Helen Clark completes eight years as Prime Minister on December 10. Will she still be Prime Minister a year from now?
To do that, of course, she has to be able to form a government after the election, which must be held by November 15.
The polls in 2007 have not been encouraging. In late spring the average gap between National and Labour was around 11%.
But look more closely. If that was the election result and New Zealand First was out of Parliament, National plus ACT plus United Future would be only 2% higher than Labour plus Greens plus the Maori party.
You can see why Labour grandees have kept insisting they are still competitive. In that scenario only a 3 per cent narrowing of National’s lead would put Labour back in office.
And Labour grandees reckon they see chinks in John Key’s popular image: mistakes on policy, some “third rail” issues such as selling state assets and higher doctors fees and other risks to social services. These chinks were more perceived than real but they kept spirits up.
Certainly, there was no shortage of rank-and-file enthusiasm and optimism at the conference in November.
But take a closer look. There are two huge “ifs” in the journey from 11% to 2%.
One is that New Zealand First is out of Parliament. That presumes Winston Peters doesn’t stand in Tauranga or, if he does, he loses. That is a reasonable assumption but not a certainty. In any case, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that New Zealand First can’t get 5% on the party vote.
Though the cushion is only 0.7%, Peters has had a passable press as Foreign Affairs Minister, has scored bankable wins in policy, notably with old folk, and has got “Maori separatism” as an issue to run with monocultural oldies, grumpies and worriers.
But even if New Zealand First is out, there is another big “if” in the 11%-to-2% scenario: a presumption that the Maori party would not do some sort of deal with National rather than with Labour.
Logic suggests that if the Maori party is the fulcrum after the next election, it cannot be responsible for National taking office. A large portion of its electorate voters in 2005 voted Labour on the party vote, reflecting a decades-long preference for Labour among most Maori, consonant with the fact that most are in the lower socioeconomic strata.
So being responsible for National taking office — even if only by abstention — would risk the Maori party being cast as betraying Maori interests, much as large numbers of traditional Labour voters felt that the 1984-1990 Labour government’s adoption of market economics betrayed Labour values.
But the Maori party was born out of tribal fury at Labour ministers’ foreshore and seabed legislation. Co-leader Tariana Turia is especially bitter. It is a totemic Maori rights issue.
The party’s activists may well see denying Labour office as rightfully avenging a betrayal of Maori property rights — especially if National concocts (as it hopes) some foreshore-seabed compromise and can do some other specific policy deals.
Radical parties tend to choose their radical activists’ preferences over those of more moderate supporters (and many moderate, mainstream Maori did vote for the party in 2005): so the Maori party MPs sided with opponents of the police raids in October. Such a mentality split the Alliance in 2002 at the cost of its radical wing’s seats in Parliament.
Can Labour bridge the gap? One possibility some high in Labour hold out is that a foreshore deal will be done with Ngati Porou and maybe a couple of other tribes in the first half of 2008 which cools tribal anger and in turn Maori party righteousness and opens a dialogue.
But those negotiations are in the mist and it may suit Ngati Porou to hold out till after the election in the hope of a better deal.
Without such an agreement pre-election, there is not much Labour confidence of a warming, short of Turia retiring — even though the other co-leader, Pita Sharples, is essentially Labour.
But it is not out of the question. Clark very much wants a fourth term and will swallow whatever dead rats achieving it requires. Michael Cullen will bring new mana and urgency to Maori settlements.
So watch Peters and the Maori party next year as much as National and Labour. This could be MMP’s most complicated election dance yet.