Push-pull government could end in chaos

With the Māori Party out of the frame, a National-NZ First government could alter the balance in many areas of Treaty policy

As most will have noticed, on election night 2017 the National Party remained by far the largest party in Parliament, despite losing a few votes and a few seats. But it lost the majority it could rely on in the previous Parliament with the support of ACT, United Future and the Māori Party. Of these support parties, only ACT remains, holding a seat National would normally have won. And ACT has not generated an overhang, giving National no advantage from its arrangement with David Seymour, as was also the case in 2014.

Assuming the seat balance holds, perhaps changing marginally against National, Bill English and his colleagues will try to negotiate a government with New Zealand First, a party with many policies and objectives incompatible with National. Such a government has a good chance of ending in chaos, as did the National-New Zealand First coalition of 1996 to 1998.  ACT will be out in the cold, although could remain with some influence over National on the margins.  More important, it will have an opportunity to work to increase its vote from its current derisory level, appealing to National Party voters who react against the influence of New Zealand First in the government.

National's victory for a fourth term is not unprecedented - the Liberal Party remains New Zealand's government longest in office, from 1891 to 1912.  Labour managed four terms between 1935 to 1949, and National from 1960 to 1972.  National's fourth parliamentary term in office 1969 was based on about 45 per cent of the vote, very similar to the outcome in 2017.

The election is a victory and a vindication for Bill English, the National Party leader who lost the 2002 election with a party vote of only 21 per cent. Bill English is not as popular as John Key, but he has his own appeal. He is seen as trustworthy and honourable.  He comes across as a straight talker, while Key would more often obfuscate by expressing his personal comfort on matters on which critics were not at all comfortable. Within the Key government and as Prime Minister, Bill English has pushed for evidence-based policies as part of his social investment strategy.

Nonetheless, English's reputation on that score is somewhat dented.  He has proven himself an effective campaigner. But National ran a campaign that many have claimed was based on lies: the claim that Labour's budget did not add up, the claim that Labour would raise income tax, and exaggeration of the effects of a levy of the commercial use of water.

National claims to have successful economic policies, and Bill English has denied against the evidence that the economy has a productivity problem. Much of the economic growth touted by National as evidence of the success of its economic direction is based on historically high levels of immigration, which has produced negative as well as positive consequences of which most are aware.

There have been ample precedents of aggressive and misleading political claims in campaigns in New Zealand politics. In 1975, National Party advertising featuring dancing Cossacks destroyed confidence in Labour's superannuation scheme: one that would have funded pensions on a much more sustainable basis than New Zealand Superannuation does today. Scare tactics are not new in New Zealand politics: one can go back further to the 1920s and 1930s when National's forerunner party, Reform, did its best to tar Labour with communism: as indeed, did John Key in opposition when he described Labour's Working for Families programme as 'communism by stealth': a programme that his government went on to support once in office.  Aggressive 'post-truth' campaigns and slogans are not new in New Zealand politics, but they do degrade the quality of democracy. A party in fear of losing power is particularly unlikely to resist the temptation to 'take the low road'.

These two 'tugs' will not necessarily pull in the same directions, or generate good policy.

In 2014 Labour ran on a slogan 'vote positive', that failed to inspire. In 2017, it tried 'a fresh approach' before the leadership passed to Jacinda Ardern. Thanks to her training in communications, she rapidly replaced it with the much more convincing 'let's do this'. But explicitly, Labour denied itself a negative campaign, other than calling out the National Party for its lies and scare-mongering. Labour may have good reasons for its self-denial: it may have evidence that negative tactics could put off enough of its potential voters to be counter-productive. But this is a huge disadvantage for an Opposition Party, particularly given the many ways in which the National Government was open to attack and largely unchallenged.

There was talk before the election of a high youth turnout.  An age breakdown of turnout will not be available for several weeks. But the final age-breakdown for the roll indicates that only 70 per cent of those 18 - 24 were enrolled, and 78 per cent of those 25 - 29.  This compares to 77 and 83 per cent of those groups in 2014, significant declines.  When we can calculate turnout by age on the basis of the eligible population, the odds are there will have been no increase in youth turnout. Overall, turnout increased, but only about one per cent as a percentage of those enrolled.  Taking into account a lower enrolment, the increase is very small for an election that was touted as being extremely competitive.

If National continues to govern, it will do so on about 45 per cent of the votes.  Parties that campaigned against the government got about 48 per count. The balance between those who voted to change the government and those who voted to keep it is 'too close to call'.  New Zealand is a country divided right down the middle.  The failure of the Māori Party to retain any seats and the increased influence of New Zealand First in the likely government may change the balance on many areas of Treaty policy. Yet Bill English has developed good relationships with Māori that are widely acknowledged. He has also signalled that his government will respond to the some of the concerns of his opponents.

Governing with New Zealand First, he will have to make concessions to Winston Peters. These two 'tugs' will not necessarily pull in the same direction, or generate good policy.

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