Campbell: NZ's Non-Election Comes To A Close

With one day to go, this election campaign continues to be a foregone conclusion that stubbornly refuses to turn into a real contest. The narrative that the media would have preferred – tightening race, mounting drama, nail biting excitement – just hasn’t eventuated. By the time the last debate rolled round on Wednesday night, it seemed as though the leaders themselves had decided it was time for fun and foibles, girlfriends and best friends. Anything but confrontations over content. We never really had those, and the leaders were not about to start them this late in the game.

So if the polls are right – and in the US presidential race they were extremely accurate – National and John Key will be elected tomorrow night. Helen Clark and a few diehards on the centre left still talk hopefully about the chances of a centre left grouping of Labour, Jim Anderton and the Greens being able to entice the Maori Party over to their side. Plus Winston Peters if he makes it back. Theoretically, such a grouping is possible. The problem is, such an outcome would kill MMP.

If MMP enabled the major party that came in a distant second in tomorrow’s election to form the winning team, I think there would be such outrage up and down the country – wrong-headed or not, it would happen – that MMP would quickly join the audio cassette and CB radio in the dustbin of history.

Judging by today’s Fairfax poll, National could even govern with just Peter Dunne in tow, and a resurgent Act Party. If true, this outcome would be a blessing is disguise for the Maori Party, and save them from actually having to play the kingmaker role they have so cleverly fashioned for themselves – but which in reality would be a curse. It would leave them either having to piss off the bulk of their own followers by going with National, or enraging the rest of the country by going with Labour.

For the centre left, this election offers a truly dismal prospect. With Labour widely seen as a lost cause, the Greens are polling extremely well, and safely beyond the 5 per cent threshold. Almost to a fault in fact, when one looks at just who might come in off the Green list if people vote for them in really high numbers. Catherine Delahunty and Dave Clendon excepted, there are some people waiting at the edge of the Green high tide ( Mike Ward, again anyone?) who might be considered a decidedly mixed blessing. Unfortunately, Matt Robson will probably not benefit in the same way from any exodus from Labour – mainly because the Progressives have never seemed like anything other than a one man band.

In the end, one may have to trust the electoral system, and the restraints that MMP imposes on the ruling party. If the National/Act /Dunne team behave as an extreme right wing party in power, voters will be forced to remember just why they chose MMP in the first place – and punish the government accordingly the next chance they get, in 2011. After all, the public has not given National any license to lead a radical free market government – and John Key has bent over backwards NOT to ask the public for such a mandate, and has virtually denied any suggestion that such thoughts have ever crossed his mind. If the public give John Key a mandate tomorrow, it won’t extend much beyond Not Being Helen Clark.

I think this election is about MMP, and its future. During this last week of the campaign, what passed for a policy debate focussed on the Maori Party desire to see the Maori seats entrenched. While the policy wonks debated which bits of the Electoral Act would need to be entrenched – sections 45, and clauses 76 and 77 on the electoral option ? – the two major parties have courted the Maori Party with shameless ardour. Even if the National/Act/Dunne bloc don’t eventually need the Maori Party to govern, they may well invite then on board anyways as ballast, to give some sense of outreach and ideological breadth.

Some of the recent courtship has been amusing to watch, as John Key has tried to play Twister – with one foot on his vow to abolish the Maori seats by 2014, and the other foot on its exact opposite option, of entrenching the same seats. Surprisingly little debate has occurred over the implications of entrenchment for MMP. The Greens in particular – who seem very keen on entrenchment – seem oblivious to the suicidal element in this stance.

Obviously, if the Maori seats are entrenched, it will be that much easier for the Maori Party (entirely electorate based, and not a list party at all as yet) to then kick the MMP ladder away for everyone else. In doing so, it would be acting as one with the two major parties, who have never relished losing their periodic turn at wielding absolute power. Why the Greens would want to help the Maori Party to achieve this position and thus imperil MMP by doing so, is a genuine mystery – but then again, the Greens have received absolutely nothing in return for their relentless courtship of the Maori Party on other fronts, either.

By 2011, the MMP landscape will have changed. Dunne, Anderton, and Peters will have either gone, or be well on the way out. Only the Greens, the Maori Party and Act will remain and the Maori Party could well have evolved by then into needing the list system far more than it does right now, for reasons that will flow directly from the outcome of this election.

Meaning: in the Maori electorates, the current position of the Maori Party is close to being as good as it will ever get. There are already signs coming through in the Marae Digipolls of resistance to the flirtation with National. Once the Maori Party loses its political virginity at this election – and especially if it props up National in government in return for entrenchment and a couple of Cabinet baubles, it will have to fight far harder to retain its base support. New Zealand First, which swept the Maori electorates in the mid 1990s and then got swept away almost as fast once it joined with National, are a stark reminder of just how volatile the Maori electorates can be. Any collusion with National in a crackdown on welfare entitlements, or on cutting wages and conditions – however this was rationalised – would quickly make entrenchment look like a hollow victory indeed. In time, the Maori Party may need MMP and the list system far more than seems evident right now.

None of the above suggests how anyone should vote tomorrow, but it does suggest a source of consolation about the likely result. There is a void behind the National slogans and posturing, but MMP may save us from it daring to fill that void with ideological excesses, no matter what Roger Douglas may have in mind.

Not voting by the way, is not recommended tomorrow. Given the nature of this campaign though – it rarely rose above the level of “You’re scary/No I’m not” – anyone could be forgiven for feeling in their hearts the Tammy Metzler stance from the Reese Witherspoon movie Election, while they cast their ballot. Here’s her memorable speech from the school gym.

TAMMY: We all know it doesn’t matter who gets elected president of Millard. You think it’s going to change anything around here, make one single person happier or smarter or nicer? The only person it matters to is the one who gets elected. The same pathetic charade happens every year, and everyone makes the same pathetic promises just so they can put it on their transcripts to get into college. So vote for me, because I don’t even want to go to college, and I don’t care, and as president I won’t do anything. The only promise I make is that if elected I will immediately dismantle the student government, so that none of us will ever have to sit through one of these stupid assemblies again!

Script: There is a sudden huge cathartic eruption of cheers and applause. Tammy has set them free.

STUDENTS: Tammy! Tammy! Tammy!

Script: In total control, she steps back from the mike and CURTSIES. She grabs the mike for one final exhortation:

TAMMY: 0h don’t vote for me I Who cares? Don’t vote at all!

The students go nuts.

That’s the spirit. With a smile on your lips and anarchy in your heart, prepare to go down with the ship.

ENDS

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