Teflon National in the box seat
Political historians will look back on Election 2017 in some incredulity at how – for a government nearing the end of its third term – National still managed to keep the campaign spotlight almost entirely on the Opposition’s shortcomings.
Its own performance, or plans for the future barely figured in the campaign rhetoric. In fact, most voters would probably be hard pressed to name a single item on the agenda National plans to pursue during its fourth term in office, beyond a general sense of more of the same.
In essence, National now has a virtual clean slate when it comes to how it might govern for the rest of the decade. Under MMP, coalitions are virtually essential to the formation of governments. Yet clearly, National’s ten-point margin over Labour on election night has given it a moral edge in its negotiations with New Zealand First’s perennial kingmaker, Winston Peters.
Ultimately, National will need to concede some of the baubles of office and will have to make gestures on NZ First’s key issues – immigration, pensions and regional development – but it has room to move in all three areas. Even Peters’ desire for a referendum on the Maori seats would be relatively easier to deliver, now that the Maori Party have been eliminated from the parliamentary equation. The difficulty will be in preventing such a ballot from becoming a free-for-all spree of racial divisiveness.
During the interim period, Peters will be seeking to create drama and uncertainty about his options, mainly to maximise his leverage at the negotiating table.
Yet not only does National hold the moral edge in forming a government, it has less political capital to lose by making concessions to Peters on Cabinet appointments and policy direction. By contrast, Jacinda Ardern’s brand could suffer permanent damage if she was seen to be conceding too much ground to Peters’ demands, in order to gain power.
An English/Peters government looks like being a far more conservative one than any we’ve had during the Key years, particularly on social issues. Older voters would seem more likely to benefit from a English/ Peters combination in office, at the expense of the young.
Still, Ardern can take some personal consolation from her efforts. Like Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, she led a party 20 points behind the government only eight weeks ago, to within sight of power. She’s also brought several high calibre candidates into Parliament, many of them women.
Bill English can feel even more satisfied. This election saw him emerge from the twin shadows of John Key and his own electoral humiliation in 2002. True, National did run a campaign that systematically distorted Labour’s policy on taxes, including the infamous non-existent ‘‘hole’’ in the Opposition finances. Yet as mentioned, such tactics enabled National to divert public and media attention away from its funding of public health, mental health and education, and/or how it intends lifting wages and labour productivity.
Those challenges will resurface, soon enough. Treasury forecasts indicate the economy may have peaked. Assuming Peters does lift National back into government, there will be plenty of opportunities to test National’s claim to being a superior manager of the economy.