It hasn’t gone to plan. The point of having an election now instead of at the normal October-November time was to give Helen Clark an outright majority.
Not enough people have got the point. They have told pollsters they might vote for small parties, Laila Harre’s Alliance now included.
Clark might yet get her majority. It is touch and go. The positive speeches, lofty visions and authoritative poses she promised on Sunday might do the trick — though not if she upstages those messages with more telegenic putdowns, as she did on Sunday of Harre.
But was she right to go early?
Embedded in her gamble is the spectre that by October-November the economy will look and feel less comforting for households.
The world sharemarkets’ slide could prompt the over-indebted American consumers to take fright as their managed funds contract and lower house values likely follow. If they stop spending, a chill wind will blow round the world. That could be very damaging for this country.
On traditional electoral logic, a weaker economy would cut the government’s support.
But going early on the strength of high polls in June created an unreal election, in which the question has been whether Labour can govern alone and whether that is a good thing.
Because the economy, being benign, has not been an issue, crime, race and immigration have played bigger. These are, as I wrote here a couple of weeks ago, issues of cultural and personal security. They have shifted support rightwards to ACT and New Zealand First.
This has shattered Labour’s serene early-June picture. Moreover, the Greens-Labour squabbling in the campaign has tarnished the image of a strong left group under an in-command Prime Minister.
In this disturbed atmosphere anything goes. The anything is Peter Dunne’s United Future. Not only the Herald-DigiPoll but also one party tracking poll has him climbing.
This has for the first time made a contest. Add up DigiPoll’s National, New Zealand First ACT and United Future and you get 48 per cent: a majority for a Bill English-led government.
So would it have been worse for Labour in October? Arguably not.
If people had begun to feel an economic slowdown — or fear it, which has the same electoral effect — they might well have felt less free to toy with small parties and have stayed huddled under strong-leader Clark’s wing.
Such is MMP. Nothing is quite what it seems.
So try this scenario. Labour needs Green and maybe also New Zealand First votes to govern (whether by a support agreement or as a real minority government, going from vote to vote).
About three months from the end of the genetic modification commercialisation moratorium (October 2003) Clark says the science isn’t quite complete and announces a year’s extension.
The Greens restate their threat to withdraw support when the moratorium ends, which (depending on Saturday’s numbers) would either put Clark out or leave her dependent on Winston Peters.
Clark says the Greens are intolerable and backs National’s bill for a binding referendum on MMP which ushers in SM (supplementary member) for the next election.
Under SM the party vote delivers each party a share only of the 51 list seats, not of the whole House. So the small parties’ hauls dive and National’s and Labour’s rise.
Now try this scenario. Dunne gets five or six seats and holds the balance of power. He supports Clark. There is a stable and workable government and Dunne establishes United Future as a stabilising central force, able to work with either side.
Suddenly, MMP is working as it should in theory. MMP beds in and voting patterns settle down.
Your call on that. Now for two predictions.
The first is that on Saturday night we will not know when the next election will be. Clark has trashed the century-plus tradition in this country that Parliaments run their full term unless there are extraordinary circumstances as in 1951 and 1984.
She herself insists in campaign propaganda she had a stable government. There was no parliamentary, governmental or constitutional necessity to disturb tradition.
My second prediction is about the next government. For all her irascibility and occasional slips, Clark has proved a consummate Prime Minister. She will lead the next government.