A new government normally gets a good lift in the first post-election poll. It stands to reason. A certain number of those who didn't vote for it find the sky hasn't fallen, they're finding it interesting to have a change and while they don't regret their vote, should a pollster phone to ask what party would get their vote if an election was held today, they go with the change.

For all those reasons Labour would have been expecting the polls to wipe out National's election victory by Christmas. I thought they would, I suspect National thought they would too. But it hasn't happened. Colmar Brunton's first sample for TVNZ since the election found 46 per cent would have voted National last week against 39 per cent for Labour, both up 2 per cent on their election results.

National's own polling, I understand, has the gap narrower but National still ahead, as does Labour's if I heard its pollster, Stephen Mills, correctly on RNZ this week. What is going on?

We're in uncharted political water. Never before in my lifetime have we had a government led by a party with fewer seats than its main rival. In that sense, MMP has only now arrived. This is new territory for both sides of Parliament.


When Winston Peters put Labour in power, voters for National were firmly instructed by scholars and commentators that the result was perfectly legitimate under the electoral system the country adopted 24 years ago. National Party members were given the same message by Bill English and the party president, Peter Goodfellow.

The message has been accepted. Disgruntled voters have gone silent, not arguing any more, even if they still feel the outcome of the election was just not right. It might have been easier to accept had all parties in the new government been aligned before the election, no electoral system should hand the decision to one mercurial man. But it's done now, water under the bridge in this extraordinary political year.

The poll taken last week shows none of National's voters have changed their minds. It tends to confirm what English has been reporting from his meetings with party members and supporters around the country since the election. He reckons they are no longer disgruntled at the result, just anxious that National should do what it can from Opposition to see that the economy remains well managed.

This is new territory for the party newly in Opposition as much as for the one in power. No party in living memory has gone out of government in as strong a position as National is now.

Normally the tide turns against a government a year or two into its final term. Its fate seems inevitable. It does not just fall behind in the polls soon after winning its last election, it becomes a subject of general scorn and derision. Nothing it can say or do will be well received. Every policy initiative or publicity stunt will be dismissed as desperation. The voters are just weary of it and dying for a change.

None of that happened to National. Until precisely August 1 this year, the party was odds-on to win a fourth term. John Key resigned because he thought a fourth term was certain and it would not be a happy one, that National would suffer the kind of final term I've just described. Bill English took over and National's lead in the polls hardly faltered.

Right up until August 1, National was coasting on the booming economy, population growth and budget surpluses. Labour under Andrew Little was not an appealing alternative. In June and July the party sank so low in the polls even Little might not have returned on its list. At Labour's further expense, the Greens got a surge from Metiria Turei's benefit admission at the end of July, Little handed the leadership to Jacinda Ardern and the rest is a fairy story.

Not quite the story many wanted to write, though. National was not supposed to win the election.


Likewise, its ascendancy in the latest poll didn't suit the current news narrative. The coverage highlighted Ardern's jump ahead of English as preferred Prime Minister and the fact most respondents think the country is going in the right direction, which it is. The new Government has not significantly changed its course. Grant Robertson's mini-budget has not greatly disturbed the Treasury's latest economic and fiscal update.

I looked in on Parliament one day last week and National did not look defeated on the Opposition benches. It has a front row of recent ministers who know the answer to every question they ask of their replacements and behind them are row upon row of faces we have yet to meet. They have an economic legacy to preserve and undiminished election support to keep them vigilant.