So now what?

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It’s hard to think of an election campaign over the past 50 years that has been as dramatic as this one.

As we go towards election day, we are confronted with a series of unusual choices.

The big one is whether for only the fourth time in over a century we should vote for a Government to go beyond nine years in office.

There is an almost as big choice about leadership; about whether a 37-year-old who has led her party for only eight weeks is ready to be Prime Minister.

And there is a slightly less significant question about what role small parties should play in New Zealand politics.

Let’s start with the last of those questions first.

There have been four small parties trying to make an impact in this campaign.

Gareth Morgan

Gareth Morgan

The Opportunities Party appears to have captured the imagination of a lot of younger voters, but it appears that it has not convinced people that it has what it takes to be a major long-term player in NZ politics.

Nevertheless, the signs are that it will make a reasonable impression on Saturday though probably not enough to get any seats.

The party will continue after the election, but it is likely Gareth Morgan will bow out leaving it to be led by the more charismatic Geoff Simmons.

With the money that it has; the quality of some of its candidates and its substantial policy portfolio it has the potential to become the centrist party that United Future once aspired to be.

Te Ururoa FlavelT

Te Ururoa FlavelT

The Maori Party has taken a number of hits this campaign; most notably the election of Kelvin Davis as Labour’s deputy leader and the decision by Labour’s Maori MPs to stand as electorate MPs only.

Bold talk of the Maori Party winning all seven Maori seats now seems a dim memory.

They will be lucky to come back with two MPs; neither of whom will be the lively Marama Fox.

James Shaw with Eugenie Sage

James Shaw with Eugenie Sage

And then there are the Greens.

Labour MPs like to explain the Greens tumble in the polls as being the consequence of the party's co-leader Metiria Turei and her benefit fraud confession and the resignations which followed.

That must have played a part.

But what Labour is not so willing to confess to is their own campaign to “eat the Greens lunch” by absorbing the big three Greens policies --- clean water, climate change and poverty --- leaving the party stranded unable to get much of an audience.

This is despite it having an impressive slate of young candidates and the obviously thoughtful approach to politics of its surviving leader, James Shaw.

The Greens now stand on the brink of being out of Parliament altogether.

That can not have been Labour's intention, and if the Greens don't make it back, then Labour's strategists will have scored a massive own goal which could go as far as to deprive them of Government.

So what to make of NZ First?

As a campaign, it has been all over the show.

Leader Winston Peters has been willing to jump on any passing bandwagon to promote his endless catalogue of Government failure.

That is what has distinguished the campaign; it has been much more focused on attacking the Government over everything from Treaty rights to its failure to support rail than previous years.

If there was a theme, it was that National was neglecting the provinces.

But that crashed to the ground in Morrinsville when protesting farmers demanded that Peters say who he would go with after the election.

Bill English's argument that voters should "cut out the middleman" and vote for the party they actually wanted to form the Government has a powerful logic.

Peters has been under pressure in his own electorate largely because Labour has put up an impressive candidate, Willow Jean Prime, who can syphon off the anti-Government votes that went to Peters in the by-election when she loyally obeyed orders from Labour’s head office and suspended her campaign to let him through.

She’s under no such pressure this time and that’s because Peters policy of not saying which Government he would support means that neither main party is willing to take the risk of supporting him.

Her resurgence could allow the less-then-impressive National candidate, Matt King, through the middle.

So it is possible that either (or even both) of the “big” small parties may not make it back.

In that case, we face the drag race that English has insisted the campaign has been since day one.

 Nigel Haworth, Jacinda Ardern and Annette King

Nigel Haworth, Jacinda Ardern and Annette King

And it became a drag race because Labour propelled Jacinda Ardern into the leadership on August 1, just 53 days ago.

Ardern has drawn feverish crowds of mainly under 30, mainly female, audiences as she taken her "relentlessly positive" campaign to campus after campus round the country.

But she has not been really tested.

We don't know how she would react under pressure because we have not seen her under pressure though it is true that the more you see of her, the more it seems likely that she is tougher than she looks and she is certainly smart.

She is an outstanding political orator; probably the best since David Lange.

What she has on her side is the time this Government has been in power.

Jacinda Ardern at the red Stag Mill

Jacinda Ardern at the red Stag Mill

But oratory is one thing; making hard, and potentially unpopular judgement calls is another altogether.

What is often forgotten is that the combined total of the Greens, NZ First and Labour --- the “Change the Government” vote --- has exceeded National's poll rating for most of the year.

In many ways, this election has always been  Labour’s to lose, and under Andrew Little, it looked like it was headed for a devastating defeat.

The electorate was unfair on Little.

Night after night he went round provincial New Zealand patiently making a logical case against the Government based on what nine years of austerity had done to public services, housing and incomes.

In contrast to Ardern, Little has a long track record in public office and would have been leader for three years on election day.

He has always looked like a Prime Minister in waiting. He just couldn’t make an emotional connection with the electorate. 

If Labour wins the largest share of the vote tomorrow, it will do so on the foundation that Little built.

Ardern may either add to that foundation or erode it; we don’t know.

What we do know is that her opponent, Bill English, has had a revelatory election campaign.

Bill English

Bill English

When National MPs made him Leader last December they did so on the basis that he was the smartest member of their Cabinet.

They didn’t worry that he seemed to have the charisma of a rock (as Kelvin Davis put it) and rationalised their choice on the basis that up against Little charisma wouldn’t matter.

This website has reported the nervousness among some of his front bench colleagues and party officials when he headed off to one of his first shopping mall walkabouts at the start of the campaign.

In those early walkabouts he thought it necessary to introduce himself; “Hi, I’m Bill English”.

This week walking around Auckland’s hip Britomart at lunchtime, there was no introduction as he dived into selfies and handshaking at café after café. 

Watch him in action; relaxed, maybe a bit tired this week, but still a very different man to the sheep farmer-from-Dipton who was Minister of Finance for eight years.

He has introduced us to his family, and none of them looks like natural sheep farmers.

Mary and Bill English at Rotorua rest home

Mary and Bill English at Rotorua rest home

English has changed and not just regarding his public persoanlity.

He has personally been struck by the reality of the housing crisis and poverty in New Zealand.

He says that's what he wants to focus on in his next term and if it upsets the traditional National electorate, it seems he won't care.

Bill English at the ASB

Bill English at the ASB

He gave a hint of that in his Minter Ellison speech on Wednesday where he directly accused the suits in the room of being the kind of people who stopped the building of higher density housing in the city’s inner suburbs.

If National forms the next Government it will be his Government in the same way the previous three were John Key’s governments.

But English is a much more complex person than Key; driven by his background, his faith and his reading along with his 27 years in Parliament and a key role in every National Party plot and coup over most of that period.

His problem though is that he heads a Government that a large percentage of the electorate is sick of.

Whether it is Aucklanders tired of traffic congestion or desperately trying to pay the ever-increasing  rent from still-low wages or provincial people wondering what happened to the days when they got easy access to medical care or could have a police officer call when they got burgled,  there seems to be a wariness around.

Peters has captured this more directly than anyone else on the campaign.

But he has no real solutions.

 Jacinda Ardern at Hamilton's Epicurean cafe

Jacinda Ardern at Hamilton's Epicurean cafe

 

And Labour has not been able to put together a coherent narrative which addresses all the issues as a totality.

Front bench spokespeople like Grant Robertson, Phil Twyford, Stuart Nash, David Parker and Megan Woods have gone into the election with coherent well-developed policy. 

But we have heard little from the party's social development spokesperson, Carmel Sepuloni and the health spokesperson, David Clarke has seemed bogged down in Dunedin North.

Labour is asking us to take it on trust.

And in many ways National is asking for the same thing.

The standard English speech ticks off the Government’s macro economic achievements and promises more of the same if its re-elected.

He does say that National would spread the benefits of growth more evenly around the country though how he would do that is less obvious, and he has no real answer to the housing crisis because National is not willing to address demand.

There are other questions about a re-elected National Government.

How much would he be prepared to renew his Cabinet?

He says he hasn't even thought about it but both the caucus and the party have.

The back benchers who called for renewal last December were not impressed when the response was incremental change within the Cabinet.

And if (as looks likely) some highly rated list candidates (particularly ethnic ones) do not make it into Parliament, English will be under pressure to ease out some list MPs to make room for them.

And then, the big question --- what if he loses?

Nikki Kaye, Bill English and Mary English in Auckland's Britomart

Nikki Kaye, Bill English and Mary English in Auckland's Britomart

There has been a quiet debate going on among MPs about this possibility as the campaign has unfolded.

As much as there is a consensus audible to outside ears, it would appear that any thought of a Bennett-Joyce leadership has lost support.

Amy Adams and Simon Bridges would seem a more likely combination but rapidly coming down the straight is Education Minister, Nikki Kaye, who produced the one genuinely innovative bit of policy during National's  campaign with her proposal to make a foreign language compulsory in primary schools.

And of course, there is Judith Collins who has been able to demonstrate through the Marsden Point fuel crisis what is often forgotten about her; that she is a highly competent Minister.

Those who say this election is a generational one are right.

The question is whether it is more like the 1969 election when the baby boomers first voted and almost but not quite made Norman Kirk Prime Minister, or1972 when they had the numbers and were able to propel him to a landslide.

The polling suggests 1969, but MMP has the potential to make it 1972.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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