A date certainly concentrates the mind. The date National has set for its appointment with the voters is about as late as constitutionally permitted, but even two months out the election suddenly looms large.

A late November ballot, even if it returns to a cycle broken since 1984, seems a little too late for good government now. Elections are a catharsis, and after them the country needs to get on quickly.

The date National has set leaves very little time for a new or re-elected government to get down to business before the summer hiatus.

When last the country went to a late November poll, it at least had an electoral system that produced a clear result.


Now the election result is just the beginning of the bargaining for power. The date set for this election leaves barely four weeks for a coalition to be formed by Christmas.

Even Labour and the Alliance, the most cut-and-dried coalition possibility on indications so far, would probably take several weeks over a negotiation, if only for appearances. No party wants to be seen to embrace another too readily. But there is likely to be more at stake than that.

Any parties contemplating a governing partnership will want to test the relative strength of their share of the votes and there is not much precedent yet to guide them.

After the first MMP election, NZ First parlayed 13 per cent of the vote into four cabinet seats and about the same number of significant policy concessions.

The Alliance, on all polling lately, is unlikely to do as well this time but might not settle for much less than Winston Peters did when bargaining over policies.

Even if Labour and the Alliance do not intend trying to write a detailed coalition agreement they would need to reach an understanding about general direction, consultation and resolving disputes. That could take them to Christmas.

Since 1984 the country has grown unaccustomed to Governments that start fast. They have come in with a month or two remaining of the parliamentary year, come to grips with their immediate task and, often as not, produced a package of policies for the country to ponder over the summer holiday.

The coalition agreement served that purpose after the first MMP election. Whatever Government emerges from post-election negotiations this time, the country could be waiting until late January to see it do anything. And it is action, not election promises, that give notice of a Government's character.

National's stated reason for running so late - "the country does not want an early election" - is transparent. An election any time in October would not have been considered "early." The only people who do not want an election earlier than the last possible moment are those who fear the result.

On present polling, National and its disparate allies have much to fear and much to do between now and November 27. It seems National intends to use what remains of Parliament's term to introduce some legislation that cannot be passed but will be left dangling as electoral enticements. It sounds desperate.

A nine-year-old Government cannot easily offer new ideas. National has no option really but to turn attention on to Labour's plans. So should the voters, now that they know the date for their decision.