As Labour post-mortems begin, National needs to try pre-mortems over asset sales

In retrospect, it was all pretty predictable. But, then, everyone is wise after the fact. Looking back, mistakes always seem obvious, the pitfalls so clearly signposted that you wonder what madness or peculiar form of blindness kept you from seeing the neon-lit warning signs.

Hindsight, as they say, is always 20/20.

Many column inches will be devoted to dissecting the results and pontificating over what went wrong this election for Labour, and right for National, and the Greens, and New Zealand First.


A vanquished Labour retreats to lick its wounds, having bled support to the Greens and Winston Peters who, against most predictions, has risen phoenix-like from the ashes of his 2008 defeat.

Act, meanwhile, limps on, its hopes carried by (at heart) an old Nat, while the Maori Party weighs its options after shedding more than half the votes it had in 2008. (But read Tariana's lips; she likes the status quo.)

So what if the cuppa intended to breathe life into one political corpse ended up resuscitating another? It didn't matter, because John Key, as every poll has been predicting for months, has led National back to the government benches, his star barely dimmed by the so-called teapot tapes saga.

And so the post-mortems go.

National's win is the easy part. Their campaign was boring and uninspiring, but it was smart to bank on Key's stratospheric popularity, especially in a truncated campaign, coming off six weeks of feel-good vibes from the Rugby World Cup. The short timeframe worked in National's favour. There was little time to absorb complex policy arguments. Dropping a welter of big policies late in the campaign, as Labour did, was a mistake.

In a longer campaign, more might have been made, too, of the public-private cuppa and the debate over whether the recording was in the public interest. But the police investigation put paid to that; the media well and truly outplayed by Key and strategist Steven Joyce.

Labour had the best television ads, but in the end, it was the focused, uncomplicated campaigns that worked best. The Nats' brand Key. The Greens' "children, rivers, and green jobs". And New Zealand First's Winston unleashed.

Still, Labour and Goff shouldn't indulge in too much self-flagellation. They made mistakes, but they were sailing against a strong headwind. Since World War II, only two governments have been turfed out by voters after a single term (the last time in 1975). History, and the Helen Clark hangover, weren't on Labour's side.


Ironically, too, the difficult conditions faced by the country over the past three years - the global economic crisis, Pike River and the Christchurch earthquakes - worked in National's favour.

Where the Nats failed to deliver on their promises - to slow the exodus of Kiwis across the Tasman, for example, or close the wage gap with Australia - the electorate was forgiving. Blaming forces beyond National's control has worked pretty well as an all-purpose excuse.

"Their situational milieu," as political scientist Jon Johansson has written, "has absolved them from the competency test in 2011."

So much for post-mortems. They have their uses, of course, but as the losers wallow in their mistakes and the winners bask in their victories, it might help to look forward and reflect on the more constructive "pre-mortems" that the psychologist Gary Klein suggests as a way to make important decisions.

The pre-mortem asks decision-makers to pause before committing themselves to an important decision, and imagine a scenario where the outcome of that decision a year or so down the track has been a disaster. Then take five minutes to write a brief history of that disaster.

In doing so, writes Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, they may well discover that the decision has been made too hastily. The main virtue of the pre-mortem is that it "legitimises doubt", particularly where group think is a danger.


The pre-mortem reduces the biases of uncritical optimism.

Key might ponder this as his government lurches towards state asset sales that polls show are opposed by up to 76 per cent of New Zealanders. As well, the election night results (before special votes are counted) show an even split between the pro-sales National and Act, and the parties which have declared their opposition to asset sales (including the Conservatives).

Having run a campaign based on his personal popularity, Key needs to tread carefully.

Though National has increased its share of the vote, thanks to a lower voter turnout than in 2008, the number of people who voted for them looks to be about the same (1,053,398 in 2008; 957,769 before special votes this time round).

On election night, Key seemed every bit the inclusive statesman. He wanted the Maori Party in, he said, and he intended to talk to the Greens.

"We are there for all New Zealanders," he said.


"We are moderate and we are centrist, and that's the way I'm going to carry on running the government."

Those of us who foresee somewhat gloomier outcomes in the years ahead can only hope we're wrong.