Giving Or Taking?: With all the polls showing National on track to win an outright majority of the votes cast, the Prime Minister is heading for an electoral coronation. If NZ First crosses the five percent MMP threshold, however, New Zealand faces a conundrum. Will NZ First, by abstaining on Confidence and Supply motions, allow "King John" to govern, or will that wily old kingmaker, Winston Peters, permit Phil Goff to seize his crown?
TOMORROW’S ELECTION will be either a coronation or a conundrum. The pollsters predict the former: that National will canter home with more than half the votes cast. If the voters confirm these prognostications, then Mr Key will more than merit the monarchical moniker. He and his party will have achieved what no other New Zealand prime minister or German chancellor has ever achieved under the Mixed Member Proportional system: outright victory and the ability to govern without the irksome baggage of coalition. If that is the result, then “King John” it’ll be – and who’s to say him nay?
For the Election to become a conundrum two things have to happen. First, and most crucially, Winston Peters’ NZ First Party must rise above the 5 percent MMP threshold. If it doesn’t, then Mr Key’s Government is almost certainly safe. The second thing (and, naturally, it’s closely related to the first) is that National’s percentage of the Party Vote has to fall to the mid-forties. If Mr Peters gets up, and National drops down below 45.5 percent, then it’ll be fair to announce: “Houston, we have a problem.”
Our problem might best be described as a case of multiple and mutual political allergies. Mr Key is allergic to Mr Peters, and Mr Peters is allergic to Mr Key. Fair enough, you might say, there’s no love lost between those two. If Mr Peters adds his 5 percent (6 seats) to Labour’s 32 percent (39 seats), the Green’s 12 percent (15 seats) and Mana’s 1.5 percent (2 seats), then it’s all over. Phil Goff becomes Prime Minister and Mr Key remains uncrowned. (We’re assuming, of course, that Mr Goff’s allergy to Mr Harawira miraculously vanishes on Saturday evening.)
If only it were that simple.
But, unfortunately, Mr Peters’ allergies extend far beyond Mr Key and the National Party. He also claims to be allergic to Labour’s Mr Goff, the Greens’ Russel Norman and Metiria Turei, and Mana’s Hone Harawira. National’s unforgiveable sin is its plan to sell state assets. Labour’s, the Greens’ and the Mana Party’s unpardonable transgression is their support for what Mr Peters’ calls “Maori separatism”. Accordingly, Mr Peters has declared a plague on all their houses. NZ First, he says, will take itself off to the Opposition Benches and there maintain the strictest political celibacy.
That could be good news for Mr Key. Let’s assume his worst nightmare with National sliding down to “just” 45 percent of the Party Vote. That would entitle it to 55 seats. Now let’s assume that “the good voters of Epsom” elect Mr Banks, but Act, itself, receives only 1 percent of the Party Vote. National gets one ally. If Peter Dunne holds Ohariu, National has two allies. If the Maori Party wins three of the Maori seats, National’s allies number five and it is able to form a coalition controlling 60 of the 121 seats. That’s a healthy margin above Mr Goff’s 56 seats.
Not so fast. Before he can form a Government, Mr Key must be able to inform the Governor-General that National commands a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives. Can he do that? Only if Mr Peters gives him a firm undertaking that on matters of Confidence and Supply he and his colleagues will abstain.
But, if NZ First undertakes to abstain on votes of Confidence and Supply that’s tantamount to allowing Mr Key to form a government. Is it possible that Mr Peters, having confounded the critics and led his party back to Parliament, will then repeat his extraordinary decision of 1996 and re-seat his arch-enemies on the Treasury Benches?
No, the only way Mr Peters can “punish” his enemies is to pledge his party’s consistent support on matters of Confidence and Supply to Mr Goff. There’s simply no other means of securing his political legacy.
Were I the Governor-General, I’d be praying that the coronation of “King John” spares me the conundrum of Mr Peters.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion-Post, The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 25 November 2011.