With special votes yet to come any analysis of the result is provisional at best. But while we wait for the dust to settle and hostage negotiations with Mr Peters to begin, National will be pretty satisfied. Saturday night, things went as well for it as it could have expected.
In some ways, Saturday night was a reset to 2008
The idea that the country voted for change last night is a hack line. Forming a Parliamentary majority will be much more awkward than it has been in the past. The first reason for this was Peter Dunne’s pre-emptive surrender and the loss of the pocket borough of Ohariu. The second is the seemingly successful conclusion of Labour’s decade-long eliminationist campaign against the Māori Party.
But on the whole, things really aren’t so different to where this National government started out in 2008. Compare the preliminary results of 2008 to what Saturday served up:
If we take these two together, we see a slight recovery for Labour but, astonishingly, a small bump for National too. The ACT Party has been all but destroyed but the Greens are slightly down. New Zealand First is up quite a bit – but nothing like a return to its heydey and certainly nothing like the kind of populist swell that drives a government from office.
In any event, as a fundamental proposition, those scenarios are strikingly similar. And 2008 was, remember, the year that saw Labour thrown out of office. That’s the big story from this weekend.
So what happened and where does it put us?
Bill English is now the man in the arena
Ben Uffindell, editor of the satirical The Civilian, said it well. And it wasn’t even a joke. With the last TVNZ1 poll showing National pulling ahead, he tweeted out that he was not surprised. ‘I feel Bill really “became” Prime Minister in this campaign’, he tweeted.
Spot on. Before election night, the prime ministership had been gifted to Bill English by a dearth of alternative successors. Where his predecessor was a man of the people, English was the man who had taken National to its worst ever defeat. To his opponents, he was a mere caretaker – trustee and executor to the political estate of Sir John Key.
That has all changed now that voters have handed him one of the biggest pluralities of the MMP era. Still in denial about this? Don’t forget that Saturday night’s result for National outstrips anything Labour achieved under Helen Clark.
English now has a very strong personal mandate. And if this doesn’t extend to the country as a whole, it is certainly the case within National. If he is somehow unable to form a government with Winston Peters, there would be a very strong case for him to stay on as leader.
There are dangers and opportunities for National
When 2020 rolls around, National will have been in power for four consecutive terms. The incessant “time for a change” mantra of 2017 will become a deafening roar. English’s only shot at resisting it depends on his ability to sell voters on the next three years being the first three of a new English government, rather than the last of a tired National one.
He’s also going to have to show some results in the areas New Zealanders care about. Housing costs are the obvious one. But National has also talked a big game about poverty reduction. The people will expect their social investments pay social dividends.
And at the same time, he will need to be the first ever prime minister to figure out how to govern with Winston Peters. Since being kicked out of National in 1991, Peters and his oddball disciples have supported two governments. Both met with their destruction shortly thereafter.
If English does not have a sound strategy for dealing with the inevitable embarrassments that entanglement with New Zealand First brings, you can write off 2020 right now.
And all the while, he will be opposed by a reinvigorated Labour. Jacindamania was always going to be stronger in the media than the population at large. But this wasn’t a Red Peak moment for the Left and Labour will go into the new term with its tail up.
This was as much Ardern’s campaign as it was English’s. Her performance was impressive and there can be no doubt she is the future of Labour. Her credibility as an alternative prime minister will only grow as time wears on.
But amid these risks, there are serious opportunities. Twelve years in government doesn’t happen often. Another three years for National to embed its influence in the machinery of state ensures its influence will last well beyond its time in office.
Final caveat – don’t assume too much about Winston Peters
Of course, all of this assumes that Winston Peters will do what he is expected to do. That’s always a dangerous assumption. Just ask the voters of 1996.