Natural and international disasters have absolved National of the usual competency tests, but do New Zealanders really want a single party majority government?

As polls continue to show National postioned to govern alone just two weeks out from the election, voters are going to have to confront a stark choice. Do they want any government, let alone this one, to govern on its own.

Or, in an alternative universe coming near to you soon, and as the fear-mongers have begun to shrill, is the specter of some hydra-shaped-Gila-monster-alternative-coalition going to shake us from our torpor and stiffen our resolve to give National what it wants so we don't all fall off the planet?
Under normal conditions most political junkies would have been very sceptical about National achieving outright or effective majority support. But we are not experiencing normal conditions. Global economic insecurity, our own market failures, bail-outs and economic malaise, the emotional residue of Pike River and the Christchurch earthquakes, salved only temporarily by the World Cup success it feels like now, has delivered us a highly unusual campaign dynamic. 

Our political history also, and always, favoured National's re-election, which shouldn't be lost sight of in the wash. Only two one-term governments since World War II (1957-60, 1972-75) signals the general goodwill extended by voters to incumbent parties seeking a second term.

Again, under normal conditions, this proposition may have been more thoroughly tested because National has failed to fulfill any of its own promises. Step change and catching up with Australia have failed to materialise but it hasn't mattered because Key and National have not been held responsible. Their situational milieu has absolved them from the competency test in 2011.     

In this sense the situational variables have swamped the government's agency to achieve its ambitions and I suspect that long after this government has been and gone we'll remember it as the 'Reconstruction Government'. Whether it agrees or not, or likes it or not, restoring the rubble of Christchurch is its defining purpose. Events have dictated that and National cannot escape it.

Despite leader John Key's empathy in disaster and his effortless ability to make black sound white this government's performance has been very uneven, yet the public's suspension of disbelief continues. 'Show me the money' shields a lot of unpalatable truths about New Zealand's present conditions, including the government's own economic performance. The staggering numbers of youth unemployment - surely a ticking time-bomb, a crisis in situ in other words - stagnant growth, and no serious plan to broaden or develop the breadth of our economy, leaves National's promised 'brighter future' narrative reduced to little more than 'more cows: less public servants'.

If, and it's a biggie, the books are returned to surplus by 2014/15, then isn't New Zealand effectively back to where it started just a few months out from the 2008 election? No forward progress, still muddling through. First principle questions still not asked. 

Labour, struggling mightily to avoid the mirror-image of what happened to National in 2002, has offered a rejuvenation of sorts through its politically courageous yet risky policy innovation. However, it has not and cannot offer a rejuvenated face to the electorate. Its public face is still a reminder of a recent past New Zealanders turned away from three years ago. There is nothing Labour can do about this now. Its strategists will be waking each morning gripped with something akin to 'the fear' its National equivalents suffered during the English patient's near-death spiral nine years ago.

If Labour is decimated in two weeks time it will be mightily difficult for it to seriously challenge National in the 2014 election. And that I think has always been the underlying driving ambition of both red and blue camps: 2014.

If Labour's vote collapses then Key's odds of staying round to challenge next time round will markedly increase. If Labour achieves respectability from its last two weeks' efforts, then all bets are off and we're gonna have a very interesting (and, for many, a surprising) next three years. The ambitious on both sides - some playing a short game, others a long one - will be sweating on the election result as well for their own self-interested reasons.   

Key has also adroitly learned his history. Clark failed to achieve her desired majority government back in 2002 because she was seen to too baldly and badly covet it. Key has inoculated himself against this sort of hubris by indicating that even if he did receive the gift of government outright he'd invite others into his tent, the 'stable' ACT party - surely the stupidest utterance Key has made during the campaign - the fractured remnants of the Maori Party, Peter Dunne, and, of course, the big symbolic prize if you're John Key, the Greens.

Further isolating Labour would suit Key's 2014 interests well if he can lure the Greens further into National's gravitational orbit. Polling suggests it might also suit the wider electorate for I think if there is a strand of new thinking emerging it lies amongst those New Zealanders looking for a better marriage between the market economy and ideas around sustainability.

If there is any 'new' generational thinking on display in the campaign, that would appear to me to be the extent of it.

Coming into the final two weeks - the most intense part of the campaign, as surprising events always seem to be attracted to the final act (pun intended) - perhaps only a shift in the dimensions of voter choice or a surprise can slow the Key juggernaut.

The stakes are high because there is such a small margin between governing alone and being forced into the quagmire of multi-party deals, one where National's ability to shape the next governing arrangements is more circumscribed.

Labour needs voters to think about the risks of National governing alone and to reflect upon Labour's 2014 prospects if they abandon the red team. National needs the campaign clock to run out and it needs voters to be thinking about giving it the authority to govern on its own terms.

Meanwhile, for the rest of us, the trick is to sit back and enjoy the spectacle of our democracy's dance. As for the result, a two-line poem by American Robert Frost gets to the nub of it: 'We dance around a ring and suppose. And the secret sits in the middle and knows.' 

Comments (5)

by Steve F on November 15, 2011
Steve F



Democracy's Dance or Dante's Dance ?


I sent this little piece off to the paper wondering if it was worthy of printing as a letter. They wanted it chopped to 200 words. Difficult to get the message across so I'll post it here. But I suppose I will only be preaching to the converted.


...........Some may have read Wellington's Dompost front pager last Wednesday, "Nats Heading for Historic Outright Win" and shrugged their shoulders. Like, what's new. Others would have inwardly grinned and thought, "good on yer mate". On the other side of the divide there would be those who surmised, absolute rubbish, Labour will close in. Very few would have felt a queasy, "this is going to disturb my sleep".


What appears to have slipped totally under the radar by all commentators leading up to this election are consequences imposed upon our society by this country's very fragile constitutional position. I can see many yawning at the prospect of the mention of the word but it has the potential to really upset your day. Consider three things, or possibly four.


New Zealand does not have a constitution. No written document that enshrines the make up of our government to keep the powers separated and balanced between the courts the parliament and the executive. Oddly this inimitable situation is shared by only one other nation in the civilized world, Israel. What we have is a cobbled together set of conventions, and pieces of law, including our Constitution Act, that can be meddled with by simple majority. Like more than half of those sitting in the house.


New Zealand has no upper legislative chamber. No senate, no house of commons. Just the one house of representatives to decide upon and make all the laws of the land. So if a majority single party government decides one day they want to fiddle with the statute books and do it under this thing called urgency they simply say:

"guys get your blazers on, jump down into the house and raise your arms when asked. You'll be home and in bed before midnight."


New Zealand has no binding Bill of Rights. So all those fundamental rights that are so dear to us as a nation and that we take for granted as background noise in our daily lives, can be meddled with by a majority single party government without any checks or balances in the legislative chamber. Indeed the opposition can make a lot of noise but they are powerless to do anything about it. Alongside the Bill of Rights every single piece of legislation on our books, all the laws of the land, including the entrenchment provision in the electoral act can be fiddled with, added to, subtracted from, or even wiped out altogether by a simply majority. As long as half or more of the arms are in the air, the "ayes" have it.


Now there is this thing called royal assent before bills become law. But today we have a retired career soldier as Governor General who has been obeying orders all his life. Hardly likely to rock the boat with the guys who recommended the Queen put him in his seat.


So you see, running a country with a single party majority which was actually par for the course under FPP, is a bit like playing cricket without a wicket keeper. The government has gone in to bat and the other guys, all of them regardless of colour or affiliation, haven't a hope till the next innings. One might argue that after all, more than half the voters allowed a single party unbridled power,  but on the other hand I really don't think many of them would have considered the consequences of our fragile democracy. The age old doctrine of the separation of powers will be sorely tested this time around.


by Mike Osborne on November 15, 2011
Mike Osborne

Further muddied by the looming TPP where we will effectively be conferring rights to parties outside our country.

by Graeme Edgeler on November 15, 2011
Graeme Edgeler

Only two one-term governments since World War II (1957-60, 1972-75) signals the general goodwill extended by voters to incumbent parties seeking a second term.

You might add 1975-1978 as well :-)

And 1990-1993 comes close too: the opposition got more than 60% of the vote!

by Chris de Lisle on November 15, 2011
Chris de Lisle

@ Steve: I would have thought that Britain counted as a civilised nation?

That aside, I think you've hit the nail on the head. I do not believe allowing a single party a majority government will end well. I suspect also, though, that itwouldn't end well for National, either; getting used to that sort of untrammelled power can only lead to contempt for other parties, those constitutional norms we do have, and the common voter

by Steve F on November 16, 2011
Steve F

@Chris...I thought I would give the Brits a little bit of latitude and consider them bound by the Treaties of The EU which in a broad sense codifies the constitutional basis of the EU. But yes, you're technically correct. They don't have a dedicated written constitution like Israel and ourselves and they are a civilized nation, most of the time. Perhaps when they play footy we could argue a special case.

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.