Kingmaker Redux: Once again, opinion polls suggest that New Zealand's political future will be decided by the calculations of Winston Peters and the NZ First Party. Such an outcome would confirm that the overall trajectory of New Zealand politics remains rightward, not leftward.
OPINION POLLS can be very confusing. Less than a fortnight out from the General Election support for the National Party could be as low as 45 percent or as high as 54 percent – depending on which polling agency’s results you follow. There is, however, a way of simplifying this political confusion. By aggregating the support of those parties generally supportive of the status-quo, and those seeking change, it is actually pretty easy to work out whether the mood of the nation is one of conservative caution or forthright experimentation.
I well remember making this calculation in the run-up to the 1999 General Election and reaching the inescapable conclusion that the combined support of the Labour, Alliance and Green parties pointed consistently to a narrow majority of New Zealanders being in search of something new. The election result reflected the final weeks’ polling data with the left-wing Opposition parties together receiving 51.6 percent of the Party Vote.
Rather apprehensively, I repeated the exercise for this year’s election. Relying on the results of the opinion poll which came closest to predicting the result of the 2011 General Election, it is clear that the mood of the nation in 2014 is very different from 1999. Taken together, the votes of those parties clearly in favour of maintaining the economic and social status quo or of shifting it even further to the right (National, Act, United Future, Conservatives) amount to an impressive 53.1 percent. If the support for the more equivocal “conservative” parties (NZ First and the Maori Party) is added, that number increases to 60.3 percent.
If New Zealanders are in the market for economic and social change in 2014 it’s clear that a pretty solid majority do not want very much of it – and none at all if it’s radical change.
So, what will Winston do? Because, if the opinion polls are to be believed, it will once again be Winston Peters and his NZ First Party which plays the role of Kingmaker following 20 September.
The best chance we have of answering that question is, first, to analyse what Mr Peters says he will do; and then take a look at what he has done in the past.
What Mr Peters says he will do has not changed in seven elections. He will wait until the votes have been cast so he and his party can get a firm grip on what New Zealanders want. In other words, he will perform the same exercise that I have described above – but without the “assistance” of opinion polls. He will then make the best judgement he can about the overall mood of his fellow New Zealanders – and dispose of his support accordingly.
One of my most vivid memories as a political commentator is of Election Night 1996. I was part of TV3’s commentary panel and, as the vote count neared its conclusion, it was clear that the next prime minister of New Zealand would be chosen by Winston Peters.
My fellow commentators did the political math (Labour + NZ First + Alliance = 51.6 percent of the Party Vote) and confidently predicted that Helen Clark would be the next prime minister. (Time magazine even put her face on their cover!) To my eyes, however, the performance of the Left – the agents of change – seemed woeful. In 1993 Labour and the Alliance had polled 52.9 percent of the popular vote between them. Three years later that number had fallen to just 38.3 percent of the Party Vote. The combined 1996 Party Vote of National, + Act + United NZ = 40.85 percent. And when the sub-MMP threshold 4.3 percent of the Party Vote won by the Christian Coalition was thrown into the equation, the support for the status-quo rose to 45.15 percent. It seemed obvious to me that NZ First’s 13.35 percent of the Party Vote was much more likely to end up with the parties of the Right than the Left – and I said so.
The crucial addition sum on Election Night 2014 will be Labour + Greens + Internet Mana. If it is greater than National + Conservative + Maori Party + United Future + Act, then I predict Mr Peters and NZ First will offer Confidence and Supply to Labour’s David Cunliffe and seat themselves on the cross-benches. If the reverse is true, then I suspect the negotiations between Mr Peters and John Key, though strenuous and lengthy, will result in the formation of a National-NZ First Government.
I make this prediction because I do not believe that in 2014 Mr Peters includes NZ First in the small-c conservative camp. Attributing the best possible intentions to the electorate’s choices, he will either attempt to moderate the excessive enthusiasm of Labour’s coalition partners; or to restrain, judiciously, the worst impulses of National’s.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 9 September 2014.