A Very Welcome Return To Health: The dismay with which the news of Nikki Kaye’s cancer diagnosis was received by John Key and his senior colleagues is easily imagined. Had her affliction forced Ms Kaye to resign from parliament, the Auckland Central seat would have been up for grabs. Upon the outcome of the ensuing by-election would ride nothing less than the National-led Government’s ability to govern New Zealand in anything resembling a predictable and confident fashion. In other words, a defeat in Auckland Central would have precipitated an early general election.
A PARTICULARLY PLEASING sight for some very sore National Party eyes. That was the Auckland Central MP, Nikki Kaye, when she bounded into Parliament last week in remarkably fine fettle. Granted leave from Parliament to deal with a worrying diagnosis of breast cancer, Ms Kaye’s future has for many weeks been uncertain. It has also been the subject of some grim-faced discussions among National’s leading strategists – including the then prime minister, John Key. Her dramatic return to health – and politics – must be a huge relief, not only to family and friends, but also to her party.
National’s strategists’ concern over the fate of Auckland Central was entirely justifiable. All of them know how to count, and, of late, the parliamentary arithmetic has become decidedly tricky.
The loss of Northland to Winston Peters in March of last year left the Government in a pretty parliamentary pickle. With 60 seats of their own, plus the rock-solid support of the Epsom MP, Act Leader David Seymour, the Government had commanded a one seat majority in the 121 member House of Representatives. After losing Northland, however, National found itself in firm control of just 60 seats. Overnight, Mr Key’s less slavish support partners, the Ohariu MP, United Party Leader Peter Dunne, and the two Maori Party MPs, Te Ururoa Flavell and Marama Fox, found themselves with enhanced political leverage vis-à-vis the Government. The most embarrassing example of this new-found influence is the Maori Party’s emendation of National’s proposed reform of the Resource Management Act.
Clearly, the loss of another National Party-held seat would leave the Government in an even more precarious parliamentary position. Even with pledges of unwavering support from David Seymour and Peter Dunne, the construction of the Government’s election-year budget, and the success of its legislative programme, would be entirely dependent on the good will and support of the Maori Party.
The dismay with which the news of Ms Kaye’s cancer diagnosis was received by Mr Key and his senior colleagues is easily imagined. Had her affliction forced Ms Kaye to resign from parliament, the Auckland Central seat would have been up for grabs. Upon the outcome of the ensuing by-election would ride nothing less than the National-led Government’s ability to govern New Zealand in anything resembling a predictable and confident fashion. In other words, a defeat in Auckland Central would have precipitated an early general election.
Unfortunately for National, its chances of holding Auckland Central in a by-election are very slim. The Opposition parties, understanding that National’s failure to hold the seat would bring forward the election, would likely agree to give Labour’s Jacinda Ardern a clear run – just as they did for Michael Wood in the recent Mt Roskill by-election. Such a clearing-of-the-decks for Labour would add an additional 2,000 votes, at least, to Ms Ardern’s 2014 tally of 11,894 votes – more than enough to overwhelm Ms Kaye’s 2014 electorate majority of 600 votes.
Significantly, National’s Mt Roskill campaign turned out to be extremely disheartening. At the start of the operation the party’s strategists had dreamed of making good the loss of Northland by stealing Mt Roskill from Labour. Rumours circulated that National had come into possession of a new, devilishly sophisticated get-out-the-vote software package. If it could turn out National’s 2014 Party Vote, then the seat would be theirs. It was not to be. Not only did the technology fail, but so, too, did John Key’s campaigning magic. The portents for Auckland Central were anything but auspicious.
MMP’s rules also disadvantaged National. If a by-election is won by a candidate currently occupying a List seat, as happened with Winston Peters, then not only does the successful candidate secure the electorate seat, but the next person on the Party’s List also enters Parliament. NZ First emerged from the 2014 General Election with 11 MPs. After the Northland By-Election it had 12. If Jacinda Ardern, a List MP, won Auckland Central in a by-election, then Labour’s numbers in the House would be boosted from 32 to 33 by the arrival (probably) of Raymond Huo off its List.
The fate of Auckland Central has certainly presented the leaders of the seven parliamentary parties with a complex and volatile political calculation. For weeks now they have been scratching their heads and sharpening their pencils. Complicating the political maths still further is David Shearer’s imminent return to the United Nations. Voters living in the safe Labour seat of Mt Albert face a by-election as early as February.
Buoyed by the win in Mt Roskill, and heartened by the prospect of two more in Mt Albert and Auckland Central, Andrew Little’s “bring it on” challenge to the new National leader made good strategic sense.
Which is why Nikki Kaye’s recovery must be the best news Bill English has received since John Key told him he was quitting.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 13 December 2016.