Terry Barnes is a regular contributor to the Australian edition of The Spectator and a former senior ministerial adviser to Tony Abbott.
In New Zealand, all sorts of electoral hares have been set running by last weekend’s TV3-Reid opinion poll as the Land of the Long White Cloud (aka the Shaky Isles), enters an election year.
The excitement centres on the charismatic Winston Peters, veteran leader of the populist New Zealand First party. The Reid poll indicates that the popular vote share of Prime Minister John Key’s National Party has fallen by just under two percentage points over the southern summer to 44.5 per cent – a share that David Cameron’s Conservatives can only dream of.
Currently holding one seat each, Key’s parliamentary allies ACT and United Future between then have seen their support drop to zero. If their votes were already on life support, it can now be said that they’re clinically dead.
On the other hand, NZ Labour’s vote under the new Opposition Leader, David Cunliffe, has risen to 33.5 per cent (up 1.3) and the Greens to 12.4 (up two). Seat projections, based on the Reid poll, give National and its allies 61 seats in the 124 seat House of Representatives (just two shy of a majority), and Labour and its allies 58.
Which is why the word of the day in Wellington is “Winston”.
NZ First polled 5.7 per, the first time in two years that the Reid poll has had NZ First exceeding five per cent, having dipped as low as 1.2 per cent since the November 2011 election. Across all published polls, for most of the current parliamentary term Peters’s party largely has trended between three and five per cent.
The sudden hysteria is due to this poll showing that NZ First’s vote is surging to the point that the erratic and unpredictable Peters will become a potential kingmaker if the election result reflects these figures.
If it was the United Kingdom, Key and his Nationals would be on track to a crushing majority, and until 1996 the British first-past-the-post model applied in New Zealand. But since then the Kiwis have used German-style Mixed-Member Proportional Representation, a jumble of single-member constituencies and party lists. Each New Zealander has two votes: one for his local or Maori constituency and one for the party list.
Similar to Germany, for a party to return List MPs to Parliament it needs to pass one of two thresholds: winning a constituency, or gaining at least five per cent of the list vote. If it succeeds, it is entitled to a number of party list seats proportionate to its share of the vote.
In 2010, NZ First won no constituencies but gained 6.6 per cent of the vote. This returned Peters to Parliament, along with seven other NZ First members. Given that it is not expected to pick up any constituencies this year, if at the general election the party falls short of the magic five per cent threshold, it’s curtains for Peters and his populist big government-low tax policy agenda.
But if these polling numbers are replicated at the general election, Peters will have the balance of power, and therefore the decisive say as to whether a National or Labour-led coalition forms the next New Zealand government.
Peters himself has no love for John Key, and in the last two general elections Key refused to treat with the despised ex-National. In responding to this latest poll, however, Key surprisingly left the door open to negotiations with NZ First. The Prime Minister may eventually regret this tactical mistake, as it grants the maverick Peters what he most craves: political legitimacy.
That the Prime Minister feels compelled to flirt with NZ First is additionally perplexing given that the general election is up to ten months away. There’s no need for Key to be flustered, or for breathless reporting that Labour may be in with a chance, given that Peters has supported Labour governments in the past. Here are just three reasons why the Nationals will be in power after the general election.
First, Key is doing a very sound job, so sound that this Reid poll gave him an almost four to one lead over Labour’s Cunliffe as preferred Prime Minister. He is a centre-right leader very much in the mould of Australia’s John Howard – economically liberal, socially conservative and a “good bloke”. According to the New Zealand Treasury, the country’s economy has been grown steadily under Key’s stewardship, to the extent that a historically weak New Zealand dollar has recently been catching up fast with its Australian counterpart. Key has also provided reliable and respected leadership through the deep national trauma of the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, and his government is overseeing the huge task of rebuilding that beautiful South Island city and its shattered economy.
What’s more, Key’s no predictable conservative. Last week, the pro-monarchy Key suggested that New Zealand needs a new national flag, not so much to distinguish it from the Union Jack but from Australia’s similar design. Clearly, Key won’t stand pat waiting complacently for polling day.
Second, Labour is unready to govern. Since its 2010 defeat it has had three leaders: Phil Goff, David Shearer and, since last August, David Cunliffe. Since losing office in 2008, Labour’s parliamentary and organisational wings have both been racked by division, and the party has repudiated much of its proud history of tough economic reform since the early 1980s. Voters also will see Labour as allied to its radical Green allies and their social and economic agenda.
Lastly, in Westminster democracies opinion polls tend to tighten in favour of incumbents as election day approaches and voters start to think hard about their choices. New Zealand 2014 should be no different, and give Key just enough support for a right-leaning working majority, and it may well be that the mere spectre of a Winston Peters balance of power alone will shock enough voters to turn away from NZ First and leave Peters languishing under that critical five per cent threshold.
Key’s popularity has fallen from its peak of a few years ago, but to be still tracking so close to a majority after almost six and a half years is impressive in such a splintered electoral environment. Labour’s cheer squad may hope but, notwithstanding media hype and the Prime Minister’s mis-step over legitimising Peters’s kingmaking credentials, the 2014 New Zealand election is still John Key’s to lose.