John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Right-left jockeying real news of the week

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Banks’ fate just a sideshow as election looms and tension begins to mount

The Epsom MP was already history before he found himself on the wrong end of a guilty verdict. Photo / NZ Herald
The Epsom MP was already history before he found himself on the wrong end of a guilty verdict. Photo / NZ Herald

The downfall and disgrace of John Banks may have seemed the story of the week. But the feasting by the mob on what was left of his dignity was essentially a sideshow, if a rather unsavoury one.

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The Epsom MP was already history before he found himself on the wrong end of a guilty verdict — ancient history, in fact.

Of far more note, though much less entertaining, was the increasingly odd behaviour exhibited by other politicians. The pressure is mounting as the number of days before the opening of the official election campaign rapidly dwindles.

It is not just a question of readiness in an organisational sense, be it canvassing, advertising or whatever. It is starting to dawn on Opposition parties that whatever they do in the next 100 or so days before election day, the polls may well not budge.

That would obviously be good news for National. But the absence of allies who can win seats means its margin between victory and defeat is so slim that even a tiny shift in support in the polls could be catastrophic.

A further complicating factor in an already complicated election has been the entry stage-left of the Internet-Mana party. All up, nerves are starting to frazzle across the political spectrum. Mild panic seems to be setting in.

Labour has pulled up the drawbridge and is refusing to even engage with, let alone co-operate with, other parties.

The Greens seem to be flirting with policies which would have them positioned more to their right. But they are still insisting that any post-election deal with National remains in the "highly unlikely" category.

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National, meanwhile, is getting more edgy about whether it can retain power.

The initial thinking was that its comfortable domination of the centre and centre-right would not be affected by the creation of the Internet Mana party, which — judging by the political hue of the personnel on board — would be fighting for headroom on the left.

On further reflection, however, Internet Mana poses a very real threat to National. It is not just that Hone Harawira, Laila Harre and Co might carve out new territory by appealing to young non-voters and thus expand the left's share of the vote.

The far bigger danger to National is that Internet Maori wipes the floor in the Maori seats and obliterates the Maori Party. National may enjoy a big lead over Labour in the polls. But as oft-stated, it is the margin between the right and left blocs that matters. That margin remains extremely tight.

If you do the figures, it rapidly becomes apparent that any slight wavering in current support for National would see it needing more than United Future's Peter Dunne holding Ohariu and Act's David Seymour gaining a free run in Epsom.

Unfortunately for National, United Future has no realistic hope of registering a party vote anywhere near high enough to enable a second MP to "coat-tail" into Parliament under the one electorate seat threshold loophole.

As for Act, Jamie Whyte has done much in terms of getting the party focusing again on its basic ideology. But Act's image is still too tarnished to produce a reversal in fortunes in the limited time left until the election.

That leaves National relying on the Maori Party. If the party makes it back into Parliament, signing up with National for a third time would be the kiss of death. But the odds on it holding any of its current three seats look increasingly bleak. Its poor showing in the Ikaroa-Rawhiti byelection — it came third behind Labour and Mana — was a wake-up call.

But Te Ururoa Flavell has yet to make any real impression as co-leader. The party seems to be drifting in the wake of the retirements of Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples.

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Its parliamentary survival now hinges on Labour and Internet Mana splitting the anti-Maori Party vote such that it comes though the middle.

Given the destruction of the Maori Party would make things very difficult for National, Labour's refusal to reach a mutually satisfactory deal with Internet Mana might seem puzzling.

Instead of giving himself the flexibility to strike such a deal at any stage in the run-up to election day — the case with John Key with respect to Colin Craig's Conservative Party — David Cunliffe wants to stymie electoral accommodations by promising to abolish the one-electorate seat threshold. No law, however, can stop National hinting to its supporters to give Dunne and Seymour an easy ride into Parliament via their electorates, thereby creating an "overhang" which is of mathematical advantage to National in trying to secure a majority.

Cunliffe's campaign may be principled in ending a longstanding rort on the electoral system. But Cunliffe is fighting the 2014 election — not the 2017 one.

However, he is justified in worrying that any arrangement with Internet Mana will not only see Labour shedding votes to that party in the Maori seats, but more importantly in the general ones as well.

Moreover, the flagging of other potential coalition partners by Labour risks benefiting only those minor parties, because voters would feel they can vote for minnows in the knowledge they are not undermining the centre-left's chances of putting a government together.

The problematic relationship between the Greens and NZ First is a further reason to avoid foreclosing on options before an election.

Just as Key is wary of the dangers of getting too cosy with Craig, Labour also does not want to put itself in the position where it could be seriously embarrassed by some of Harawira's outbursts.

But Labour is taking an even harder line by deliberately cold-shouldering its allies and thus denying them the oxygen of publicity.

This reached extreme proportions in Labour's initial refusal to comment on the Greens' plan to introduce a carbon tax. Such behaviour is creating an information vacuum regarding the likely direction of a centre-left government.

Such negativity offers no incentive for those voters who have only a weak attachment to National to switch allegiances.

This frustrates the Greens. Their response to Labour's non-co-operation pact is to use their pollution levy to pitch to the centre. Their message to Labour is "You cannot shut us out."

That does not mean the Greens are shifting to the right. It is simply that in a crowded market-place, you have to have a product which is unique.

The Conservative Party is also unique — but not in a way that National would prefer. Nevertheless, as much as he will not like doing so, Key is going to have to hand Craig an electorate as insurance against the Maori Party not making it back to Parliament. The arrival of Internet Mana has left him no choice. That was the real story of the week — not Banks.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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