The results of the New Zealand general election are in, and they are unprecedented: the National Party has won a first-past-the-post majority in a proportional system.
Its 48% share of the vote — double that of its closest rival, Labour — will translate into an absolute majority of seats thanks to the overhang created by small parties that neither reached the 5% threshold nor won any electorate seats. So National could govern alone, although Prime Minister John Key has signalled that he will bring in the allies from the party’s second term in office. And why not? He can afford to be magnanimous. His biggest problem over the next three years will likely be how to soften the public perception of the absolute power he wields, which New Zealand’s electoral system was expressly designed to prevent.
If we rewind a campaign dominated by major political scandals linked directly to his office — the resignation of his disgraced justice minister Judith Collins and last-minute allegations by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist that Key lied to the country about the role and activities of the nation’s chief spying agency — this was never supposed to happen. But Key knew he had the election won. He spoke every night to a pollster (who just so happened to have been implicated in his covert smear machine). The pollster told him to sleep tight.
The obvious historical parallel is with United States president Richard Nixon’s landslide victory of 1972, with its defiantly brazen slogan: “Richard Nixon: Now more than ever.” In spite of the scandals. Because of the scandals. In New Zealand National’s strategists didn’t match that war cry word for word — if only because their campaign materials had already been designed and printed — but they made sure the focus of the campaign never wavered from the credibility and popularity of the party’s leader.
How did this happen? It’s too early to form an answer, and the scandals might catch up with Key yet as they did with Nixon. As in 1972, however, the failures of the Left are likely to be part of the explanation.
On this count, the leaders’ post-mortems have been in equal part entertaining and disheartening.
Labour’s David Cunliffe blamed Kim Dotcom, the millionaire immigrant who entered the fray with his Internet Party and got crushed in the poll. “For anybody to wade into New Zealand politics, spend over $4 million and end up wiping out his own supporters and damaging the Left I think is reprehensible,” he thundered.
Green co-leader Metiria Turei blamed Labour for not formalising a coalition ahead of the election, while her colleague Russel Norman complained that the book that uncovered the government’s smear machine, Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics, tarred everyone by virtue of its title. “It should have been called Abuse of Power,” he helpfully opined.
As for poor Kim Dotcom, he was the only one who had the good grace of blaming his party’s failure on himself. “We lost because of me,” he said with moving candour. “The Dotcom brand was poison for what we were trying to achieve.” He bows out now, although many fingers will remain conveniently pointed at him for weeks to come.
Outside the world of fantasy and PR, left-wing parties will likely re-examine their organisational structures — if only because it’s what their managerialism most readily understands — and pay less attention to a strategic paradox: staffed and supported overwhelmingly with middle-class liberals, Labour and the Greens put growing social inequality at the centre of their campaigns. Yet those who suffer because of that inequality vote in low numbers, having long since tired of being employed as a rhetorical device. Their distrust runs deep.
Which leaves us with John Key, now more than ever, a man who only has to fear the work of investigative reporters and his own excess of power.