It’s a difficult week to get publicity for anything other than Egypt or cyclone Yasi, but New Zealand prime minister John Key chose yesterday to announce the date for his country’s next election, even though it’s almost 10 months away: Saturday November 26.

The date itself isn’t a surprise. It’s a little after the third anniversary of the last election (November 8, 2008), but the delay is to allow for campaigning to take place after the rugby world cup, being held in New Zealand in September and October. What’s surprising is the fact that Key is closing off his options so far in advance.

In a world where politicians have trouble looking beyond their own self-interest, it’s refreshing to be able to praise one for conspicuously doing the right thing. The usual last-minute setting of an election date serves no purpose other than to cynically maximise political advantage for the government and to deprive the opposition of media oxygen.

Part of the explanation is that Key is operating from a position of strength. Although his current coalition has a relatively narrow 16-seat majority (which would come down to six if he was deserted by the Maori Party, a distinct possibility), opinion polls have consistently shown his National Party running between 5% and 10% ahead of its 2008 result.

(Wikipedia has a handy graph.)

A lot could happen between now and November, but for now Key is looking good. He has no reason to take the risk of an early poll or of prolonged uncertainty: better to look statesmanlike by occupying the high ground.

His refusal to contemplate a deal with Winston Peters and NZ First is to the same effect.

There’s also an interesting cultural difference at work. Like Australia, New Zealand has fully flexible three-year terms; unlike us, they shy away from early elections. In the past 60 years, New Zealand has had just 20 elections, while Australia federally has had 24.

Only two recent New Zealand elections have been held early — in 1984 and 2002 — and even then only by a few months in each case: close enough to be able to return to November elections after a couple of cycles.

While this probably fits the stereotype of New Zealand as a routine and unexciting place in contrast to a more dynamic Australia, there are other explanations. An obvious one is the existence of the senate in Australia, which frequently gives governments an excuse (sometimes genuine, often not) for early elections — either to bring senate election dates into alignment, or to gain a fresh mandate against senate obstruction.

And cultural differences, once established, are self-perpetuating. An early election in New Zealand looks much more opportunistic than it would in Australia (something for which Piggy Muldoon paid the price in 1984), while Australian governments can use the habitual speculation about election dates to justify an early election, to “end the uncertainty”.

So at this stage it looks as if Key’s biggest risk will be that the electorate will punish him if New Zealand does badly in the rugby. But since there’s not much he can do about that, he’s obviously decided that there’s no point putting off the decision any longer.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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