New Zealanders voted for gentle change on Saturday, but within four days they’ve already seen a flurry of political upheaval. Minor parties have been wooed, cabinet places are being brokered, and the opposition have been through a speedy, bloodless leadership change. All before the new prime minister, John Key, has visited the governor-general to confirm that he can form a new centre-right government. One political editor has called it “politics on speed”.

Saturday night’s results confirmed speculation that New Zealanders were bored and weary of Labour after nine years in power. By giving National 45 percent of the vote, more than any party since the country replaced its first past the post electoral system with MMP, it rewarded a party that had spent the past year both promising “change” and insisting it would keep almost all the Labour-led government’s core legislation.

The mandate for the prime minister-elect John Key, then, is a steady as she goes approach and no wild swings to the right please.

That path was made harder, however, by two percent of right-wing voters who, comfortable that National had the numbers, switched their vote in the last week of the campaign to the ACT party, National’s more right-wing coalition partner. Already ACT leader Rodney Hide is urging Key to abandon his promise to keep the country’s Emissions Trading Scheme and to renege on the country’s Kyoto Protocol obligations. For National, Hide looms as a danger — a bald wee siren singing the party onto the rocks of right-wing dogma, if they’re not careful.

Since achieving victory on Saturday, Key has acted quickly and with purpose, all the while gushing and grinning like a dorky third former who has just been voted class captain. Smaller parties ACT (five seats in parliament) and United Future (one seat) have been signed up and offered ministerial posts, but only outside of cabinet. The Maori Party is now being stroked and finagled as National seeks to look less like a right-wing bloc and to give itself insurance against being pulled too far from the centre.

About half of all Maori voted for Labour, with just seven percent backing National. So the Maori Party must tread warily — seeking influence, maybe even power, without alienating its base. The question they must be asking is whether they can achieve something through the current negotiations or in the next three years that makes a deal with the unpopular Nats worth the tension.

Key hopes to name his cabinet on Sunday and be sworn in on Wednesday, so he can fly to the APEC meeting in Peru next Thursday. His pre-Christmas legislative agenda includes tax cuts, anti-gang measures, and extending access to the breast cancer drug, Herceptin.

Yet while National party supporters whooped it up after nearly a decade in exile on Saturday night, Helen Clark, as she has for so long, neatly stole their moment with a classy, typically decisive announcement. Her time has Labour leader had come to an end. She was stepping down. It was a genuine surprise. Her friend and party president Mike Williams, in the TVNZ studio, said he had no idea that was coming. She has been hailed as the greatest post-World War II prime minister and Labour will be weaker without her.

Yet within three days of her shock announcement, the party had elected former foreign affairs and trade minister Phil Goff to replace her. That may appear impressive, but it’s due to the worrying fact that Labour simply had no other choice. There is no transformational leader from the next generation coming through its ranks, so they have chosen a 55-year-old who entered parliament when Air Supply and Blondie were at the top of the charts.

After an uninspiring campaign, it’s been a whirl. It can’t last. The “change” will be minor and the recession long. The focus will be on security and damage-control. Welcome to government, Mr Key.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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