as Mr Dunne was to the right of Labour.
The only party which fits that description is the Greens.
This rather startling prospect is clearly one that has already passed through the minds of the Green’s own strategists. It would certainly explain the Party’s steady, three-year shuffle towards the political centre, and the decision of its conference to leave the door to some sort of accommodation with the National Party just ever-so-slightly ajar.
It is certainly a prospect that would appeal to the Kiwi sense of fair play (not to mention our rather quirky sense of humour).
The Labour Party is obviously not ready to govern again and a painful kick up the bum from the voters would probably do it the world of good. By the same token, the Act Party and its pale neoliberal rider should not, under any circumstances, be allowed within spitting distance of the levers of power. The Maori and Mana parties can, reasonably safely, be allowed to slug it out in the Maori seats (where, if God has a sense of humour, the voters will return en masse to Labour). Mr Dunne would, of course, love to be the soufflé that rose twice, but even the voters of Ohariu aren’t that generous.
No, if a brake is to be applied to National’s plans to sell-off state assets and gut welfare, the Greens are the only party that can do it.
And just imagine the Right’s consternation on election night. Even with the support of Act, United Future and what remains of the Maori Party, Mr Key simply doesn’t have the votes to govern. But, with the 15 votes of the Greens, a stable, centrist government beckons.
While a solid majority of New Zealanders chuckle wickedly behind their hands, Mr Key reluctantly picks up the phone.
“Russel, maaate, let’s talk.”
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 August 2011.