Uncertainty makes for fascinating elections, and David Cunliffe has added to that by not even being willing to show solidarity with the Greens. But as fun as the tealeaves game is, voters are going to need better answers from the major party leaders
New Zealand First in 1996. The Maori Party in 2008. There are times when the minor parties have provided some major shocks and made a major difference as to who gets to govern New Zealand. But one thing you thought you could count on this year was the Labour-Greens bloc. Only it turns out it's not that simple.
Every poll in recent months has put Nationals support up against the Labour-Greens support. The understanding has been that National is up against a duo to their left; not just the Opposition, but a third party of unprecedented scale in the MMP era. As Andrew Geddis and I have banged on for the past couple of years, one of the key challenges for that left bloc was to ready voters for the prospect of the second largest party in parliament forming a government.
The anticipation of a close election race this year was because late last year that centre-left bloc was ahead of National and it was game on.
But in recent weeks two things have happened to muddy that picture. First, the Greens have slid a little in the pols. It's far from catastrophic, but the party that was getting as high as 15 percent is now averaging 10.8 percent in our polls of polls. That's back to near where New Zealand First ended up in 2002 – not so unprecedented anymore.
Then, this past weekend, David Cunliffe told Paddy Gower on The Nation that there was no guarantee that Labour would do business with the Greens after election day. Despite all the talk of partnership and the feeling if there was one thing you could count on the coalition front it was a Labour-Greens alliance, there was the Labour leader refusing to rule out doing to the Greens what Helen Clark did to them in the past – preferring Winston Peters over them.
Not only that, Cunliffe retracted former leader David Shearer's promise of a proportional Cabinet, with the Greens getting the same percentage of ministers as it did voters. That deal could have seen the likes of Catherine Delahunty and Eugenie Sage in cabinet ahead of Phil Goff or even Shearer himself. Cunliffe said:
David Shearer's a fine guy, but we're different roosters. I'm not doing it that way. I'm going to do it after the election in private with my Green colleagues."
While that is not an outright rejection, but it's clearly a distancing of his party from his closest allies and a signal to the Greens that they can't expect any favours.
Some have criticised such coalition questioning as pointless. Which is nonsense. Day after day we've seen stories about National's coalition conundrums, with little being asked of Labour. And here we immediately see a line drawn between presumed allies.
As Gower pointed out, Labour is asking the public to do something it has never done before – let the second largest party in parliament form a government. For it to have the trust it needs, surely Labour needs to offer more transparency than that. To refuse to answer questions about a colaition even with your best mate, and to say that any deals will only be done after the election, lacks respect for what the party is asking of voters.
Cunliffe said the voters have the right to choose who governs. But that argument misses the point that it's only an informed choice if they know what that government might look like.
Why should voters trust Labour with such a bold move to a second-place-led government, if they don't have a clear idea of what sort of government they'd be backing? Cunliffe is surely going to have to be more transparent than that.
It's fair to say that more will be expected of John Key as well. So far he has moved from declaring how transparent he would be this year to indicating he won't decide on any electorate deals until the campaign is under way. If that's his idea of transparency, Lord help us when he's feeling opaque.
One thing about the uncertainty introduced by Cunliffe, however, is that if fits the mood of the times. The minor parties have all to play for this year and the uncertainty surrounding them is arguably greater than ever. Oh, we know where ACT and United Future stand. But National won't rule out New Zealand First, Labour won't rule in the Greens, New Zealand First is open to all-comers (or none), Labour could accept Mana in government but not Hone Harawira in cabinet; and the Maori Party could go either way.
Oh, and then there's the Conservative Party, which may be a wasted two percent party of less consequence than even the Christians of days gone by, or could have a seat gifted to it and win the election for the centre-right.
Boy oh boy, the joy of uncertainty. But I suspect voters may not share my sense of fun on this one and will start demanding answers before long so that they can go into this critical election with their eyes wide open.