Historians have debated, and will continue to debate, the critical moments in the general election of 2017, but on one point they agree.

The decision by the co-leader of the Green Party, Metiria Turei, to disclose that she had, decades earlier, lied about her circumstances as a beneficiary, was the catalyst for an extraordinary campaign. In the very short term it sent her party soaring in the polls and focused attention on issues around poverty.

Soon, however, things turned sour, as questions around her account multiplied. Its impact, however, continues to this day, not merely in discussions around policy, but the physiology of co-leader James Shaw, who has not blinked so much as a single time since. As for Turei herself - well, 20 years on, who could have predicted she would end up where she is today?

Beyond the Greens' fate, Turei's revelation triggered a domino effect through the campaign. The immediate spike in popularity plunged an already beleaguered Labour Party to a disastrous poll result, prompting Andrew Little to gulp down the political hemlock - he was not to be the last - resulting in the sudden and remarkable elevation of Jacinda Ardern, just six weeks out from election day.


Labour surged. National freaked out. Ardern unilaterally ditched her party's commitment not to implement tax changes in a first term, declaring herself absolutely transparent about profound uncertainty. National pounced like a starved tiger upon a wounded wildebeest.

The indomitable figure of Bill English - a very different man to the performance poet English Lit Bill that we know and love today - was reprogrammed to say nothing for the remainder of the campaign except the words: "Clear choice, roads, Labour tax, drag race, income tax, roads."

The strategy, centred on terrifying the bejesus out of ordinary New Zealanders, led to a reversal of Ardern's "captain's call", destining it to be remembered as the Ctrl-Z campaign: Let's Undo This.

If not always positive, it was undeniably relentless: frenetic and exhausting. Those who lived through those weeks will remember distinctly the cabbages and pizzas, the fiscal holes and pinball polls, the enormous fibreglass cow, the lipsticked piggy, Stardust and the spiders from Mars.

By the end, much like the New Zealand aviation industry, it had pretty much run out of gas.

The concluding days were not without incident, however.

In a final push for victory, National campaign manager Steven Joyce summoned the media to explain how a vote for the Labour Party was a vote for poltergeists, and a vote for poltergeists was a vote for terrorised families and terrorised children.

Steven Joyce had an eggcellent campaign. Photo / File
Steven Joyce had an eggcellent campaign. Photo / File

The National Party had prepared legislation to ban poltergeists, unlike the Labour Party, which had not mentioned poltergeists even once, and what were they hiding? Answering questions over the poltergeist claims, Joyce explained that he had read several books on poltergeists, more books on poltergeists than any other politician, so he knew what a poltergeist looked like, and he was pretty sure he knew a pro-poltergeist party when he saw one. Even if the experts might differ on the precise question of just how enthusiastic Labour might be about poltergeists, said Bill English, hardworking families, who had enough to worry about already, were determined not to let poltergeists into their homes.


All the public was hearing was politicians bickering about poltergeists, objected the Labour Party, before talking at great length about poltergeists.

History, they say, doesn't repeat, but it does rhyme. And so it was that nearly a decade later, Steven Joyce, launching his own breakaway party, delivered a startling and tearful speech in which he confessed to historic rhetorical fraud with the whole poltergeist thing.

He wanted to open up a conversation about the realities that drive people to provide misinformation. He'd only done it, after all, in the interests of his children, New Zealand's children, but people needed to understand the systemic issues within politics. That was the start of a remarkable journey for Joyce. Who could have predicted he would end up where he is today?

The smaller parties had become squeezed out, but they did produce dramas of their own. The Greens' adventures have been mentioned already. While the unblinking Shaw was widely acclaimed for keeping the party afloat, and his surgical caffeine irrigation was regarded as a success, the membership was anxious to see democratic structures and consensus-based decision making cemented in the party, leading to the decision to make all living organisms, defined as "plants, animals, fungi and bacteria", co-leaders of the Green Party.

There was Gareth Morgan's TOP Party - an organisation devoted to evidence and rational discourse, with only one condition: that you accept that Gareth Morgan is irrefutably, 100% right about everything. Millionaire Morgan, well known as something of a mongrel, attempted to soften his image by hiring as his chief of communications someone with even more mongrel in his soul: Sean Plunket, the only man in New Zealand who could make Gareth Morgan look like a pussycat. Who could have predicted they would end up where they are today?

New Zealand First had been widely expected to grasp the global mood and swell like a blowfish. Instead, the party spent most of the campaign emitting a sigh. They were hardly helped by the discovery, at the 11th hour, that a thriving community of elderly cryogenic enthusiasts had been living for some years in the boot of Winston Peters' bus, leading to the so-called "grandmother of all scandals".

Would that prove the end of Peters? Of course not. Shane Jones's leadership lasted only four days, all of which he spent fast asleep, before Peters rediscovered his mojo and wrenched back the reins. At 92, as silver tongued and bushy-tailed as ever, he is hotly fancied to be the kingmaker in the 2038 election.

But back in 2017, the surprises just continued. Once all the votes were counted, who could have predicted the election would end up where it did? More on that next week.