Toby Manhire 's Opinion

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

Toby Manhire: Political upstarts adding sauce to barbie season

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Kim Dotcom's party at Vector Arena was cancelled due to electoral law.
Kim Dotcom's party at Vector Arena was cancelled due to electoral law.

January's reputation as a political dead zone is getting a battering. The month is meant to be one of tumbleweed, interrupted only by the occasional burnt-sausage waft from the fabled political barbecue season.

This year, however, barely halfway through January, we've already been treated to a raucous, at times outlandish, election-year overture, the minions and wannabes somersaulting across the stage, in a demented early episode of New Zealand's Got Political Talent.

Colin Craig, leotarded in the soft blue of his Conservative Party, has led the acrobatics, filling the early January news vacuum with a series of interviews, before reprising his beloved smacking theme.

Then along came Kim Dotcom, swinging into view like Miley Cyrus aboard a wrecking ball. Tickets to next Monday's super-uber-Mega-bash were so in demand that he shifted it from Shed 10 to Vector Arena. He was going to launch his new album, his new music site and his new political force, the Internet Party.

The hype was blighted by the leak to blogger Cameron Whaleoil Slater of a strategy document prepared by blogger Martyn Bomber Bradbury for the nascent party. To steal a joke from Twitter: all the online references to "Kim Dotcom", "leak" and "Bomber" must have put the American internet surveillance factory into overdrive.

Somewhere along the way Team Dotcom read the electoral law, and the political element was removed from the launch: the "party party", as it was billed, was not about the party at all. Next thing you knew, the launch was binned completely. The wrecking ball was in a terrible tangle.

Luckless Brendan Horan's own plan to start a party meanwhile got lost in the crowd. The man exiled by NZ First wants to launch the NZ Independent Coalition, an anti-party party, which would presumably take the shape of a huddle of indie members bobbing around a room muttering about the system, man. Satirist Ben Uffindell has said his party is imminent, too, which promises to be almost as hilarious as another planning to register, the Pakeha Party.

And all the while, the twitching corpse of the Act Party goes about trying to find a new hero. National Party strategist-in-chief Steven Joyce, reports said, had paid a personal visit to Rodney Hide, entreating him to return to the yellowy fold. No thanks, he replied. But it's nonetheless useful to get an insight into the way Act leaders are appointed.

The reptilian forces of small-party politics, Winston Peters and Peter Dunne, have staunchly observed the early-January silence. No doubt they'll remedy that in the coming days, with Peters saying something mildly outrageous about Chinese people and Dunne jumping out of a cake at the Laneway Festival, in a bright orange T-shirt, clutching a cricket ball, and freestyling about tax policy. Just a hunch.

It's tricky to say what this parade of rude mechanicals will amount to by the time it arrives at an election campaign proper. The only certainties are that there will be plenty of entertainment, and that the Greens and NZ First will be lobbying hard to be included in the major leaders' TV debates, away from the motley rabble of the minor league.

Despite its shambolic birth, the Internet Party has at least achieved a remarkable burst of publicity. Their economic message is likely to be closest in character to the Greens': urging a switch to a digital-driven, weightless, post-agricultural economy. They haven't a hope of winning a constituency seat so will need 5 per cent nationally: unlikely but not impossible. Even now John Key will be rehearsing in the bathroom mirror his best couldn't-care-less face. It's safe to say he will be "very relaxed" about the Internet Party's prospects.

The Prime Minister has helpfully announced that this year he will be more explicit about inter-party arrangements: not just in terms of who National will snuggle up to in Parliament, but constituency deals. Which means no more of those heavily caffeinated winks to the people of Epsom. Key, Joyce and co will be weighing up explicit, exceptional requests to their supporters in three seats - urging a candidate vote for United Future in Ohariu, for Act in Epsom and for the Conservatives in East Coast Bays.

The last of those is the most critical. Unlike Act and United Future, the Conservatives are sure to bring at least a couple of MPs to Parliament on the coat-tails of a constituency win, which would exempt them from the 5 per cent party-vote threshold. What is more, such an endorsement could embolden them to win over that pool of voters who will waver between Winston and Colin. Foolish though it might be to say, if NZ First don't make it in 2014, surely Peters won't try again; and so surely NZ First would be finished.

If all the small and upstart parties prospered, Parliament could comprise as many as nine political groups. But don't count on it. Key and Joyce and co may yet decide the "dirty deals" approach just isn't worth the pain, that bedding down with the unpredictable Conservatives is too potentially toxic, that a recovering economy encourages risking the perilous moral high ground. It's plausible that after the 2014 general election the house will feature just five parties - National, Labour, Greens, Maori, Mana, with the last two holding as little as one seat apiece - the least varied composition in the MMP era. It could be that the great small-party lolly scramble of January is remembered as little more than a sugar rush.

- 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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