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From now on, this 2008 election can serve as the poster child of MMP. In future, anyone who wants to seriously diss MMP – or hold a referendum to get rid of it – will have to grapple with Saturday’s compelling evidence for the defence. Namely, the transition from a centre left coalition to a centre right coalition has been achieved, in a result that still leaves the winners with plenty of room left to govern.
So, no more moaning please from the centre right that MMP is a system that hobbles the brave, and ensures only centrist mediocrity. The Key government has won the opportunity to pass bold new legislation, if they have the stomach for it. Over the next three years, the radicals in ACT will have to blame John Key, and not MMP, if their wish list is not fulfilled.
For Labour, this was the beating they had come for months to expect. Yes, the Clark government did have major accomplishments to its credit – the longest economic boom in decades, low levels of people on benefits, a reduction in income inequality and poverty via Working for Families, Kiwisaver, nine increases to the minimum wage, lower costs for doctors visits and for prescriptions etc etc.
The trouble was, there was no one to sell the message. Long before 2008 had begun, Helen Clark had been virtually neutralized as an election asset, while Michael Cullen had turned himself into Labour’s answer to Dick Cheney – a deputy so electorally radioactive that he should have been kept in an underground bunker for the entire term. Labour simply had no credible vendor left who could tell a positive story – and so it went to its doom with an uncoordinated series of scare messages and personal smears that earned no traction whatsoever.
Someday, a PHD awaits some bright political science student who can trace the road to Helengrad, and the systematic erosion of Helen Clark’s public standing and popularity. With hindsight, going with the Greens and Maori Party after the 2005 election could have rejuvenated her administration, but the problems probably went deeper than that. At her zenith, Clark enjoyed wide, even global, respect for her intelligence, managerial skills, compassionate pragmatism and command of detail – but her performance was only rarely suffused with spontaneous warmth, or sparked genuine affection from the public. Therefore, by the time the pragmatism had curdled into a static sense of superiority – and Clark and Cullen could be the Bobbsey Twins of We-Know-Best – there was nothing left in the tank of public good will.
The global financial crisis and the recession will now limit the scope for some of John Key’s decisions – even while it gives him a ready excuse to defer others entirely. Beyond a few moves to stimulate the economy and save it from the deflationary forces now moving in from offshore, he and Bill English will probably manage the economy defensively, at least during the first 18 months.
Reality though, can be postponed for only so long. Does anyone really think that economic growth is going to flow from being able to fast track projects ( what projects would we be currently talking about ?) under the RMA, by creating a probationary period for new workers, and by altering the Emissions Trading Scheme to ensure that business can live in denial for a few more years about climate change ? These are symbolic sops, not a plan for growth. The $700 million fund that could have fast tracked research – in agriculture in particular – and fostered long term growth is being axed by the new government, to help pay for the tax cuts.
To offshore observers, the change of government may need a bit of explaining. As someone told me on Saturday night, everyone else is putting their former Merrill Lynch traders on ice floes, and pushing them out to sea – not entrusting them with more power. Similarly, the fusty economic policies that the Act Party will bring to the Cabinet table have never been held in greater odium, globally – and Key will be under no pressure to do anything more than grin and humour Rodney Hide, given that the Act Party is still appealing to less than four voters in a hundred, even at its current high water mark.
Act’s ‘three strikes’ policy on crime by the way, is just as politically decrepit as its denial of climate change, and its Reagan era economic policies. The ‘three strikes’ rule was first tried in California 14 years ago at great subsequent expense (Hide can hardly preach about the need for cutbacks in government spending when he has this albatross around his neck) and with no discernible improvements in crime rates or recidivism. Truly, the return of Sir Roger Douglas is not the only reason that Act’s resurgence on Saturday felt like a re-run of George Romero’s old zombie classic, The Night of the Living Dead.
Even among the losers, there were reasons to be grateful on Saturday night. Luckily, Labour did not earn enough votes to have any chance of forming a governing coalition, from a position far behind in second place. As I said last Friday on Scoop, if Clark had been able to cobble together a way of governing from the back seat, there would have been hell to pay – fairly or not, half the country would have felt outraged at being thwarted, and would have vented their anger on the voting system. Similarly the Maori Party can probably feel relieved that it didn’t have to play the kingmaker role – and thus infuriate its own supporters by putting National into government, or inflame a large chunk of the rest of the country by doing the same for Labour.
For all its tactical cleverness during the campaign, the Maori Party got only a single extra MP. Essentially, the flirtation with National raised the hackles of enough Maori voters to put Labour’s Parekura Horomia and Nanaia Mahuta back into Parliament, despite the unkind boundary changes faced by Mahuta in her seat. Dr Pita Sharples is ignoring the elephant in the room, when he blames that outcome on a lingering, historical sentiment for Labour. It was more indicative of the genuine horror among many Maori voters at the signals that he ( and some of his colleagues) were sending out during the campaign. Sharples should be listening to those voters, not patronising them.
Key has said he will consult this week with the Maori Party, and has spoken of the advantages for him of having five MPs ( the Act Party) to his right, and five MPs ( the Maori Party) out to his left. Just what the Maori Party stands to gain from serving as one of the outriggers on Key’s canoe is hard to see. Surely not the Maori Affairs portfolio that the Maori Party scorned as tokenism during the election campaign ? Even the welfare portfolio, in the circumstances of a gathering recession, would be a poisoned chalice.
And in return, what in addition would the Maori Party have to give up to National? Probably, the same support deal – ie, abstention on confidence and supply votes – that enabled the Greens a few minimal gains in 2005, and the enduring perception of being Labour’s doormat. There’s not much to enhance the mana in that kind of arrangement. In fact, over the next three years, there may be more mana in reforging a more dynamic relationship of equals with Labour, under its new leadership.
Labour’s new leadership. With perfect timing, Clark used her concession speech to announce her departure. No wavering, no vacuum for speculation about whether and when she would step down. Currently, the contenders for Helen Clark’s job probably come down to only two serious players : Phil Goff and David Cunliffe. Given the nature of Labour infighting, ideological labeling seems inevitable – even though it would take a busload of Jesuits to work out just how Goff is right wing, and Cunliffe isn’t. For the ideologues, Maryann Street would offer the obvious left wing balancing rod /gender balance as deputy, for whichever of the two likely contenders emerges victorious.
Unfortunately, the little matter of just whose political style would be best equipped to confront John Key may not figure in the choice. Goff, provided he dials back the spleen a little, definitely wins out on that score. Cunliffe is extremely bright and has better economic credentials but for those very reasons, would seem better deployed in marking English, not Key. As he showed in the Immigration portfolio, Cunliffe is an extremely able defender, a good clay court baseline player – but he is not a serve and volley guy who can come in aggressively to the net. Questionmarks must also exist about Cunliffe’s current ability to win over his caucus – some of whom do not share David Cunliffe’s estimation of David Cunliffe – and motivate and manage them.
In essence, Labour needs someone who can take the fight to Key once the honeymoon wears off. Goff already has the higher public profile, and seems better equipped all round to play that role. Linda Clark’s comment on Saturday night that Andrew Little is being groomed as a future leader is almost certainly correct – and Little’s route into Parliament, like that of David Lange before him, could come via a by-election. The possible flaw in the strategy : Andrew Little is not a David Lange. For now, the replacing of Helen Clark is a process already in train, and will be completed by Christmas. But who is going to tell Michael Cullen that its time to surrender the Finance role ?
As for the Greens, this was a disappointing night for them, also – even if their caucus intake went up from six MPs to eight, during a night of decline in the fortunes of the centre left. There is a slim chance that a ninth MP, Kennedy Graham, may come in on the specials, and give Keith Locke a strong colleague in his foreign affairs/human rights work. By David Farrar’s estimates though, it would take an extra 3,600 votes in the specials to get Graham into Parliament. Not impossible, but difficult.
For Jeanette Fitzsimons, the election outcome means that she will now end her career without her political and scientific skills and moral authority ever having been fully exercised, as a Cabinet Minister. That’s a real loss for the Greens, and for the entire country. The Green Party’s next step will be to begin the process of finding a new female co-leader, presuming Fitzsimons does announce her plans to step down – which should be confirmed at the next Greens annual conference in June, if not sooner. Metiria Turei and Sue Bradford are the obvious contenders.
During the last term, the Greens proved highly effective in getting their private members bills passed into legislation. Well, the No Right Turn blog has signalled a suitable topic for a private members bill in the next Parliament, in order to correct a structural flaw in MMP that the Saturday night result exposed in spades. Namely, that Act won one electorate, got only 3.72 per cent of the vote and yet earned 5 MPs. While New Zealand First got 4.2 per cent of the vote ( about 100, 000 votes in all ) and no MPs whatsoever.
The rule that permits an electorate victory to bring on board all the list vote below 5 per cent has to be changed – and/or the 5 per cent threshold needs to be lowered. Is there any hope of that advance for democracy being supported by the major parties, or by the coalition partners in the new government ? Hardly. Yet it would be worthwhile for the Greens to try holding the new government – and especially the likes of Peter Dunne – to account on this point. A private members Bill along Canadian lines, to hold this government to its Kyoto commitments might be worth a shot, as well.
On the wider front, we are about to find out how a centre right government, elected by a public said to be driven by a desire for change, will actually interpret that mandate for change. Whatever they do will have to take account of a global recession which – hopefully – will not reach the scale depicted by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.
Here’s how Steinbeck described the sort of people who were making the key decisions back then :
“Little pot-bellied men in suits…clean, pink men with puzzled, worried eyes, with restless eyes. Worried because formulas do not work out; hungry for security and yet sensing its disappearance from the earth. In their lapels the insignia of lodges and service clubs, places where they can go and, by weight of numbers of little worried men, reassure themselves that business is noble and not the curious ritualised thievery they know it is; that business men are intelligent in spite of the records of their stupidity; that they are kind and charitable in spite of the principles of sound business; that their lives are rich instead of the thin tiresome routines they know; and that a time is coming when they will not be afraid any more…”