Monday, September 17, 2007

The big picture

Saturday's Dominion-Post had a detailed feature by Colin Espiner on Helen Clark which is well worth reading. partly, it's an attempt to assess Clark's legacy - an exercise which Espiner warns may be premature. But much of it is also about assessing her chances in the next election - and that is a long shot. We all know the old saying: governments are like nappies and need to be changed regularly before they start to smell. New Zealand voters have applied this principle fairly rigorously. While its not unusual for a government to win three terms (though it is unusual for Labour), only one government since the second world war has won a fourth term in office: Holyoake's. So Labour is clearly up against it, and the recent poll showing that 62% of voters expect them to lose reflects this. OTOH, MMP has changed the rules of the game, and now the ability to form a government depends on a party's ongoing ability to negotiate and compromise with others so as to win a majority in the House. And on this front, Helen Clark has the advantage, because National has few friends, and does not play well with others.

Cutting through the ups and downs and trivial sports-style reporting of the polls, the big picture for the next election then is that National also has its work cut out for it. Given their policy stance and lack of friends, it is not enough for National merely to win a plurality, or even a decisive one. Instead, it will have to verge on winning an absolute majority in order to govern, or else see itself pipped at the post by Labour's superior coalition prospects - or worse, burdened by needing the support of left-leaning parties to enact legislation (which would likely see them even more crippled than the current government).

Playing with the Electoral Commission's virtual election calculator and making assumptions in line with current trends (no significant resurgance in the ACT or United Future vote; NZ First falls out and takes 3% with them; 1% other parties), National's magic number is ~46%. Anything more, and they can form a government with only the support of ACT and United Future (who will bring at least 3 and maybe 4 MP's to the right, and will probably be manageable). Anything less and they either need the support of the Maori Party or Greens, or end up facing a possible LPGM coalition with 61 votes. Things get easier if NZ First take a higher proportion of the vote with them as they slide beneath the threshold, and if the Greens fail to make 5%, National are the government. Which suggests that trying to force the latter will be a key part of National's election strategy.

Labour's magic number, OTOH, is ~40%. Under the same assumptions, that's the amount they need in order for an LPGM coalition to be viable. Of course, they'd have to negotiate such an agreement, which may well be difficult given Labour's bad blood with the Maori Party and the price the latter will likely demand for support. OTOH given these 4 parties' broad similarities in policy and voting behaviour this term, I think the chances of making a deal are fairly good if it is a credible option.

While National is polling high at the moment, 46% is a big ask under MMP, particularly given the electorate's suspicion of parties who want to govern alone. Labour OTOH isn't far off its target and its poential coalition partners' votes are holding up. If the race narrows as expected closer to the election (when National will be forced to roll out policy and front up over any convenient gaps), then we are going to have a real political competition on our hands, and both parties will have to work hard to gain power. And that IMHO will be a Good Thing whichever way it goes.

(Note that the above analysis discounts Winston. But if he manages to make it back in, I think the negotiating odds tip in favour of National, in that they would have by far the most manageable coalition options. The magic numbers then are ~44% and ~41%, with the former being the threshold for a National - NZ First - ACT/UF arrangement. Avoiding having to rely on NZ First would require national winning 48% of the vote).