16 April 2015
One of the most enjoyable election campaigns I have ever fought was in 1990. I was a Minister in an unpopular Labour Government headed for massive defeat. Yet the voters were unfailingly courteous and polite at every stage of the campaign. Why? Quite simple really – they had already decided they were going to change the government, and were simply going through the process of saying goodbye. Indeed, I joked often at the time that if we had promised to give every voter a gold bar, the response would have been, “Thank you – do you think the National party will allow us to keep it?”
Over the years since, I have been reminded of that experience every time I hear some commentator or other speculate that a government might be losing public support, or that a change of government at the next election might be on the cards. In the wake of last month’s Northland by-election I have had cause to think of it again too. The plain fact is that political tides ebb and flow, and once they start to ebb, they seldom return in favour of the government of the day.
The question that inevitably arises is at what point the present government is in the tide. It is in its third term – and is our tenth government since the National/Labour duopoly began with Labour’s election in 1935. Just two of those governments served four terms; four prior to the present government served three terms. So, on the face of it, a reasonable conclusion might be that the current government is unlikely to win another term in 2017.
But it is no longer as simple as that. While my dictum about political tides still applies, the advent of MMP has introduced a few new eddies and rips into the political tidal flow that make things more unpredictable. And because the system now relies on multi-party governments, it is less polarised overall than the two-party club which dominated elections from 1935 to 1993.
There is another factor too. Over the years, our system has become more presidential (starting with Norman Kirk’s all too brief time as Prime Minister). The Prime Minister has become less “primus inter pares” and is now the dominant face of government.
Sir Robert Muldoon, Helen Clark and Jim Bolger all typified the modern Prime Minister. When they were riding high, so too were their governments. When they fell in public esteem, their governments fell with them. (Bolger is arguably in a slightly different position because of the added factor of the taint from his association with New Zealand First, but the essential point remains.)
John Key is in a slightly different position again. We have never had a Prime Minister who has increased his support over three successive elections. (Lange managed it in two elections – only to crash spectacularly and resign abruptly within two years of his re-election.) All the signs are that Key still retains a strong rapport with New Zealand voters, but given the heights of his support, his fall may be all the more dramatic when it occurs.
So, when will that be? Despite the commentators panning his recent performances, my sense is that this is still some time off. Budget 2015 and the Northland by-election setback are not the turning points. The Prime Minister knows his fate rests on his ongoing connection with the voters, in the towns and workplaces across the country. Yes, he sometimes get photographed wearing silly hats, and seldom ducks the chance of a selfie, but his critics dismissal of him as “Mr Smile and Wave” misses the point. There is far more to John Key than that.
There was another Prime Minister who behaved in a similar way – Sir Keith Holyoake, “Kiwi Keith”. Often derided by his critics at the time for his pragmatism and consensual style, he is the only National Prime Minister to have won four successive elections. More than most, John Key is acutely aware of that.