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NZ PM John Key makes it three in a row as Labour goes backwards

John Key’s government has been returned for a third term and, remarkably, his National Party increased its vote for the fourth election in a row. AAP/SNPA/Ross Setford

New Zealand’s centre-right National Party won the general election with an unprecedented boost on Saturday. Going for a third term in office, National increased its share of the party vote in the proportional electoral system.

In 2008, National gained office with 44.9% of the vote; this rose in 2011 to 47.3%. This time, in the final days of the most bizarre election campaign in living memory, the opinion polls were averaging around 47.8% for National. Past experience suggested that such polls over-estimate National’s actual support by two percentage points or more.

So the election-night result of 48.06% was a surprise. Governments don’t normally rise and rise in popularity like that. In fact, National’s party vote has increased four elections in a row.

Key defies ‘dirty tricks’ claims

The win was in spite of allegations of “dirty” attack-style politics and mass cyber-surveillance. Throughout, Prime Minister John Key appealed to voters to judge his government on its track record of “strong and stable government”. Part of that pitch was (rightly or wrongly) an accusation that a Labour-led government would be weak and unstable.

The election gives Key 61 seats out of 121 in New Zealand’s unicameral parliament. That’s just enough to govern alone as a single-party majority – another unprecedented outcome for New Zealand since its proportional representation system was introduced in 1996.

Special votes, once counted, may rob National of one seat. But Key can easily form a government with the guaranteed support of two minor parties (ACT and United Future). Each held on to a single electorate, thanks to pre-electoral accommodations made by National. Key will also talk with the Maori Party, which won two seats, down from three. The Maori Party has worked with National since 2008.

Winston Peters and his NZ First Party are “surplus to requirements” for the next government, despite earlier speculation that Peters would be “kingmaker”. But Peters can feel proud of his party’s result, up from 6.6% in 2011 to 8.85% this time.

Money politics falls flat

Observers should note that, in New Zealand, money does not buy you an election. Millionaires Kim Dotcom and Colin Craig between them gambled around NZ$6 million on their respective boutique parties and both have failed. Should they have given the cash to charities instead?

In Dotcom’s case, the result is disastrous. His Internet Party made a pre-electoral pact to run conjointly with the Mana Movement. Mana leader Hone Harawira held a single electorate seat, Te Tai Tokerau, an indigenous constituency plagued by social deprivation. The plan was that the Internet Party would get into parliament on Harawira’s coat-tails without having to cross the 5% threshold. And Kim would send the cheques.

But, in a major upset, Harawira lost his electorate seat to Labour’s Kelvin Davis. With only 1.26% of the party vote, the Internet-Mana coalition has bombed out. Dotcom has apologised to Harawira for damaging Mana’s brand. And many of Harawira’s former supporters accuse him of selling out to a wealthy foreigner.

Craig’s Conservative Party improved on its 2011 result, up from 2.65% to 4.2%, but short of the 5% threshold. Craig promises to be back next time.

Voters continue to abandon Labour

Labour’s result is simply dismal. Support for Labour has steadily evaporated from 41% in 2005 to 24.7% this time. Leader David Cunliffe has not fallen on his sword (at the time of writing). Some of his colleagues will queue up to deliver the coup de grace anyway, as party rules require a caucus confidence vote following an election.

Labour leader David Cunliffe’s days look numbered after his party’s abysmal showing. AAP/Mediaworks

Defensively, Cunliffe argues that the controversies that dogged National during the campaign served only to distract voters’ attention from Labour’s key messages. Many Kiwis do agree with Labour that the country has become too unequal and unfair, especially for the poor and the young. But Labour has again failed to loosen Key’s hold on the centre stage of politics.

A damning statistic is that, while Cunliffe won his local electorate, Auckland’s New Lynn, by a comfortable majority of 3,700, the same constituency favoured National over Labour in their party vote (11,650 votes against 10,160 respectively). This pattern of vote-splitting was repeated across many electorates that were “won” by leading Labour MPs. Some Labour candidates may have fought for their positions at the expense of the party as a whole.

The Greens, despite a good clean campaign with two effective co-leaders, also had a disappointing night. Opinion polls had them on about 12.5%. But they have dropped from 11% (in 2011) to 10%, and they lose one seat. Special votes tend to favour the Greens, however. So, after the wash-up, they may be back where they started, if they’re lucky.

The left as a whole was hoping for a larger voter turnout after the historic low of 2011 (74.2% of enrolled voters). Voting is not compulsory in New Zealand and much publicity went into encouraging people, especially the young, to enrol and vote. But this election recorded only a small increase in turnout, to 77% of those enrolled. (Note that 91.3% of the estimated eligible population had enrolled by September 14.)

The outlook for National’s third term

So, what are the challenges for the Key government in its third term? National’s success is partly due to strong post-recession growth and a return to budget surpluses. The government was not seeking a mandate for bold or controversial policies, unlike the asset-sales policy of 2011.

Surprisingly, no reporter or opposition politician asked Key if he would support the Obama administration in its military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq. Australia and France have entered the fray.

New Zealand is presently campaigning for a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and so could become a very handy ally. A request to support the air strikes may arrive once the Key ministry is sworn in again.

Other than that, expect business as usual in economic management. Tax cuts are possible later in this third term.

I predict that a National government will poach ideological game from both Labour and the Greens, with an eye on a fourth term. If that works, Key would become National’s second Holyoake.

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