The Greens stole the campaign. Written off a year ago, struggling all year to break 2 per cent, they are now looking likely to be back in Parliament in greater numbers.
In part this was others’ doing. The genetically modified foods scare was a godsend. Helen Clark, needing an insurance policy, signalled loudly to her supporters to give co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons the Coromandel electorate seat. Jenny Shipley blundered into Coromandel and gave the green bus another shove.
But it is also the Greens’ doing. They made the running on GM foods and unearthed other scandals. They put a big effort into Coromandel from early this year. Co-leader Rod Donald is an instinctive, inventive and engaging campaigner. Ms Fitzsimons is seriously nice: demonising her, as National tried to do, was implausible.
Ms Shipley’s panicky attempt to squash the Greens back in their muesli box was understandable — National needed to void Labour’s insurance policy and holding Coromandel is crucial to National’s re-election chances. But any half-alert National strategist would have hosed down this potential hotspot months ago.
A sense of strategy would also have told Ms Shipley not to push the cannabis line nationally. It is an affirming issue for the already converted, not a converter of undecideds in a country where most under-55s have at least tried a puff — and especially not in a seat where the weed is an important cash crop.
The turning of Coromandel into a nationally recognised serious Green prospect was the turning point in the campaign. The left suddenly had the makings of a cushion. The right bandwagon began to lose oomph.
But who was driving this bandwagon? Not National, which has slid in polls all year — and during the campaign.
In part this is the result of five years of National governments containing and depending on misfits, turncoats and incompetents, a sluggish economy and a long yearning for at least a “correction” (as is said in the financial markets after a long bull run) to Rogernomics. Mrs Shipley was on a hiding when she took office two years ago.
But in part National made its own hurdles. It began to provide the “correction” this year — but too late and too little. It made easily avoidable political mistakes. It failed to wield to the full its potent centre-seeking weapon: the rising thirty-somethings known as the brat pack.
The campaign has shown that weapon needs sharpening. Brat pack leader Bill English is National’s rising star, on merit. But in hand-to-hand electioneering he lacks bite, no match for Michael Cullen in debate. For the brat pack it is back to school, even if National wins.
In the campaign this soft-focused National party, its strategists not always in unison, ran a divergent campaign: half negative (sometimes engagingly funny) but never quite going for Labour’s jugular, not even this week on tax; half positive, but without the 2000s vision Mrs Shipley kept claiming but never convincingly articulating. Its Saatchi-like ads admitted “mistakes”. It lacked a unifying slogan: the campaign bus invited you to “value your country” — but did you notice? The campaign took no risks until Coromandel, so lacked conversion power, which is what campaigns are supposed to be all about.
So the right’s bandwagon was driven by Richard Prebble. ACT drew on Australian skills for a hard-sell, product-focused campaign: “one country” on the treaty issue, lock up crims, prod beneficiaries out to work.
ACT’s was the brilliant star turn of the first half of the campaign, for a time sucking social conservative votes out of Labour (though probably costing Mr Prebble votes in liberal Wellington Central). But ACT also stands for low tax, deregulation, asset sales and more private education and health delivery — all things “one country” middling voters don’t like. The wave broke mid-campaign when ACT reminded voters of that.
Before the next election ACT needs to decide whether it is a libertarian right party, flanking a centre-seeking National, or a populist party, inheritor of Winston Peters’ angries, hollowing out Labour.
For New Zealand First the campaign has been disastrous. If it limps back into Parliament it will be a fractious fragment. Mr Peters risks a Chinese curse of three humiliations tomorrow: losing Tauranga, dropping below 5 per cent, and either depending on a hostile Tu Wyllie for his seat or, if Mr Wyllie is defeated, disappearing altogether.
Labour’s flank partner, the Alliance, has run a sound campaign. “Slim Jim”, as Mr Anderton has taken to calling himself, was convincing in debates, almost always supportive of Labour, a rose of reason, even when Labour tramped over its sensitivities with a new slogan alleging mendaciously that only a party for Labour could change the government. The Alliance’s advertising messages were clear and product-focused. On campaigning alone, the Alliance deserves to increase its 1996 vote.
But the beneficiary has been Labour, whose interest the Alliance was bound to serve or risk letting National back in. Labour’s campaign, like National’s was riskless — a risky gambit, as it turned out.
Labour’s strategists failed to appreciate until late that they were stacking up electorate support when it is the party vote that decides elections. The advertising was mostly gapingly vacuous, given product focus only very late. The “future is with Labour” slogan was empty of content. Ms Clark left “vision” until her campaign opening, too late to embed it in voters’ minds — so de facto she has run on negatives and left herself hostage to a huge heap of unfulfillable implied promises as a result.
So if Labour wins it will be largely by default. Ahead by wide margins for most of three years, it had largely squandered its lead by the campaign opening: a “win” tomorrow would be the electorate voting National out more than voting Labour in. Ms Clark has yet to construct a convincing social democratic response to the open economy on which a long-term Labour government might be founded. National’s taunt of “back to the future” has a ring of plausibility.
But Ms Clark has come on. In this campaign the arch bluestocking of yore began to enjoy mixing with the plebs. Stand by for the next episode in her evolution if she is Prime Minister.
Amid the multitude of smaller battles Labour’s Tauranga candidate, Margaret Wilson, is the standout. She has shown what a high-profile political pro can do in a “hopeless” seat, building the party vote to respectability and taking Katherine O’Regan to the wire. If Mr Peters is not in the next Parliament, it will be in great part Ms Wilson’s doing.
And my most memorable moment: Burton and Jenny Shipley catnapping on the plane returning from the West Coast last Friday, their heads inclined towards each other, the very picture of a deeply loving couple, the sort of warming image this sour nation can do with more of.