And so the political race begins . . .
In many respects, this election looks like a replay of 2002 – with a popular Prime Minister and an Opposition leader (Bill English then, Phil Goff now) failing dismally to rekindle support for a party turfed out after nine years in office.
In 2002, Peter Dunne was the alternative choice for desperate conservative voters.
This time around, centre-left voters despairing of Labour will have the option of Hone Harawira’s Mana Party or the Greens.
In all likelihood, the decline of the Maori Party will leave National reliant on Act for its second-term agenda of welfare reform and a partial asset sales package, which may well include TVNZ before the next term is out.
The main contrast with 2002 is the state of the economy.
In 2002, an economic boom was about to happen. This year, voters are treating National as the safest pair of hands in a very uncertain global climate.
Rather than blame the Government for the existing high rates of youth unemployment and other social ills, the electorate is feeling uneasy about change. Where does that leave Labour? Nowhere. At best, the combo of a capital gains tax (instead of asset sales) and removing GST from fruit and vegetables looks merely like damage limitation, rather than the miracle needed to deliver an election victory.
On the campaign trail, the Opposition message will be one of fairness. If wages are taxed, so should the wealth earned by capital gains, and arguably, such an approach would be preferable to selling stakes in state energy companies.
Labour and the Greens may win that battle, without ever seriously threatening to win the war. Reason being: most voters do not dislike or resent John Key’s Government, not to an extent where there is any discernible mood for change.
At best, Labour will be hoping for a respectable showing in November – rather than a rout – thus enabling Phil Goff to retain his job for a while afterwards, at least.
Of course, if and when the Labour/National gap narrows as the election approaches, it could be theoretically possible for Labour to cobble together a ruling coalition with the Greens, Mana and a diminished Maori Party.
In reality, even the prospect of such a Frankenstein Government would damage MMP’s chances of survival in this year’s referendum on the voting system.
Since 2008 was the highwater mark in the electoral cycle for National, some local electorate races are easier to call this time around.
Wellington Central looks safe for Grant Robertson, who had a 1904 majority even before the state sector job cuts kicked in. Many of the 5000 personal votes for (the retiring) Sue Kedgley of the Greens should also flow Robertson’s way.
Even a slight swing against National will make Trevor Mallard (Hutt South), Annette King in fortress Rongotai and even a weak candidate like Kris Faafoi in Mana more comfortable.
In Rimutaka, Labour’s Chris Hipkins faces a strong challenge from Upper Hutt-based finance executive and first-time National candidate, Jonathan Fletcher.
The exit of Darren Hughes makes Nathan Guy’s retention of Otaki for National much easier.
That leaves the battle royal shaping up in Ohariu.
In a normal three-way race, Labour’s Charles Chauvel would come through the middle, but since National is backing Dunne and the Greens are backing Chauvel, Ohariu is far too close to call.
Prognosis: a second term for National, with Act as its main support. On the MMP referendum the public could hedge its bets by re-electing John Key, while keeping MMP as an overt signal against an extremist second-term agenda.
Popular: John Key is buoyant in the polls.
Struggling: Phil Goff has failed to rekindle any support.