After nine years at the top Helen Clark’s rein as New Zealand Prime Minister may be about to end in an election that parallels Australia’s in 2007. According to the NZ Herald, the nation’s biggest paper, Labour’s hopes now rest on a cataclysmic occurrence, despite the fact that a television poll shows the Maori Party will choose the next Government in four weeks’ time, and the Greens enjoying their best result in more than five years.

This poll was not good news for the Opposition Nationals, putting them neck and neck with Labour, even though the Nats are by far the more popular major party. While the Herald editorialised on a Nat win, its political correspondent, Audrey Young, talks of a potential Parliamentary overhang, meaning that the Maori Party is one of three parties that could contribute to an increase in the size of Parliament from 120 MPs after the election, on the basis of a new survey.

As she explains:

Assuming the four Maori Party MPs keep their seats, and party leaders with seats keep theirs, the Maori Party, United Future and the Progressives would contribute to an increase in the size of Parliament.

Each of the three parties would add one extra seat to make a Parliament of 123 seats on the basis of today’s poll.

Any seats over the standard 120 in Parliament are called the “overhang”.

The overhang is a contentious issue because the greater the overhang, the higher the majority needed for a party to form a Government.

And in theory, a party that wins more than 50 per cent of the vote at the election might not get more than 50 per cent of the total seats in Parliament.

Just to add to the fun New Zealand has made a list of the world’s ugliest recent elections in an article in the Washington DC-based Foreign Policy magazine. In the web-only article, author David Kenner referred to personal attacks and inaccurate accusations flying in the United States as Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama “take the gloves off’ in the home stretch of the US presidential election.

“Americans might have a hard time imagining that it could get any worse. But as voters in the following five countries can attest, it definitely can,” Mr. Kenner says.

He cites five even uglier elections: Nigeria (April 2007), Russia (March 2008), Austria (September 2008), New Zealand (November 2008) and Taiwan (March 2008). Referring to the election campaign in New Zealand, Mr. Kenner wrote that the main offenders were NZ First leader Winston Peters and some clever internet hackers.

In its comment the NZ Herald said its survey must be a subject of frustration in the ranks of the Labour Party:

The tilting at John Key’s political inexperience, his previous career, and a stumbling and bumbling National Party election campaign have done relatively little to bring the two major parties closer together. The poll shows National with 50.4 per cent support and Labour with 37 per cent. In line with most others, it discloses a gap that will be difficult to bridge in the remaining two weeks of the campaign. Even after the gap is closed when centre-left and centre-right coalition blocs are grouped together, and allowing for a big overhang resulting from the Maori Party winning all seven Maori electorates, this poll result would see National as likely victors.

Perhaps most sobering for Labour is the fact that this is the 13th consecutive month the DigiPoll survey has recorded National as holding a double-digit advantage. That suggests many people are intent on signing off Helen Clark after three terms of Labour-led administrations. Such is their mindset that they have not been, and are tending not to be, swayed by the minutiae of what happens on the campaign trail, whether it be television advertisements or National blunders.

Although there have been gaffes by Nats, such as musings aloud on toll roads (horror, horror) and offensive views on seasonal labour, they are not seen as being about to shift the mindset.

Nor, it seems, are major announcements like the deposit guarantee scheme for banks or entreaties to stay with a tried team in a time of global financial crisis likely to have a much greater impact, even though today’s poll found the economy had become by far the dominant issue for voters.

In many ways, the situation has parallels to last year’s election in Australia. Prime Minister John Howard, having presided over 11 years of enduring prosperity, was routed by the Labor Party’s Kevin Rudd. The voters’ verdict had much to do with the simple desire for a fresh face and new ideas. Mr. Rudd presented this in a non-alarming way. Mr. Howard’s repeated warning to voters not to abandon a proven formula gained little traction. The electorate, quite simply, wanted to look ahead.

Opposition Leader John Key has

…concentrated on presenting an unthreatening countenance, not unlike that of Mr. Rudd. This seems to have neutralised Labour’s attempts to draw attention to his former career as a Merrill Lynch money trader. Indeed, Key’s rating in the preferred prime minister stakes has varied little over the past six months, even if in this survey he has fallen behind Helen Clark for the first time in that period, albeit by just 44.8 per cent to her 45.4 per cent. That would suggest further assaults on his character over the next fortnight. The danger for Labour is that these may be self-defeating unless issues with considerably more substance and resonance are raised.

Significant Labour policies, most notably the carrot to students of a universal allowance, are not seen as significant enough as vote-catchers. Nor have repeated claims of a “secret” National agenda.

Further National blunders may spark increased doubts about that party’s readiness to govern but, on the polling evidence so far, these would deliver Labour only a percentage point or two. That would not be nearly enough to overhaul what appears to be National’s embedded advantage. In such circumstances, the permutations associated with potential coalition partners, and the Greens’ success in climbing back above the 5 per cent threshold in this poll, offer not enough comfort. Not at this stage of a campaign. Labour’s hopes rest now on some cataclysmic occurrence, an event resounding enough to shatter the current template.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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