When the final result of the election is declared today National is almost certain to have its victory confirmed. The margin over Labour will probably be reduced but still decisive. We should pause to acknowledge what an historic result this is.
Historians and political scientists know exactly what I mean. No government has won a fourth successive election since 1969, nearly half a century ago. Only four have done it since party politics as we know it, brought stability to government more than 120 years ago.
This Government's achievement stands comparison with Seddon's, Massey's, the first Labour Government and Holyoake's.
Richard Seddon won a fourth election in 1902 and a fifth before he died. William Massey's Government won a fourth term just after his death. Labour's first Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, died after winning a second election and Peter Fraser won two more. Keith Holyoake was the first Prime Minister since Seddon to win four times. John Key looked certain to become the second until he resigned at the end of last year not wishing to stay for another full term.
This victory is a notable personal achievement for Bill English. The record of prime ministers who take over between elections is not good. English has succeeded where Shipley, Moore, Palmer, Rowling, Marshall, and Holyoake, in 1957, failed. English has proven, to himself as much as anybody, that the Government's sustained support over nine years was not entirely attributable to "Key love", as Jacinda Ardern used to call it.
I can't help suspecting if a Labour Government had just won a fourth election it would not have taken two weeks for someone to write about it. Historians and political scholars would have been extolling the achievement of the party and its leader ever since election night.
They would have pointed out that those previous four-term governments were all pre-MMP, in a two-party system that made it was easier for one party to win 44-47 per cent of the vote, which this Government has done through four elections.
It has been easily our most popular government under MMP. National was elected with 44.9 per cent in 2008, increased its vote to 47.3 at the 2011 election, stayed on 47 per cent in 2014 and held up on election night this time with 46.03. If it drops a percentage point or two today it will still be well above Helen Clark's Government that came in with 38.7 per cent and its best result was 41.2 in 2002. The Bolger Government received just 33.8 per cent at the first MMP election.
Since that tumultuous first term of MMP, the system has worked tolerably well. We have had two nine-year governments, 18 years of remarkable contentment compared to the upheaval of the previous 25 years.
The reason is mainly economic. The last quarter of the 20th century brought the end of a colonial economy and the painful adjustment to world markets. This century has enjoyed the fruits, competitive primary exports, cheaper imports, low inflation, steady growth and a rising population, all underpinned by sound government finances. But MMP has played its part.
No electoral system is perfect, none is more important than the political culture of the electorate whose votes the system has to turn into an acceptable government. MMP in New Zealand was grafted on to a Westminster two-party system that had produced well disciplined decisive governments - too decisive for the liking of many in the later stages of economic reform before the fruits appeared. That's why we adopted MMP.
But is has been interesting to see how much of the Westminster system voters have chosen to preserve. The vast majority, 80 per cent, still vote for one of two long established parties. Neither of them ever receives a majority of the total vote, just as before. No party has won 50 per cent of the vote in my lifetime. But after every MMP election - seven before this one - the winning party has become the government.
They have done so with the support of small parties and single MPs who have supported whichever party won. The smaller players have responded to their sense of what our political culture expects.
The Westminster elements survive not just in the primacy of the party winning the most votes but in the kind of government that has evolved over the 21 years of MMP. Parties quickly found formal coalitions with both parties in a Cabinet did not work here. By 2005, when Labour was returned with a two percentage point margin over National, we had reverted to single party government with supporting parties outside the cabinet, flying a few flags of their own.
Winston Peters complained this week that whatever he does he can not win. He's right, you can not win with 7.5 per cent. But you can look dispassionately at history and see what succeeds here.