Can Helen Clark lose the unlosable election?

The choice is simple: tax cuts or not; Treaty of Waitangi rollback or not; a fresh but unprepared face or not.

The “not” is a third term for Helen Clark. The alternatives are the Don Brash experience.

There are other dimensions. If you are especially bothered about energy over-use, bottom trawling, the biosphere, clean rivers, climate change, international capitalism, fat and sugar in food and the poor, your choice is automatic. So, too, if you are Maori and proud of it and angry about the foreshore — though every party vote you give that party is a vote denied to Labour in its battle with Brash.

The same goes if you are Maori and bewildered by the ultra-liberal society: Destiny is for you. If you are old and bewildered by Asian immigration and foreign ownership and free trade, Winston is your man. And if you want criminals thumped and very low taxes and much more liberty, ACT is your party. And commonsense? Well…

But even if you want tighter morals you might still back National as will the Brethren and some Baptists, since Destiny won’t be in Parliament. ACT very well might not be, too, so must a libertarian vote National? And if the Greens were to head south in the polls again, what does an environmentalist do?

With ACT the full silliness of MMP has been on show: Remuera conservatives preparing to hold their noses and vote for that upstart Rodney Hide; Mt Eden latte liberals bestowing best wishes on the antediluvian Richard Worth; Hide himself off to Tauranga to help National get Winston Peters out (but maybe thereby keep him in). Is this circus that you voted MMP in for?

Well, no. The royal commission in 1986, bereft of practical politicos, chose the German system over the Irish, so that system effectively became your only choice if you wanted to end the absolute duopoly of those breachers-of-promise, Labour and National.

Well, the duopoly is back, almost. This election, far more than the previous three under MMP, is about Labour and National — and National has made it a starker choice.

National says:

* You deserve a tax cut;

* Maori “privileges” should be rolled back; and

* “political correctness”, and especially Labour’s liberal initiatives, must end.

Against this Labour in essence says: you get two rookies at the top of a Brash government. Brash and shadow treasurer John Key have been MPs only three years each. They have not accumulated the political and policy depth time even in opposition imparts.

So they would have to acquire that depth on the job. Key is a very fast learner. Brash is proving slower. He didn’t put the hard yards in on policy development, colleagues were saying back in the autumn, and gaping holes opened under questioning in the campaign. His Brethren adventure exposed lack of judgment, evasiveness and poor management which belied the Brash some of us thought we had known running the Reserve Bank.

In office, he and Key would undoubtedly get on top of their jobs but it would take time. And by then they might be in thick of an economic slowdown which could turn into a hard landing and beset by civil unrest at the abolition of the Maori seats, removal from laws of references to the Treaty of Waitangi and special rights of consultation, cutting anything that looks like “race-based funding” and forcing all historical Treaty claims to be settled or else by 2010.

Brash seems oblivious or indifferent to this latter prospect. Voters like his Treaty line and he is convinced of his ideology.

And, indeed, maybe he has a point — though, if so, not the one he seems to intend.

The Springbok tour street battles of 1981, which were at heart “race-based”, were cathartic but ultimately cleansing. Official sporting contact stopped and policy toward Maori took a healing turn.

But 25 years on, the huge advance of Maori rights has generated widespread confusion, anxiety and anger. There is no consensus. And to operate well, a society needs an underpinning consensus on so fundamental a matter.

Perhaps raw confrontation and households divided against themselves as in 1981 might strip the scales of ignorance, prejudice, ideology and sentimentality from our eyes and point us to where to go to find the commonality in our interests.

The irony in this scenario is that the great majority of voters above all want a quiet life. But if they vote for tax cuts to feed their grasshopper spending habit they might also be voting for an unquiet life.

Then contemplate another irony if Brash wins: Clark will have lost the unlosable election. An economy going nicely, jobs plentiful, real wages rising and high house prices should have got her home in a canter.

Will she lose the unlosable? My instinct is that she will make it over the line — but never in 13 elections as a political journalist have I been less confident of my instinct. That’s Brash — and tax cuts — for you.

* For the record I will not be joining you at the polls. I haven’t voted since 1975. That, in my view, goes with the job.