Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Political round-up: National almost beaten by The Abstention Party

Prime Minister John Key celebrates with his wife and supporters on election night. Photo / Greg Bowker
Prime Minister John Key celebrates with his wife and supporters on election night. Photo / Greg Bowker

Voter turnout in the general election was an historic low of 68.8% of eligible voters. An argument can be made that the National Party was almost beaten by The Abstention Party, which won 31.2% of the (non)-vote. Once you take into account the large number of the New Zealand population that abstained from voting on polling day you can see just how unpopular the political parties are. The National Party actually only scored about 33% of the electorates' votes, Labour got only 18.5%, and the Greens only 7%. Thus although the Abstention Party was hardly mentioned by political commentators - it, rather than the National, the Greens or Winston Peters, was the major success story of 2011. Nonetheless it's worth having a look through what the result mean for the parliamentary parties.

There's a wealth of very good items to read about the election results and their implications. Some of best and most important are: Anthony Hubbard's Turning the spin around, Karl du Fresne's Election death and resurrection, Gordon Campbell's On the election outcomes, Matt McCarten's Labour's love lost to Green, Dave Armstrong's Poll hangover would feel better if all voters had it, No Right Turn's Picking the bones, Dim-Post's Post election autopsy, amateur hour 2011 edition, John Armstrong's Political match-making begins, Audrey Young's Key signals portfolio for Banks, Kerry McBride's Dramatic drop compared with 2008 election, Simon Collins' 1 million didn't bother to vote, Graeme Edgeler's Election '11 - Counter-Factual, David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Specials and National, Claire Trevett's Future of Phil Goff, King on table at caucus, Tracy Watkins' Key walks tightrope on pushing mandate, TV3's Labour won't be able to turn tide in three years - Trotter, and Vernon Small's two items, Jockeying starts as Goff set to quit and Time for Labour to embrace a few risks.

Below is my take on what the results mean for the various parties.

National

National's 48% of the party vote is obviously an historic high, and in terms of the two-way battle with Labour, a massive victory. However, in practical terms the result pretty much replicates the last election and presumably will be National's high tide mark in this election cycle. National is claiming that its 48% vote is a mandate for its most unpopular policy, asset sales, but actually implementing those will inevitably eat into this current level of support. Big advantages for National are a huge pool of potential talent to renew the leadership and great continuity, as well as an almost ideal situation in terms of current coalition partners. They can pass legislation with either United Future and Act, or with the Maori Party, so there is no chance of the tail wagging the dog. The big issue is, of course, 2014. National's support will fall, Act is on life support, there is little chance of Peter Dunne increasing United Future's representation and another three years in Government with National is unlikely to enhance the Maori Party's electoral fortunes - especially when they farewell both their high profile leaders. Key will have to be looking at the Conservative Party as an option and figuring out how to facilitate their entry into Parliament. And of course John Key will be incredibly mindful of the Greens. Key has three years to build the relationship to the level where the Green Party could actually support a National-led Government.

Labour

Obviously the inverse is true for Labour - a party that has incurred an historic level of defeat and has suffered a loss of talent and demoralisation. This will take some time to bounce back from. The whole party will be distracted for quite some time by replacing Goff, which will inevitably end with further internal strife. Labour actually needs a thorough overhaul and this involves more than simple replacing Phil Goff. But the party has historically had a lot of difficulty removing its dead wood, especially as a new leader tries to retain a balance between the factions within caucus. It looks like it will be very hard for Labour to come back to Government in 2014 and instead the rebuild will be a six-year project. The electoral cycles are actually very consistent. Both National and Labour have been kept out of Government, suffered an even worse defeat at the following election and then bounce back to come close or take government. Labour's major concern may be that they really do not have a leader in waiting who will be seen to match it with John Key.

Greens

Any party would be happy with a 50% increase in their vote. The increase in MPs will bring a massive increase in parliamentary resources as well as the ability to cover parliamentary duties. However, their election night wobbles did actually continue. Polling consistently at 12% or higher, they still suffered their traditional 2% drop on election day. The issue for the Greens will be that their surge primarily came as a result of Labour's woes and therefore the party's high vote is vulnerable to be taken back as Labour eventually rebuilds. While the Greens are keen to push the word 'historic' in relation to their result, actually their party vote is almost the same as that of the Alliance in 1996 - and that was the Alliances high-tide mark which declined as Labour regained popularity in subsequent elections. To avoid this the Greens will need to ensure that as National sheds support, they pick up some of those votes to compensate. Strategically then for both the Greens and National the Greens need to continue their push to the centre to maintain this level of support.

NZ First

Winston Peters finds himself in the position he is best at - in opposition. With a weakened Labour Party he will have quite a few months as the main opposition attack dog and will undoubtedly make the most of it. The question mark will be the rest of his caucus. NZ First has historically been very much a one-man band but given Winston Peters' age, the party desperately need some new stars to emerge and it's not clear that there are any obvious future leaders in his new caucus. His presence in Parliament though will hinder Labour's rebuilding efforts particularly as Labour tries to capitalize on the implementation of the asset sales policy. Nobody does outraged indignation better than Peters.

Maori Party

The Maori Party face a real quandary. The leadership openly acknowledges that the party has been punished for its relationship with National. Yet the Maori Party looks set to make the same decision they made in 2008, which must surely endanger their survival in 2014, particularly as they will be without Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia. Like a possum in the headlights, they know the car is coming, but seem unable to move out of the way. If they had the balance of power then they might have been able to secure more concessions from National, even stopping the asset sales programme, which would have been hugely popular. The problem is National can use them when convenient but ditch them for United Future and Act as required. Even if the Maori Party votes against National, having been in Government with them inevitably means you become associated with their policies.

Mana

Mana will have to be disappointed that it still only has one seat, and even that had to be fought hard and was reasonably close. Mana needs to get out of the single-seat party ghetto they currently inhabit with Peter Dunne and John Banks, but it can't do so for another three years. Annette Sykes did mount a strong challenge in Waiariki and would probably fancy her chances of taking Flavell out in 2014 (especially given the Maori Party's situation). If the Greens continue their centre drift and Labour continues to flounder then there will be potential for Mana on the left. With the Maori seats there is likely to be an unprecedented level of vacant seats (including potentially a new seat if more Maori switch to the Maori role). The problem is the potential went largely unrealised this election - so there is a lot resting on Hone Harawira. While he has secured the minimum base, there is obviously a lot of work to do for Mana in the next few years to build the fledgling party.

Act

The very idea of John Banks keeping the libertarian candle burning in Parliament stretches credibility. It's hard not to see Act now as a National mini-me and so their long term future would have to be pretty grim. There definitely is a constituency to the right of John Key's National, but John Banks is not the person to lead it. Act have the potential to make some ground as National's historic levels of support ebb away, but the party also faces competition from the Conservative Party, who John Banks would actually probably be a better fit with.

Conservative Party

Well, a million bucks can't buy a seat in Parliament, but apparently it can get you half way there. If Colin Craig has another million dollars he could well build towards 5% for the next election, and National probably wouldn't be too upset at all given their outlook for their other potential coalition partners. National will probably be very wary of any electorate deals though but it will be interesting to see National's attitude towards changing the MMP threshold and exemption for parties who win a seat. If they make it harder to break into Parliament it will be National who finds itself running out of coalition partners.

United Future

Having reversed the trend of his declining majority, Peter Dunne could probably stay in Ohariu until his famous hair falls out. But that's probably about it. One remote possibility would be a merger with the Conservative Party as both have a Christian element, and obviously Dunne's seat would be very attractive. However, the voters of Ohariu may balk at being used as a gateway to Parliament for a conservative Christian presence.

MMP referendum

MMP looks very secure. Although only the advance votes have been counted, there is no reason to suppose that the final results will vary much. The anti-MMP campaign never really got off the ground and mainstream politicians were loathe to get their hands too dirty weighing in heavily one way or another. What was interesting was the results of the second question. The anti-MMP preferred option of Supplementary Member finished a distant second. While those who voted chose FPP, most people didn't choose an alternative system at all. MMP is here to stay, but there will be some tweaking and the obvious targets are the threshold and the one seat exemption, although you can be sure that National especially will have one eye on future elections as it considers how far to push any major changes.

Today's content

Election results analysis

Matt McCarten (NZH): Labour's love lost to Green

Anthony Hubbard (SST): Turning the spin around

Gordon Campbell (Scoop): On the election outcomes

John Armstrong (NZH): Six reasons National won and Labour lost

John Armstrong (NZH): Win huge triumph for Key

Tracy Watkins (Press): A mother of a mandate

Karl du Fresne (Dom Post): Election death and resurrection

Tracy Watkins and Vernon Small (Stuff): Key's back but party will be soul-searching

The Dom-Post: Post election autopsy, amateur hour 2011 edition

Dave Armstrong (Dom Post): Poll hangover would feel better if all voters had it

No Right Turn: Picking the bones

Tapu Misa (NZH): Key could do with element of doubt

Deborah Coddington (NZH): Key and Goff no pushovers

Fran O'Sullivan (NZH): Global crisis set to test National

Bernard Hickey (NZH): We're no-idea Nellies

NZH: Editorial - Demanding times ahead for National

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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