With so much analysis it can be easy to miss the wood for the trees at this point. While there's still nothing certain about our next government, we can look back to look forward and recognise the historic nature of this result

It's the nature of MMP that as we try to make sense of the public will expressed in last night's results, that we dive into the entrails. We ponder paths to power and what might be in Winston Peter's mind. But in doing so we risk missing the headline number: 46.

Whichever way you cut it and whatever finally happens, Bill English and the National made history last night with a phenomenal result. Seeking an historic fourth term, National has won a greater percent of the vote than it when it came to power in 2008, when it won 44.9 percent.

I wrote on this blog last summer that for English to win he would have to do some remarkable. The great loser of 2002, who led his party to its worst result ever, would have to be the first substitute Prime Minister since Peter Fraser in 1938 to win an election. In the intervening years six others have tried to take over the reins and win again and all have failed.

Now English is not there yet. He has to negotiate the maze that is Winston Peters before he can make history. But he and his party are in a dominant position in any negotiations. As he said just about as soon as he got on stage last night - aimed at an audience of one - National has won nearly half the vote and 10 points more then their nearest rival.

The National Party core campaign team will be pinching themselves this morning. They would hardly have believed a 46 was possible a few weeks ago, even before the Jacinda Effect. 

In the past century (post Richard Seddon Liberals and Bill Massey's various Reform-led coalitions), New Zealand has only had two four-term governments. The first Labour government under Mickey Savage and then Peter Fraser achieved it, helped by the popularity of the new 'cradle to grave' welfare state it created and the misery of World War II. The Maori seats played a big role in Labour hanging on for a fourth go.

You can see some echoes of that government today, with English taking over from the popular John Key, as Fraser took over from Savage (albeit much earlier in the life cycle). English with his work on social investment - while to my mind still a long way short of Fraser's social revolution - is being discussed in some right-wing circles as a modern-day Fraser.

The second occasion was when Keith Holyoake did four terms on his own, back in the days when New Zealand lived off the sheep's back and was one of the wealtiest countries on the planet. Labour had been expected to win in 1969, but a (temporary) economic rebound after the wool price collapse in 1966 and a nimble new finance minister called Rob Muldoon - plus a bit of an industrial relations kerfuffle - allowed Holyoake to sneak through again.

Some considered a young Labour leader called Norm Kirk wasn't quite ready to rule. So one of the interesting questions now is whether Ardern could be Labour's next Kirk.

Because you know what happens after fourth terms, right? The other lot come throug strong. Fraser went from a four seat majority to a 12 seat loss in 1949. Kirk swept aside Holyoake's replacement Jack Marshall in 1972, 55 seats to 32.

As fascinating as it is to consider those ripples of history, let me say again, English isn't there yet. Just as campaigns can flounder or pivot, so can negotiations.

It will be very hard for New Zealand First to negotiate its way around a number as big as 46 without hitting the rocks, even if it was so inclined. But it's not impossible. Especially if that 46 shrinks significantly.

The specials could well come into play, and one of the weaknesses of this phase of our electoral system is that we ask our politicians to start negotiating power without, as Winston Peters likes to say, knowing all the cards in their hands.

Labour is hoping we may yet see something of a 'youthquake' in the special votes and that National could lose as much as two percent. Remember, specials include all those who enrolled and voted at the same time and Labour had been heartened by the turnout at universities around the country.

Two points off National and shared between Labour and the Greens (the latter typically get an extra seat from the specials, though they haven't faced the Jacinda Effect before) certainly gets into trouble territory for National, so it will be interesting to see how New Zealand First plays that.

Let's also not forget the cross-benches option. While the 'baubles of office', we assume, are too much of a motivation for Peters and his party, it's not impossible that his read of this election and the mood for change that Labour tapped into might best be navigated from outside of a concrete coalition.

Labour will certainly have plenty to offer a coalition partner, as it tries to negotiate the Winston maze. The Deputy Prime Ministership is a given, as Kelvin Davis is never going to work in that role. New Zealand First's key policy platforms of cutting immigration, re-framing our trade and economic relations in a more nationalistic manner and restoring funding to our public services would be much better served by Labour.

The initial results last night also suggest that Labour has returned to normal in its popularity in the cities and with Maori. They are back in Christchurch and ate into National's numbers in a lot of provincial cities. If New Zealand First sees its future as a party for the more rural regions, it may want to leave Labour to grow its vote in the cities while taking on National in the hinterland from a position of power. 

It's proper to note that Labour wrote its own bit of history, surging perhaps 12 points in the election campaign. That's a phenomenal leap in less than two months and Jacinda Ardern has put herself in the box seat to be Prime Minister in 2020, if it doesn't come together for her in the next few weeks.

While there's much talk about the possibility of National offering the kowhai branch to the Greens, it's nigh impossible for either party. Some in National long for the party to have partners to its left and right and to ride the blue-green wave. But how can National reward its farmer base that turned out so strongly for it this time with the Greens in tow? And, frankly, how could the Greens survive a dance with the right given its own base and after what Metiria Turei has done?

As Russel Norman said on RNZ last night, it would require 75 percent support at an AGM for a deal to be endorsed. That ain't gonna happen. And frankly, the Greens have their own internal ructions to deal with (ructions that will be played out publicly in a co-leadership contest). So not even.

Finally, the other bit of history is bad for everyone, except perhaps Willie Jackson. With the demise of the Maori Party, our parliament is less diverse. Sure, the Maori voices are still many, but the Maori Party's distinct kaupapa is lost for now, and that's something to regret. It'll be interesting to see how might rebuild the party, and how. The one bright spot for them is that a leadership team of Marama Fox and Lance O'Sullivan would be pretty darned appealing.

Right now the new campaign starts; the negotiation phase. And much will come down to a potent combination of personalities, policy and positions. By far the most likely outcome is a National-New Zealand First coalition (ACT won't be needed and David Seymour will have the chance to break free and rebuild on the right). But it's not certain. And even if it's what eventuates, exactly what sort of government that looks like and what mix of policies we're left with, is anyone's guess. Let phase two begin.

Comments (9)

by Dennis Frank on September 24, 2017
Dennis Frank

Yeah, Willie Jackson seems biggest winner after Winston.  Maori punishing the Maori Party makes the Maori king's unprecedented support for them look totally irrelevant, brings to mind Yogi Berra's deja vu all over again.  They trashed pan-tribal solidarity when they destroyed Mana Motuhake too.

The rationale has to be the poisoning effect of working with the Nats.  Lack of trickle-down.  Maori aristocrats like Underpants Morgan not suitable role models.

by Ross on September 24, 2017

Now English is not there yet. He has to negotiate the maze that is Winston Peters before he can make history. But he and his party are in a dominant position in any negotiations. As he said just about as soon as he got on stage last night - aimed at an audience of one - National has won nearly half the vote and 10 points more then their nearest rival.

Hmmm that's a FPP comment in an MMP world. It seems that old habits die hard. It also ignores special votes. It might be appropriate to wait until the votes have actually been counted before proclaiming victory. 

by Katharine Moody on September 24, 2017
Katharine Moody

Worth a re-read of Winston Peters' Budget 2017 speech;


Right through to the conclusion.

by Tim Watkin on September 25, 2017
Tim Watkin

Hey Ross, I'm going to push back on that because I bang on endlessly about having to think MMP-wise and have written for years about the second party winning and having to think in terms of coalitions.

I'm also not sure you read the whole piece, because I discussed the specials and the potential for two seats to swing.

But I actually think your thoughts are misunderstanding how MMP works. Clark never even reached 42 percent even in her pomp. Key's first win was 44.9. For English to get 46 this far into the lifecycle of a government is phenomenal. I think a lot of people are missing that. And it has to give them the dominant position and is even more impressive given MMP.

Yes, ther's a potential downside in that National has consumed potential partners. But that's got strength and weaknesses.

Having said that, all I'm saying is that National is dominant and English was clearly positioning himself at the top of the tree. I never said anything about victory; in fact in the bit you clipped, I said "English is not there yet". Plenty to go.

by william blake on September 25, 2017
william blake

English and the blues getting this repeat number of votes is definitely phenomenal and I would give that phenomenon the name of tribalism.

by Kat on September 25, 2017

@William Blake

Exactly. I have been saying for years that NZ is pretty much divided down the middle with repects to voting patterns. It appears now that those patterns have hardened to the point where I would say 45% is now about right for National. Bill English just happens to be in the right place at the right time, this time.  Politics has become extremely sectarian.


by Tim Watkin on September 25, 2017
Tim Watkin

Tribalism exists, but National's consistency over four elections is not business as usual.

Kat, 45% may be about right for National now, but there's nothing normal about that for it or any ruling party, exspecially under MMP. Clark never got close. When English was previously leader, National were in the early 20s, as Labour was two months ago.

NZers don't hove to one tribe or one sect for that long. 

by Kat on September 25, 2017

Tim, demographics will have a lot to do with Nationals current support. Factors influencing that would be immigration and who owns what and who controls the levers of power in this country. Apart from the one lone representative from Epsom the right have been absorbed and consolidated against any threat from the Left. If the Greens and NZF were to shut up shop I would say Labour and National would be back to within a few points either way of each other.

These are different times and NZ like a few other countries recently is showing clear signs of being more tribal than ever.

by Ross on September 25, 2017

But I actually think your thoughts are misunderstanding how MMP works

I think I know how MMP works pretty well. Polling around 45% guarantees you nothing. National could be a very popular Opposition party! Angela Merkel appears destined for a fourth term as German Chancellor. However, her party polled a mere 32.5% in the weekend. That's what MMP is all about - consensus.

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