Just about everything people were saying about this general election was wrong. There was not a wish for change, the result was not even close. The election night result was very similar to the parties' standings in opinion polls for most of the past nine years. Labour's change of leader certainly injected more interest into the contest and the polls reflected that interest for several weeks. But in the final week, the polls showed the state of the parties much as they had been before Labour's precipitous decline this year.
It was another no-change election, the only difference being that, this time, National has lost two of the three smaller parties that have supported it since 2008. This was always likely to happen, National went into the 2014 election expecting it would need New Zealand First. It knows dealings with Winston Peters are seldom straightforward, but it sounds reasonably confident an arrangement can be made.
Over 21 years of MMP, a convention has developed that the party with the most votes forms the government. Jacinda Ardern did not quite acknowledge that practice in her speech on Saturday night but it was not a victory speech. It could hardly be one when Labour had finished 10 points behind on the night and Labour and Greens combined were five points behind. The margin will probably narrow slightly when special votes are counted, but not enough to challenge National's ascendancy.
The possible coalition permutations that will dominate discussion for as long as it takes Peters to decide, should not obscure National's achievement at this election. Nine years is normally as long as a New Zealand government survives, and the last year or two of the final term are normally miserable for the government as the polls give warning that its time is up. That did not happen in National's third term, even after its Prime Minister resigned rather than face the tide probably turning in a fourth term.
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Bill English has proved the Government's popular standing did not depend entirely on Sir John Key. English deserves to savour this victory, having contributed so much as Finance Minister and finally getting his chance to lead it. He now has the chance to construct a government of his own, so long as Peters recognises National's victory.
The English Government would need to answer the issues that came to the fore in the election campaign. Former Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons commented on Saturday night that while the Greens' vote had gone down, the party had set the agenda of attending to dirty rivers, poverty and climate change. Environmental issues are not top of NZ First's agenda; Peters abhors the Greens. But they will need to be high on National's priorities in a fourth term.
It is a great pity the Green Party remains averse to working in a National-led government. It could gain a great deal from National, relieving all parties and the public from another wait for Peters. Having lost the Northland seat and seen his party vote decline, Peters ought to be humbled by the result. He should not hold the winner to ransom.