Yesterday New Zealanders finally got something they had been waiting years for. No, we didn’t smuggle the rugby World Cup out of South Africa. The Labour-led government, after nine years in power, cut taxes. Kiwis will be $12-$28 better off in their pay packets from this week and it’s hoped that money will hope boost an economy that was officially declared to be in recession last week.

Ten years have passed since New Zealand last had to use the R word. Since 1999 the Labour-led government has guided the country through nearly a decade of prosperity on the back of rising commodity prices and the OECD’s lowest unemployment rate. It’s an economic record most governments would happily hitch their star to, but it’s all come to a grinding halt at just the wrong time for Labour.

Because the other significant event last week was that New Zealand’s 48th parliament packed its bags and left the House. In just over five weeks New Zealand will go to the polls and Labour begins the campaign a length or two behind the opposition National party. The poll of polls on current affairs website Pundit puts National on almost 50 percent and Labour back on 35 percent.

If she was in Australia, it would look hopeless for prime minister Helen Clark. But New Zealand’s MMP system means coalition governments. Labour can expect to call on around 10 percent from minor parties, National only 2-3 percent. It could yet be so close that the Maori Party, with six or seven seats in the next House, could hold the balance of power. So watch them. Most of their support comes from traditional Labour voters, but National has been actively wooing the party for a couple of years. The Maori party itself is refusing to declare a preference.

The other key player in this campaign will be populist maverick Winston Peters, who was officially censured by parliament earlier this month for “providing false or misleading information” about a $100,000 donation in 2005. The New Zealand First leader is battling to save his political hide. Unlikely to win his electorate seat, he needs to boost his party’s support from around 3.5 to 5 percent to stay in parliament.

National is expected to lose support during the campaign. No party has won more than 50 percent of the vote in New Zealand since 1951 and with eight parties currently in parliament, that’s unlikely to be repeated this election. What’s more, Clark is a relentless campaigner, tougher than an Otago winter and just as withering.

National leader John Key is worth an estimated $50m after a career as a foreign exchange dealer, but he’s the new kid, only leader of his party since 2006. He’s had a few slips recently, most notably having to admit that he bought and sold shares in New Zealand’s railways in 2003 while he was National’s transport spokesman. Labour have said this election is about trust, and will try to paint Key as a slippery money-man with a secret hankering to privatise.

But it’s money that Key hopes will get him home. National is promising to raise those cuts to $50 per week next April, topping Labour with a “mine’s bigger than yours and bugger the global financial crisis’” approach. Most of his other policies so far have been so similar to the government’s they’ve been given the “me too” tag.

National’s biggest asset, however, is voter restlessness. The Labour-led government has come to feel like an old pair of shoes. There’s nothing wrong with them as such, you’re not going to switch from sensible to stilettos, God forbid, but y’know, you just feel like a change. Labour only hopes that in these uncertain times, the dependable old shoes start to look reassuringly sturdy.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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