Inspired by the rash of speculation this week, I figured it's time I gave people a chance to make fun of me a year or two from now by giving my take on where we stand ahead of next year's election
It seems that 'The Game of Thrones: 2014 New Zealand Edition' is the game of the week. Everyone in my line of business seems to have a view on who will be forging alliances with whom and who will be chopped down to size over the next 15 months. And far be it from me not to join in. So, from the foggy and undulating political landscape of July 2013, here's my view on how the election could break down.
First, everything can change and probably will; I mean who could have predicted Peter Dunne would lose the plot and change the numbers this year. Right, now that's out of the way, let's get stuck in.
For a start, second term parties have almost always won third terms in New Zealand. The exception was the imploding fourth Labour government. However all but one of those was pre-MMP (and two of them would have lost if MMP had been the system at the time and the vote hadn't changed), so that rule means little.
National is almost certain to be the largest party. One of the best bits of luck that Lucky John has had in his political career is that it's been so short and his rise was so rapid. He doesn't have years of quotes from Opposition to haunt him. Happily for Key, he has always said the largest party should govern. While that's nonsense, it does reflect public opinion and the FPP mindset that prevails in New Zealand.
All of which stands to be tested next year.
The public tends to pick these things up pretty quickly, however, which could help National and make things tricky for New Zealand First. Voters have been quick to vote strategically and help coalition partners get over the line in support of the major party they prefer. The 1996 vote for Winston Peters is the obvious exception, given that no voter could have known which way he was going to jump. But in most cases you can argue the will of the public has been pretty clear.
The lack of coalition partners for National could, for the first time, see the largest party in the House fail to command a majority in parliament. But as people grasp that reality it may also see swaying voters go back to National in preference to change.
It'll be a real challenge. New Zealanders have taken to coalitions, very clearly using their collective wisdom to shackle the major party in government with some tricky partners. We've liked the idea that a coalition partner acts as some sort of check and balance; we've liked saying to National and Labour 'let's see if you can handle that' or 'those buggers should keep you honest'.
That reluctance to vote for a majority government seems to stem from the sins of that fourth Labour government in its second term. So it'll be interesting to see whether we're still wary, whether we've simply got into a comfortable habit that now prefers coalitions, or whether the memory has faded and we're happy to give a major party the whole kit and caboodle.
If that happens, it'll be National who benefits. So almost counter-intuitively, as Key's charm begins to wane, he may be given the most power he's ever had in his third term. You can almost guarantee that won't end well for National, as the combination of public boredom with – and distaste for – the familiar will likely see a comfortable loss in 2017. You've got to wonder if Judith Collins and Steven Joyce might agree on one thing – that a clean National loss next year would serve the next leader of National far better.
I also said it'd be trick for Winston Peters. Why? Because the electorate won't put up with 1996 again. As the Greens – and probably other parties – spell out their coalition preferences, Peters will be under pressure to spell out his so that centre-right voters know whether they can rely on him as a way to ensure a third term National government.
Which way will Peters go? Only a fool would say with any certainty at this point. You can certainly argue that Peters would never give a party on 30% a mandate to govern and that he would gain much more influence as the second party in a centre-right coalition than as the third party in a centre-left coalition.
However if policy means anything to the man, he will have to go left. I've been watching his press releases over the past two years and my guess would be that he's around 80% in line with Labour policy. He would get his long-campaigned for Reserve Bank reform, something Bill English will never sanction, surely. He would action on the dollar, manufacturing investment, compulsory Super and much more. And he would avoid the hypocrisy of having to make peace with Key, and man he has personally insulted more times than I can count.
But if there's one thing we all know about Peters is that consistency means little to him. He can justify anything and, in short, will do whatever pleases him. The best thing either major party can do right now is to get a sense of what job he wants in government and start making a space for him. Peters on the cross-benches again? Maybe, but unlikely. He wants power and he's not getting any younger. If there is a change of government and he reckons Labour's good for two terms, that would likely take him to retirement. So why wouldn't he go with them rather than ride a fading National party for a third and probably final term? But as I say, only a fool would feel confident in any Petersian prediction.
What about other partners for National? The Maori Party is likely to have one seat in 2014, possibly two. I can't see them getting more unless they can pull a stellar candidate out of their sleeve. They could, of course, be wiped out, although it should hold Waiariki as Labour and Mana would split the opposition vote.
The legacy of Turia will shadow the party (and it's fair to say the strategic decision to go with National, which this week did for her co-leader Pita Sharples, was mostly hers). But Te Ururoa Flavell, assuming he takes over from Sharples, is more instinctively from the centre-left and although he has moved right with his party, I'd not be surprised to see a Flavell-led Maori Party swing back somewhat.
I don't think National can depend on a Flavell-led Maori Party (whoever his co-leader may be) as it has done. Indeed, while Flavell like many others has lost patience with Hone Harawira's unreliability, the chance remains a Mana Maori Party could emerge. While it would hurt Labour in the Maori seats, it could see the left bloc strengthened overall as one of Harawira's pre-conditions would be a refusal to deal with Key.
The other option for National is The Conservatives. Warkworth is the obvious place for Key to have a cup of tea next year (as it probably was in 2011). Epsom has more than done its duty and Colin Craig could be maneuvered into the Rodney seat, where he came second in 2011 within months of founding his party.
I call The Conservatives 'the Muldoon National Party', but it wouldn't be an easy partner for National. The new old Tories don't like asset sales, foreigners or gays, but do like smacking and getting tougher on crime and booze. So not easy for Key, but if Winston doesn't pan out, they may be his best and only bet in a year's time.
But I think both ACT and United Future are history – a comeback by either would be Herculean. So that ends the options on the right.
On the left it is much simpler. As our Poll of Polls has shown, most of the gains and losses from Labour and the Greens this year have been from each other. The two parties together have been pretty close to National – even ahead in some polls – although National is having a much better winter thus far.
Labour and the Greens only have each other – speculation Labour could ditch the Greens again is wildly optimistic on Labour's behalf. They've shown no sign of getting into a strong enough position to be anything than dependent on the Greens. And that's why they've been stepping out together so much – to get the Greens normalised in public opinion and undermine the heart of National's campaign strategy next year, which looks like to be 'Greens = scary and loony'.
But as they have been for years now, the centre-left is looking for at least four or five percentage points from somewhere. Almost certainly that has to be at National's expense, but English and Key are having a good year and those numbers aren't moving. Shearer is under-performing and Russel Norman has undermined his gains of last year by perhaps over-reaching. Someone has to win the hip-pocket debate for them, and the best person for that job is being punished for his leadership aspirations.
Unless they can find inspiration, the best they can hope for is continued erosion on the right, or perhaps more global economic problems that hurt profits and jobs here.
Mana could be more crucial than currently appreciated. If it gets two seats, it could be vital to the left in a tight race. The best news for the left bloc at the moment is that least there are more of them, and between them they might be able to find a way to overcome a hugely popular Prime Minister.
But as other minor parties stumble and fall, the resurgent Winston Peters and New Zealand First, for now, seem most likely to hold the key to victory for either bloc.
But there is a long, long road to walk yet, and there are many turns to navigate before the campaign begins.