The day the triffids upset a royal progress

Heaven’s above, it’s Peter Dunne. And where have the Greens biodegraded to? What ate Helen Clark’s majority? What is left of a 65-year tradition of right-of-centre conservatism?

This election campaign went Through the Looking Glass into Wonderland. A White Rabbit here. A Queen of Hearts there. Distorting mirrors everywhere. Lead actors shrinking and expanding before our eyes.

This was the campaign that gave you Laila Harre as a pinup, Pansy Wong leaping off the Sky Tower, Marian’s mammaries (one test does not a cancer make), the Boagabulary (as in “Boagger!”), Bill English and chips, the Black Widow Eating Her Mates and Maurice Williamson off-camera excited about square trees in Finland.

Perhaps nature gave us the clue. The pohutukawas outside the Parliamentary Press Gallery came unseasonably into bloom in late May. When the winter reality at last chilled the sap, the blossom faded. So did Labour’s autumnal bloom in the polls.

The polls (see poll of polls, p5?) still point to a Clark-led government. But will her government — and the Parliament through which she must get her programme — be more manageable than the one she had? You decide that tomorrow. No prediction of the configuration can be made with confidence.

What we do know is that if these poll numbers were a first-past-the-post election, Clark would bolt in crushingly. National has sunk to levels never seen before in an election campaign. The spectre is the Tasmanian Liberal party, third behind Labour and the Greens last Saturday.

It didn’t help that National’s campaign opening and ads looked out-of-date and amateurish, that the policies feel like work-in-progress and that leader Bill English has a lot to learning, in policy to fill some big holes and in presentation to build authority into his public persona.

He came on a lot this past month. He weathered severe pressure with grace. He got more serious, even looked a little bit hungry. Once — in the debate with Clark on Monday — he varied that tenor monotone, to effect. National’s polls on leader characteristics had him narrowing the gap with Clark. But the time for coming on was long before the campaign. He was too late.

Which is not to say he might not, through some quirk of the numbers in this quirky system we have voted ourselves, be in contention tomorrow night for the big job. But to do that he would need loads of help from some variegated friends.

Well, so might Clark. That was not the plan. What went awry?

Months of a serene, in-command, authoritative, competent and smart –almost regal — Prime Minister pumped up a big cushion between Labour and the 48 per cent minimum it needs for a majority. A week of an angry, snarling and berating Prime Minister let all the air out of that cushion.

She snapped at Green co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons’ ill-judged threat to bring her down on GM on day one of the new Parliament. She threatened to sick lawyers on to news media daring to run allegations about her role in the police inspection of her signing paintings she didn’t do. Her polls slid.

Then came the Day of the Triffids.

Mutant sweetcorn was suddenly on the rampage. And this time, unlike in the classic sci-fi novel, there was no seawater hose at hand to mulch the menace embedded in Nicky Hager’s novel polemic.

For drama there hasn’t been a mid-campaign event like it for decades, perhaps ever. Clark was skewered on half-baked allegations the fearful were fully primed to believe. To an angry PM was added a beleagured one. Serenity, command, authority were lost and so, the polls said, was her majority.

This campaign was novel also, for Green scare tactics. The party of the new dawn which stole the 1999 campaign to squeeze past the 5 per cent became in 2002 the party of the apocalypse. Campaigning doesn’t get much nastier than the GM ads.

The party that thought it would “moderate” Labour instead became its No 1 opponent. So Labour struck back and that gave us the best line of the campaign, from Pete Hodgson: “I wonder how the Greens can care so much for the planet when they spend so little time on it.”

What did that amount to? Disunity between parties the electorate expected to be partners. What do voters do every time they see disunity (Labour in the late 1980s, National in the early 1990s, New Zealand First in 1998, the Alliance this year)? They desert. Labour’s and the Greens’ steep drop should have come as no surprise to savvy political scientist Clark.

The odds are the Greens will end up with more seats than in 1999 but at the cost of conceding Coromandel and their 10 per cent hope. They have also probably conceded their dream of seats in a Labour-led cabinet.

At the other end of the spectrum, ACT recovered. Richard Prebble starred in the 1996 campaign by bringing in the only new party. In 1999 he muddled ACT’s message and could add only 1 per cent. This campaign was focused. National’s worries in May that he might disappear look to be over.

But he was outbid by Winston Peters. Nearly out for the count in 1999, he eased back to favour in Tauranga, then hit three hot buttons with a segment of voters the big parties have been ignoring at their peril: those worried about cultural unity and security.

But even Peters was upstaged. As far back as April Peter Dunne’s United Future looked on track to get two seats. Headlines after the “worm” debate on 15 June scored him top. He got noticed. He sounded reasonable. He got liftoff.

Even if he drops back to two seats after all, this has been Dunne’s campaign. Who would have thought it? But this is Wonderland and you are Alice. This is MMP.