Copyright © 2002 Russell Brown
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GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ...
God, that was weird. The election campaign, I mean.
Whose fault is it? Well Labour's for calling it in the first place, but I think the blame goes wider than that.
The worst Labour will do according to the polls is about what it did last time, just under 40 per cent of the vote - but that's a long way short of the 50 per cent plus it was polling when it called the election.
That extraordinary position in the polls would doubtless have seeped away anyway somewhat had Labour held on another couple of months before going to the electorate, but the risk-free campaign has hardly turned out that way. The strategy to make Helen Clark appear magisterial and above it all has backfired badly. She recovered some personal warmth just in time.
The difference between 44 and 39 per cent of the vote will be the difference between being able to negotiate with three parties for support - needing only one of them at a pinch - and running a real minority government, whose Parliamentary partners are likely to be at odds with each other on most issues.
Yet Labour will undoubtedly emerge as the largest party by some distance. National, on the other hand, will suffer its worst result on record - somewhere in the low 20s. The harshest irony is that such a result will throw out most of Michele Boag's rebuilding. National's fresh faces - Guy Salmon, Hekei Parata - won't make it in on their list placings. Pansy Wong will be gone. Don Brash, having left his job as governor or the Reserve Bank to campaign, may be looking for a new job.
This will have the cruel effect of making National look even less appealing in an MMP system: fewer than 30 MPs, almost all of them while males. And a party that places Roger Sowry second on its list wasn't exactly screaming with talent in the first place.
Apart from Bill English himself - and he's managed to go from thoughtful man from braying populist in the last couple of months - it's a stretch to think of many individuals in that party you'd get out of bed to vote for. Even if it could reach the levers of power, National simply doesn't have the talent to govern.
Its would-be partner, Act, is led by another yesterday man. But I'm happy enough to see Rodney Hide - odious but effective - and Donna Awatere-Huata delivered back to Parliament. Act's major legacy in this campaign may well be its introduction of the Auckland Asian vote as a political constituency.
The same will not apply of course to Winston Peters, who has driven New Zealand First to something around 10 per cent by exploiting fear and unease about crime, race and immigration. What will his party bring the new Parliament? Looking at its list, no talent worth mentioning. The best that can be said about Peters and his chums is that they are journeymen who will probably forget some of their more offensive ideas when they arrive in Wellington.
United Future - which has sprung into contention apparently almost solely as a result of Peter Dunne's worm performance in the One leaders' debate - will bring in four or five MPs with him, and they appear to be competent people. His party - like the Greens - reflects a political constituency that hasn't so far had a lot of play in the political system. Christians have a right to representation as much as tree-loving pagans I guess. But really, Dunne's voting record does not entirely match his soothing words for the cameras.
The Greens bring in proven talent at the top of their list, even if it may get flaky further down. Jeanette Fitzsimons, Rod Donald and Nandor Tanczos are all worthwhile representatives. Curiously, it will be their number three, who has barely been seen in the campaign, who will have a vital role to play. Sue Bradford was the go-between in the last Parliament and she is likely to do the same in this one. More than anyone else in her party, Bradford comes from an established political tradition. She's organised, and a worker.
The same things might be said of Laila Harre, the Alliance's last hope. If I lived in Waitakere, I would give her my electorate vote - and Labour may need an extra friend more than it needs another electorate seat. (There is a faint chance that Labour will win so many electorates it won't get anyone in off the list - goodbye Michael Cullen!) Even if she fails there, I would expect the party to persist.
The same can't necessarily be said of Jim Anderton's party, in which the initials PC might well stand for "Personality Cult". But in that sad meltdown, it it's hard to deny that Jim left with the best talent.
I wouldn't want to be in a cricket club, let alone a political party, with Jim Anderton, but his transformation and leadership of the Ministry of Economic Development has been impressive. Regional development has, with the help of a burgeoning rural economy, been a success. KiwiBank hasn't failed, and the worst thing the opposition has been able to hang on him in nearly three years is an expensive coffee machine. I hope he can bring through Matt Robson, who also has a further contribution to make. I presume Sandra Lee - who matured politically into a strong Minister of Conservation - would have stayed in politics had she had a better chance of re-election.
And so to Labour: whatever stumbles she's made on the campaign trail, for all that she sometimes gave the appearance of being vexed at the whole thing, Clark is still far and away the best candidate for Prime Minister we have. We tend to forget what a worry Jenny Shipley actually was.
It's also easy to forget what a mess the public sector was three years ago. In 1999, there were serial failures of governance; WINZ was screwing up and, as a matter of policy, lying to people about their lawful entitlements. Now, WINZ is the Department of Work and Income, the corporate gloss is gone - and can anybody tell me who the CEO is? That's the way I believe it should be.
We currently enjoy the lowest rate of unemployment in 13 years. In the past couple of weeks, trade and current account figures have beaten all forecasts. Sustained economic growth is still notably elusive but that's hardly a new problem for New Zealand.
Cullen's work in establishing his credibility as a finance minister is one of the personal success stories of this government. John Tamihere is another. There were real doubts as to whether he could keep his firey side in check and work as part of a government - turns out, he can. While the rest of Labour's Maori caucus isn't exactly seething with talent, Tamihere's purposefulness is priceless. His Westie mate David Cunliffe has done himself no harm either.
Elsewhere, on the front bench, Mallard was the wrong guy to run education, with hindsight - they didn't need a shitkicker - but has done the job at State Services. It probably means nothing to most people, but I'm very impressed by the way the e-government initiative has evolved. I have confidence in Phil Goff to do most things.
It's not all good, of course. Far from it. The Property Relationships Act was over the top; the reek of competence has sometimes mingled with the born-to-rule attitude that undid National in the end; the political courage to move on, say medical marijuana, is nowehere to be seen. Health is still a debt-ridden mess, only the debt is in different places. The move to elected boards was laudable, but in this sector, any change comes at a cost, and it has this time. A big tick, however, for the initiatives on primary health. I'm starting to come around to the idea of a dedicated health tax, if only to make the proposition clearer to the public. Bill English cited the French health system as an example - well, if we want to pay what the French pay, we can do that too.
In terms of what was promised and delivered, I'm grateful that public housing policy worthy of the name was restored early on by this government, that ACC was rescued from the sweaty grasp of the insurance companies and that our industrial relations law now meets basic international standards. The rescue of the cultural sector has been a unique initiative.
But I'm a bFM listener: I've seen the market research - we get by fine, we go out, we are largely happy with our station in life, we are not angry, we are not much consumed by fear or unease. Or by crime, race or immigration. GE, perhaps, but base populism doesn't find much purchase round here.
Yet that's what's been widely on display these last few weeks, and we'll find out tomorrow how important it will be in the next few years. If nothing else, I hope all those parties claiming to be backing families actually do something real for the poorest families when they get back to Parliament. For all that it worked well around the edges, this government didn't tackle child poverty with near enough intent.
The beginning of the election campaign seems a long, long time ago - the last election, a whole other era. When we pick through the numbers, I think this vote will show some major new trends in New Zealand politics.
I do think this is a better place now than it was in 1999. We seem more confident of our place in the world. I wonder if this - freakish as it has been - may come to be regarded as the first real MMP election. The proportional system has delivered us an unheralded diversity of representation; it now needs to be proved as a way of choosing a coherent direction for the country
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