Given the relentless conservatism of many New Zealanders, the apparent survival of a Clark Government for an historic third term is remarkable.
Among the many obstacles she had to overcome were a clever advertising campaign featuring billboards astutely exploiting racial tension, sure-footed TV commercials, and a secretive propaganda war by wealthy non-voting bible-bashing extremists who hate gay marriages.
She was up against the label of political correctness, which is applied to everything from seeking regular public access to high-country land, to trying to prevent the destruction of the country’s enormous natural beauty, banning smoking in pubs, or putting cops on the road to stop the carnage among young drivers.
In a nation where most things British, especially royalty and Coronation Street on TV, are revered, conservatism is deep-dyed. And not making a fuss, even when health and education are in need of attention, is seen as something of a national virtue.
Clark had stumbled with a scandal over education, her integrity in dispute, a lack of discipline, and the drift that comes at the end of two terms. There was hang-wringing over the best and brightest leaving the country. But jobless numbers are way down, and there is prosperity through tourism and farming.
The election results show a country utterly divided between those who want a return to knighthoods, putting Maori in their place, tax cuts for all, a foreign policy alignment with Howard and Bush; and those who favour independence in foreign affairs, a hand-up for university students and the promotion of a bi-cultural society.
In the end it came to down to just a one seat advantage for Labour representing 40.74 per cent of the vote, against the Nationals with 39.63 per cent. Eighty per cent of those eligible voted, although it is not compulsory.
Now, after the public talking comes the private talking. Wrangling with the minor parties over a coalition is under way and looks set to continue until 1 October, when all the absentee votes are in and a result is declared.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark
These votes give the Greens a chance of picking up an extra seat from the Nationals, whose 65-year-old leader Don Brash is refusing to concede. Brash’s slim chance depends on going into a coalition with two minor parties Act and United Future and relying on support from New Zealand First and the Maori Party on any parliamentary votes on confidence and supply.
In the post-election recriminations, one right-winger is publicly turning on Brash for believing the Nationals could win 51 per cent and govern in their own right. Veteran Richard Prebble former leader of the Nat’s closest allies, the Act Party went even further, saying the Nationals were dreaming if they thought they could form a Government, that Brash never had control of his caucus, had ‘eaten his allies’ and should quit before he’s pushed in favour of a millionaire newcomer, finance spokesman John Key.
‘If National had shown it could work with other parties, Don Brash would be Prime Minister today,’ added Prebble’s successor, Rodney Hide, a chinless Humpty Dumpty figure. The Act party crashed from nine MPs to two, dropping from 7 per cent to just 1.5 per cent.
The split result throws into question the MMP electoral system which for a quarter of a century has delivered 20 per cent of the vote to what were once known as third parties. One complaint has been that too many parties share a fifth of the vote. Another is that MMP lets some dunderheads slip through (especially those who don’t stand in electorates but are chosen from the party lists) and certainly Labour’s new MPs do not appear to match the skills and experience of some on the National frontbench. One politician got into trouble for referring to the shallow gene pool in his town, and certainly that seems the case in politics.
But this system did produce a parliament where, so far, a third of the MPs are women.
Winston Peters’s New Zealand First, a Hansonite mob in Australian terms, was cut from 13 to 7 but is still the biggest of the splinters and, like another rump party, United Future, backs the principle of the largest party being given the chance to form a government. Peters’s mantra during the campaign was that he would abstain on a vote on confidence and supply, thus keeping a government in office.
Peters lost his seat in an astonishing turnaround of almost 11,000 votes to the Nationals, but he is back because he tops his party’s list of candidates.
One of the intriguing questions for Helen Clark is how to manage the four MPs in the new Maori Party. It campaigned strongly in Australia and so is hopeful of a good result from postal votes. So far, it has 1.9 per cent of the vote, resulting in Parliament growing by two MPs to 122 because of what is called an ‘overhang’. But if the Maori Party vote rises to 2.05 per cent, the party gets three seats and one overhang seat, costing National an MP.
Just what Maori may want from any incoming government will not be known until 21 meetings are held, three in each of the seven Maori electorates. But among those who have met Clark in preliminary talks is an adviser that she called a ‘hater and wrecker’ during the talks over the hugely contentious Maori claims to the New Zealand foreshore and seabed. These claims led to a prominent Maori MP quitting Labour to contest this election for the new party.
Clark may also regret saying that the Maori Party would be last cab off the rank in any coalition. As one of its leaders said on election night, the fare has just gone up.
The Greens won 5.1 per cent of the vote and hope for 7.8 per cent (after the distribution of postal votes) to get their seventh MP, a skateboard-riding dreadlocked character called Nandor Tanczos. Just how the Greens were crunched this time is shown by the fact that in 2002 they received 11.7 per cent of the vote and in 1999 got 8.07 per cent.
Then there is the Progressive Party of Jim Anderton, a Minister in the Clark Government. Its vote of 1.21 per cent needs only to rise to 1.23 per cent to get a second MP into office, although at the last election it dropped when the postal votes arrived. This increase for Anderton would cost Labour a seat, but it would not affect its majority because Progressives would be in a coalition.
Helen Clark talks of a range of options such as coalition, agreements to give support or abstention on confidence and supply, a co-operation agreement, or another normal working relationship. In the last Clark Government the Greens had a close working relationship last term but did not give Labour support on confidence and supply.
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