COMMENT:

As someone who cares for the accuracy of history, it is often hard to watch the first draft being written.

This weekend it is one year since an event that may puzzle future historians of New Zealand politics. TVNZ had a poll ready for publication on the Sunday night. They had shared the results with the Labour Party's leader, Andrew Little, who was interviewed for their weekend political programme.

The poll showed Labour's support had slumped from an already low 33 per cent or so, to 24 per cent. The reason was obvious. The Green Party had risen to 15 per cent, gaining at Labour's expense. Two weeks earlier the Greens co-leader, Metiria Turei, had given a speech many Labour supporters admired at the time, though we have almost forgotten that.

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Turei's benefit-cheating disclosure ended badly for her, so our future historians will wonder why her party rose in that poll, and they will wonder even more why the poll caused Little to say on TV he was not sure he should continue to lead the Labour Party.

After all, the combined Labour-Green vote had hardly changed and Winston Peters would still hold the balance of power on the poll result. Since becoming Labour's leader, Little had worked hard to bring the three parties together and present them as a credible coalition government. Why then did he go on TV and do a Hamlet that no party leader could survive, seven weeks out from a general election?

This was the weekend Jacinda Ardern knew her life was about to change. She may have been surprised by Little's meltdown on TV but she knows – as future historians might not – why that poll looked like a disaster for Labour at that time.

At that time, no party had led a government without winning an election. Though it had been perfectly possible ever since the country had changed its electoral system in 1996, it had not happened after eight elections under MMP. Parties with the balance of power had always put the winner in power, including Peters, twice.

That is a fact that will easily be missed by future historians because it is already being written out of the record.

For the sake of this Government's legitimacy and credibility, its supporters have loudly denied there was ever a convention that the winning party should govern under MMP and just about all political commentators have accepted that view.

The great enemy of historical understanding is determinism – the easy belief that what happened was bound to happen. Determinism has decided Peters was always going to go with Labour and that the coalition was always the likely outcome of the election. But if that was so, why did Little quit?

The reason, as he said at the time, was that he did not think Labour could credibly lead a coalition with 24 per cent of the vote. Would it be any more credible with 34 per cent, or anything less than National's vote? Labour thought it needed to win last year's election. That is why it was not celebrating on election night.

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Good leaders tend to have good luck and Ardern is no exception. Nursing her baby this weekend, her mind will probably return to the extraordinary events of a year ago. For not only did Metiria Turei take votes from Labour at that time but just three days after Ardern was given the leadership on August 1, Turei gave all those votes back.

For by the end of that week, Turei had lost just about all the sympathy and support she had received for her courage in disclosing she had not declared rental income to Winz as a solo parent on the benefit.

Two things happened to her hardship story. The family of her baby's father let it be known to news media that Turei had not lacked support from them. To be fair to her, she had mentioned their support in her original speech, but that detail had not made it into news reports. Then Newshub revealed Winz was not the only state agency she had deceived in her youth. To vote for a friend, she had registered in an electorate where she did not live.

That struck many as worse. A failure to own up to rental income was a sin of omission, this was one of commission. It was finally too much. Two Green MPs quit, Turei resigned and her party was left fighting for survival at the election.

Events moved so fast last this time last year that we have never properly reflected on them. History is in danger of deciding a public backlash against benefit cheating somehow caused Little to step down. The truth is more interesting for the development of our constitutional expectations. But history might not notice.