This election continues the Kiwi trend of choosing leaders based almost purely on how much we personally like them. By Jane Clifton, New Zealand Listener.
It's beginning to look suspiciously as though New Zealanders really yearn for a sort of benign dictatorship.
Once again, we've gone for a voluntary one-party state – having soundly thrashed one of the minor parties we once elected for accountability and given the other one a hell of a fright.
Only this country could take MMP and create with it a series of Lee Kuan Yews and Kemal Atatürks – a sequence of leaders with increasing dominance, who had power in direct proportion not to the respect and authority they engendered but to how much we liked them.
There were nine years of Helen Clark's calm authority, then the era of the uber-affable John Key, which – just four years ago – felt incapable of being ended, even when Key himself bailed.
The only reason his successor, Bill English, isn't the new Atatürk is that we found an alternative so benevolent she didn't even dictate. Jacinda Ardern just asked nicely.
What this means for the other parties is far from the Scandinavian and German idyll of calm, mature multiparty co-operation.
For the main Opposition, be it Labour or National, it has meant years in ignominious, impotent near-exile. Even when National, for most of the last term, held a historically high 40 per cent-plus in the polls, it had no influence over the Government and only an unreliable sputtering of menace.
Our system allows the main Opposition party to be so relegated from all but perfunctory limelight that, inevitably, it turns in on itself. National had a specially tough inner torment last term, because everybody – except a secretly dithering Winston Peters – expected it to form the Government.
It understandably felt cheated but made the mistake of assuming Ardern was a lightweight whose oil-and-water coalition would collapse in acrimony.
Seeing her mettle forged in crisis after crisis, and the Greens and New Zealand First confining their clashes largely to inside the tent, National came up with little to dent voters' crush on Ardern. Then Covid-19 made it all but irrelevant. Unfairly, National couldn't even question her Covid strategy without being pilloried.
Men behaving badly
Its uningratiating, gladiatorial leader, Judith Collins, will be a popular scapegoat, but National's problems mostly stem from men who thought they were bulletproof: the Jami-Lee Ross debacle; the three safe-seat MPs who disgraced themselves; Simon Bridges' blatant disrespect of most of his caucus; Todd Muller turning the caucus into an unproductive policy bureaucracy, then finding he couldn't stand the pressure; the unsuitably irascible campaign manager Gerry Brownlee; and the senior male MP who is understood to have supplied a series of damaging leaks to the media this campaign. There's a lot of mansplaining to do before National's pending enquiry puts Collins on the stand.
She couldn't save many seats, but despite losing several electorates unexpectedly, National at least salvaged some key talent.
The Greens' base held solid, for where else could its core supporters go? But the party suffered constant hammering from its activists, who grossly overestimate what's possible unless one's party has an absolute majority. In being relegated in its deal with Labour, the party is probably better off than in full Cabinet partnership. It has accrued immense moral authority, and Brand Ardern will suffer if the Greens are not given some serious policy trophies.
Whatever anyone says, a wealth tax will not be one of them. Labour has a new pact with the centre vote, and even the more excitable economists say this isn't the time for a radical tax experiment.
The Greens will be free to promulgate progressive social and fiscal ideals, while being allowed to "own" further climate-change initiatives. The knowledge that Labour's majority mandate was partly fuelled by fear of Green policies will serve only as an ideological handbrake.
Elsewhere, a mighty tōtara has succumbed to a surely fatal dose of dieback fungus. Peters' Dr Who-like regeneration powers appear finally exhausted. For now, he's using his sonic screwdriver for a spot of DIY at his beach house in Northland, avoiding the media and guarding his dignity.
What did for him and the party he founded in 1993 is a complex roil of self-inflicted wounds and externalities such as Covid. Polling has suggested NZ First's traditional seniors' ballast did not so much desert him as feel moved to vote Labour to thank Ardern for, as they saw it, saving their lives.
The party bombastically blasted money at provincial New Zealand, but Labour got the voters' thanks for that, while NZ First was seen as deploying a re-election slush fund. Reinforcing that suspicion, the Serious Fraud Office charged two former party figures over its donations blind trust.
Voters also found Peters' ceaseless gamesmanship with the media wearing.
However, we might miss having Peters to kick us around. NZ First has long been the primary soaker-up of the malign rump of the vote base: the anti-immigration, racist, xenophobic, conspiracy-minded, vengefully grumpy vote. Yet the party has been that vote's scrupulously benign custodian.
As Massey University politics lecturer Grant Duncan has warned, NZ First was perversely useful harvesting that sentiment without ever actually obliging it. Peters never caused immigration to be abridged, monetary policy to be upheavalled, Māori advancement policies to be truncated or elites to be toppled. His presence and rhetoric in office may have given the grumpies some comfort, with his popularity showing that at times these were not just fringe preoccupations. But that was all.
What stopped him acting on their mandate is a fascinating question. He probably never had enough bargaining power, but perhaps, too, he lacked the appetite to be divisive and destructive in deed as well as word. Perhaps he even saw his job as giving the disaffected a hearing and a voice, to draw attention to the causes of their horrible views: unemployment, social isolation and fear of change.
The new vehicles arising to attract those disaffected voters have no such inner governing rods. The New Conservatives sincerely believe the United Nations is a sinister force and that the education system is on a crusade to morally corrupt children. Advance NZ is anti-vaccination, with its founder fluent in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Both appear well-funded, widely networked and adept at generating publicity – the necessaries for surviving the barren wilderness between election campaigns.
It'd be a mistake to see Act's election result as 8 per cent's worth of endorsement for David Seymour's small-government, big-freedom messages. It's more a payoff for hard work and opportunism.
As a caucus of one, he always had the advantage of unity and clarity. But he was brave with it, the only MP openly querulous about the Government's resoundingly popular "eradication" approach to Covid-19. Opposition to gun reform was Act's golden ticket – but only because Seymour was shrewd enough to seize it.
He'd by then dispelled his clownish image – after twerking on television – by taking over a Labour private member's bill for voluntary euthanasia. In contrast to promoters of the election's other referendum, on legalising cannabis, Seymour was never aggressive, seeking to persuade rather than hector support for the bill. Polls suggest when the count is finalised next week, his approach will have paid off.
Seymour has also cannily capitalised on National's internal shenanigans, earning a folksy reputation as "the real Opposition". His naturally mischievous countenance and air of having fun and not taking himself too seriously brought a refreshing energy to the campaign.
Unless specials restore the status quo, the Māori Party will have an MP, Rawiri Waititi, with no direct power but every bit as much moral authority over the Government as the Greens.
Labour was able to park tricky rights issues, including the Kermadecs sanctuary and Ihumātao land dispute, blaming NZ First intransigence. Now it has no excuse, and Waititi looks like having just the mix of persuasiveness and mana to chivvy matters along.
And there's another peculiarity about the way we do MMP. Voters may have given Ardern an absolute, first-past-the-post-style majority, but heaven help her if she doesn't nevertheless give the excluded parties a turn.