Only hours to go, so let's take a run through all the parties and see where we stand. You've got to say, there are a lot of known unknowns

Well, it's nearly here. A short and sharp campaign that, regardless of the result, has changed the policy landscape for the next election or three and intensified the 2014 race. Let's run through what we've learnt since the All Blacks won the World Cup.

I'm working on the assumption that National will be able to form some sort of government after Saturday night. What's fascinating is that we have no idea what shape it will take. John Key could be the first Prime Minister since Sid Holland to win a popular majority or he could be begging the Maori Party for confidence and supply.

As in any election there are big wheels and then little wheels at work within that. The big wheel is that in troubled times voters prefer the devil they know. There's no mood for change in this country and over the past three years Labour has failed in its main aim, which is to generate that niggling desire for something different.

It's very hard to do in New Zealand - with short three-year terms and a conservative instinct to give the blighters a fair crack, we hardly ever toss out a party after its first term. Certainly not one with a popular leader and a 'steady as she goes' message.

The biggest wheel of all is that the world is in serious economic trouble and voters tend to turn to right-wing parties when they're fretting about their hip pockets. That was all to National's benefit.

The smaller wheels, however, have favoured opposition parties.

The Greens have been the big movers. Russel Norman's fiscal discipline has spread out through his team and the Greens as Epsom candidate David Hay puts it, have gone from a seriously radical party to a radically serious party. This was epitomised by Norman on National Radio yesterday lecturing Don Brash on Basel III. Key may regret is attack on them this week - the Greens could be a very important bridge to power that he might regret burning.

Even if their numbers fall back a bit, expect them to stay in double figures and be a transformational voice in the next House. Although maintaining that discipline with a burst of new MPs will be a challenge.

Labour's bold policy platform has given it a base for 2014; it will be pleased that the initial numbers on raising the retierment were close and it will have time to nudge change some minds on capital gains.

I'd always thought it would get back to 30. I'm not so sure now, but it should be close. That'll be at the expense of some able MPs. Goff has found his voice belatedly and is likely to have earned kudos within the party for building the platform and taking the bullet - that is, unless the party's vote slumps to 25 percent or below.

It'll be fascinating to see whether Mana can achieve its goal of getting traditional non-voters (the poorest and youngest) to turn out. My guess is that either via seat or list, Annette Sykes will join Hone Harawira in parliament. John Minto may be a bridge too far, but who knows?

Then there's New Zealand First.

Some thousands of voters will decide whether Winston Peters becomes National's thorn for the next three years or a gift for National over the next three days.

New Zealand First has momentum this week, but it's a very late run and may not be enough. It's likely to be close. It seems some are looking for a buffer to National as the dominant party in the House. In short, the rationale for those moving to Peters is this: 'let's not let one bastard have too much power over the other bastards'. And who better to act as a handbrake than the biggest bastard of all?

The dream scenario for Peters and others in opposition is that he gets in and takes the attack to Key next year, politically and personally. Peters can hurt you, and if he gets back in on the oxygen from the teapot tapes and concern about National's success, that will amount to a strategic failing by National.

But there's a dream scenario for National too. Peters could get four percent, increasing the wasted vote and making it easier for National to govern alone. While Peters would love to claim part-credit for the demise of ACT, he could have breathed life back into the party this week. Epsom voters could be in the process of returning to John Banks out of fear of Peters.

Talking of Epsom, when was a National MP leading in Epsom such a shocking result?! Paul Goldsmith has credit in the bank when he gets to parliament, having been asked to look like a dick nationwide by his leadership. They owe him.

Epsom today is too close to call. It will come down to the Peters fear factor vs Labour voters ticking Goldsmith - who has the numbers?

What about the parties of government? As we know, ACT lives or dies in Epsom. It will be Banks alone, perhaps Don Brash. Adding Catherine Isaac would be a miracle at this stage. They will be an impotent party dependent on National. Banks will be a happy supplicant; Brash will not. And that could get interesting. Brash may also be a thorn for Key, probing on raising the retirement age and the like. Of course ACT would also be a useful excuse for pushing further on labour reform and privatisation, which is why Key had that cup of tea.

Banks will want to stay in parliament forever, but if Brash maks it the party will need to rejuvenate with someone such as Isaac as leader before 2014. Of course it could also be a corpse, an ex-party.

United Future? Who the hell knows about Ohariu? Could Peter Dunne yet be needed to get National to 50 percent? Could he be a goner as well? That one's all questions, no answers I'm afraid.

The Maori Party could be the biggest loser or biggest winner on the night. Worst case scenario is that it holds two seats and National needs it only as window dressing. It's allowed to keep fiddling with Whanau Ora, but gets few extra funds.

The best case scenario is that it holds four (even three) seats and holds the balance of power - a very possible storyline. What will it require of National (for surely it will be National that it goes with)? A certain percentage of state assets sold only to iwi? Many millions more for Whanau Ora? Imagine the political reaction from National's base about 'special treatment for Maori' then! That's got all sorts of potential.

Finally, there's National. John Key told me on Sunday how much harder it's been this time to run as an incumbent. That's only going to get harder. My guess is that John Key's popularity has peaked. It's downhill from here; the only question is quickly.

Key went negative in the past week, especially on Peters and debt. He didn't get tagged for fea-mongering, but the interesting point is that he felt the need to. Key has been asked to carry this campaign for National, and you can't do that without spending some political capital. His reputation has taken a hit, especially on trust.

Even though the public rallied round his stance on privacy after the teapot tapes, they wonder why he tried to have a private conversation in front of the media and reckon he shouldn't have involved the police. That could yet hurt him further.

Having said all that, he could be about to become the most powerful PM since Robert Muldoon, his favourability ratings are still super-high and he has an obedient Cabinet. In a funny way he could be more powerful and less powerful at the same time, come Sunday morning. 

So the odds are still on National, but a lot of last minute choices, turnout and tactical voting will have a significant say on what sort of government we have over the next three years.

 

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