Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Key needs a new partner

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The willing applicants for the role of National Party crutch are not much to look at. Photo / David White.
The willing applicants for the role of National Party crutch are not much to look at. Photo / David White.

Wanted: allies for New Zealand's most popular political party. Neoliberal, neoconservative, Neolithic - anything considered. Benefits include a chauffeur-driven BMW and tea.

The willing applicants for the role of National Party crutch are not much to look at. The serried leaders of the Act Party, United Future, the Maori Party, the Conservatives and NZ First could come from the pages of a rejected sitcom treatment. If Paula Bennett were to size up the contenders, she'd probably demand they take drug tests.

There's nothing funny, of course, for John Key as he surveys the dance card.

Recent polls vindicate Labour's choice of David Cunliffe as leader and mock those who counselled against the expanded leadership contest.

They also underline National's status as the most supported party. But the big problem, which is bound to play out in the next 12 months, is that it is almost certainly not going to be popular enough to govern alone.

As the Prime Minister might put it: Bugger.

Consider the curricula vitae of the possibles:

Act: It should be an ideological thoroughbred. Scourge of the oversized state, megaphone for market forces and individual liberty. Instead, the Association for Consumers and Taxpayers is a limping procession of hand-me-downs and ghosts. John Banks, the party's single MP, won his seat thanks to a very public (but private, obviously) tableau at an Auckland cafe.

He hung on to his ministerial roles when Key continued the pantomime in Parliament by refusing to read a short police report on donations from Kim Dotcom. With Banks' party hovering below 1 per cent in polls, it's highly unlikely another awkward cafe set-piece would bring in so much as a single MP on his coat-tails, if he were to make it at all.
United Future: The indignity of Peter Dunne's I-didn't-leak-but-I-thought-about-it-okay-I-resign business over the Kitteridge report into the GCSB was amplified by United Future briefly losing its registered-party status. Despite all of that, the bow-tied crusader clearly feels hard done by. In a blog post last week, he sniffed that "failure by National to nurture its government partners" could prove costly.

Little wonder if the man from Ohariu was feeling freshly bruised: the Herald-DigiPoll gave his party 0.0 per cent.

Tea? Willing buyer, willing sipper, and all that, and yet, much like Banks, the issue is not how many MPs Dunne could bring in under the coat-tail rule, which exempts parties winning a constituency from the 5 per cent threshold, but whether he can get elected at all.

The Maori Party: Pressure from Mana and a revitalised Labour Party tilt at the Maori seats are bad enough. Worse are the internal divisions and leadership upheaval.

Party leaders have reasonably enough argued in the past that they are better inside the tent influencing policy, but with their very survival at stake, sitting on the crossbenches for a term looks likely.

The Conservative Party: A socially conservative partner fits the bill. But the impression of Colin Craig remains as a bit of a humourless plonker - the "John Key is too gay" flyer, the libel threat against a satirical website and so on. In the absence of a vastly improved performance from Craig and a good social issue to trumpet old-fashioned values, it's difficult to see them increasing the 1 to 2 per cent they're polling. A constituency for Craig is an outside shot. Still, desperate times. Put the kettle on.

Who else? The Pakeha Party? Nope. Kim Dotcom's Mega Party? Doubt it, though it'll probably beat United Future. Maggie Barry's splinter group, the Berm Liberation Front? One day, God willing.

No, like a terrifying labyrinthine nightmare, all roads sometimes seem to arrive at Winston Peters and NZ First. Floating around 5 per cent in polls, they'll probably be back. Before the 2008 election, Key ruled out a deal with the serially sacked Peters. "It's not a matter of political convenience ... It's a matter of political principle." Three years later, he was unbending. Peters was "rearward-looking", said Key. "I'm about tomorrow. I'm not about yesterday."

But there's tomorrow, and then there's tomorrow. The brighter futurist can't now rule out Winston, because he has so little else to cling to.

The problem for Key is compounded by the increasingly cemented Labour-Green pairing. Before the last election, the Greens were determined to keep the door open to a possible deal with National. No chance of that now.

The synchronised Labour-Green energy policy is the most public expression of the inevitability of what Key inventively decried as a "devil-beast" combo. Anyone who has been paying even the slightest attention will understand that voting either Labour or Green is voting for a coalition between the two. The argument that such a government, combining the second and third most popular parties, would be somehow illegitimate - the "coalition of the losers" stuff - just looks silly.

And so the National Party soars above opponents yet sinks deep in the coalition blues. Darjeeling for anyone who wants it. And for NZ First, something stronger.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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