The latest opinion polls raise the prospect of a scenario that's new to modern New Zealand politics – the party that comes second leading the government. And it's something we need to front early
Two polls this week show support for National slipping, reinforcing my belief that not only has National missed out on any sort of honeymoon after November's election, but its popularity has likely peaked under John Key, never again to reach those heady days of 2009, or even late last year. Given the weakness of other parties on the right, that means we may have to confront a new constitutional reality heading into the 2014 election – the potential for the country's second most popular party to lead a government.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not pretending to predict what might happen between now and the next election or that John Key isn't leading a popular government right now. Electoral cycles have a certain rhythm to them, however, and in some circles Key is himself admitting that, all other things being equal, he's only got a 50/50 shot at a third term.
So let's take a look at those polls.
TV3's Reid Research poll has National hogging most of the vote on the right, as the party consistently has under John Key. It sits on 47.5 percent, almost exactly what it got at the election. But Labour's up a little, so it's interesting to consider the left and right blocs. According to the TV3 poll, support for ACT and United Future is negligible.
Add together the opposition vote – Labour on 29, the Greens on 13 and New Zealand First on five. Mana has 1.3 percent, should Labour change its policy on supping with Hone Harawira. But even without Mana, the left and right blocs are neck and neck given the margin of error, and that's before any assets are sold and public services are (more substantially) cut. The Maori Party could well have the balance of power.
The latest edition of the Roy Morgan poll – considered a little less reliable than Reid, but more frequent – has National down to 45.5 percent, Labour on 31, the Greens on 11.5, New Zealand First on six, ACT on one and United Future on 0.5. As pollster Gary Morgan points out:
“Overall support for the full National-led Government has dipped to 48.5% (down 0.5%), trailing the Opposition Parties (51.5%, up 0.5%)."
Which opens the door to the fascinating scenario mentioned – that the largest party may not be able to command the confidence of parliament. Assuming no leadership changes, John Key may be leading the most popular party and may still be preferred Prime Minister, but it could be David Shearer heading off for a chat with the Governor-General about leading the country.
While that possibility lies well into the realms of uncertainty, it would cause a huge commotion. So it's something we should start getting our heads around asap.
For those who spend their working days in the political world, it's not such a radical notion; it's Pol. Sci. 101 that the government has to command a majority in the House. But most voters would be shocked.
To be honest, even now I suspect that the bulk of voters look at politics and still see a first past the post world. It's National or Labour, just with their respective add-ons (there to keep the buggers honest or act as some ballast).
TVNZ and Colmar Brunton polled on just who should get to form the government in the 2008 campaign. From memory, Chris Trotter went off his nut about the question, seeing it as a pro-National set-up. But the fact is, we should be discussing this topic and guaging the public mood.
It was a legitimate question and the results were fascinating. To quote from the story at the time:
"...nearly 80% of people think that the party with the most votes should be the one that gets to lead the government, with just 15% disagreeing."
John Key said:
"All of the last four MMP elections have reflected that the largest party formed the government and I think that just reflects the will of the people. It's called democracy."
Which is kinda true as far as it goes. But that's not very far. What parliamentary democracy actually requires is the confidence of the House and the numbers to keep the cash flowing. If "the will of the people" doesn't give the largest party enough votes to do that either directly or via known coalition partners, then the will of the people ain't in its favour.
Whilst we have no written constitution saying as much, there's no doubt that would be our constitutional reality.
But if over three-quarters of voters think otherwise, isn't it a good idea to start talking about this, rather than confronting it in the heat of political battle? Yeah, I think so too.
Perhaps it should take a place in the MMP review, because if voters were to feel surprised or duped in any way by such a turn of events, it could seriously undermine support for the system.
As it stands, you can expect more sympathy from the left for this position, because with two strong-ish parties it's to their advantage. National, if it has any sense, will already be pondering how to get around this issue. For a start it may seek more actively to pump life into ACT or United Future, although that may be a forlorn hope. It may look to boost the Conservatives or nurture more carefully its relationship with the Maori Party.
Of course it may not be a problem; one or other major party may comfortably control the numbers. Voters, if they see this scenario coming and think it unfair, may vote strategically. Or it may just be a matter of letting the largest party try to form a government, fail and be seen to have failed, and then let the other parties come together.
Either way, it'd be wise for us to adopt a no surprises policy by nutting out the rule and making it clear to voters sooner rather than later.