As New Zealanders enjoyed a short working week as a result of Labour day, the focus of the country’s election campaign took a contrary turn, off the Labour government and on to the other parties in the race.

The minor parties — so crucial in the country’s MMP system because the two major parties will need coalition partners to have a governable majority — had their time in the sun with a television debate and increased media coverage. The minor parties’ leaders’ debate on TVNZ was all about bottom-lines, and for the first time since MMP began voters have a clear idea what kind of coalition governments they’re choosing between. The retinance of previous campaigns has disappeared.

The Greens and Progressives say they will not work with National. Act and United Future will only work with National. New Zealand First will work with Labour or National, but National says it will not work with the “walking soap opera” that is Winston Peters. That leaves only the Maori Party willing and able to negotiate with both major parties, although the media is increasingly seeing through its claims of even-handedness and has finally realised that the Maori Party is far more likely to strike a deal with Labour than National.

With Labour indicating a willingness to entrench the Maori seats — a policy the Maori Party has said is a bottom-line, but which looks to be a bridge too far for National — that scenario has become more likely this week.

All this pre-election negotiating has been conducted against a back-drop of narrowing polls. As of this week, Pundit’s poll of polls shows that National, Act and United Future could cobble together 63 seats in what is likely to be a 124 seat parliament. But if you average just the polls from last weekend — possibly a better indicator of trends — the gap between that coalition and a Labour-Greens-Progressives-Maori Party partnership closes to almost nothing. The Greens especially seem to be gaining support on the back of an effective billboard campaign and a wider acceptance of green issues.

Labour’s quest for a fourth term would be given a significant boost if New Zealand First was to make it back into parliament, and commentators in the past fortnight had started to talk about a Winston Peters revival. Then, wham! Emails released this week showed that the New Zealand First leader urged Foreign Affairs to make expat billionaire Owen Glenn New Zealand’s honorary consul to Monaco. The problem with Peters’ lobbying is that Glenn donated $100,000 to his party’s legal expenses back in 2006. Er, not a good look.

Labour hope to deliver a whammy of its own this week, or a “neutron bomb” as the media labelled it. Rumours were swirling yesterday that Labour and The New Zealand Herald had the goods on National leader John Key. But by press time the Herald had decided the potential scandal had fizzled away to nothing.

What was this H-bomb? Labour thought it had implicated Key in one of New Zealand’s most notorious white collar crimes dating back to the 1990s, but the damning signature its researchers thought was Key’s belongs in fact to an Australian-based executive of the financial firm Key used to work for.

Labour looks grubby, Key looks squeaky, but rumours of more scandalous allegations are still circling this campaign like vultures. With nine days to go, there’s a sense this campaign is nearing boiling point. The hope is it doesn’t boil over.

Peter Fray

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