An election phenomenon

John Key is a phenomenon — six years an MP and now Prime Minister. Helen Clark is phenomenon — 15 years Labour party leader, deputy Prime Minister at 39, nine years Prime Minister. It was quite a contest.

In the event it was a clear contest: National and friends as an alternative government to Labour and friends. And it was a clear result: a majority for that alternative government.

MMP is maturing. Voters have whittled down to a sliver the vote for parties with no hope of seats. They have now made a start on whittling down the number of parties in Parliament by humiliating Winston Peters in Tauranga and denying his party 5 per cent of the party vote.

Now there are seven parties. But Peter Dunne was pushed hard this time and cannot count on another term. Jim Anderton is now in effect a small wing of Labour. So after the 2011 election — perhaps even before — there will likely be only five parties: National and ACT on one side, Labour and the Greens on the other and the Maori party.

For the Maori party, this was both a bad and a good result. Bad: adding only one more electorate seat and very few extra party votes after much talk of a clean sweep suggests momentum has slowed. Good: that its votes — active or by abstention — are not needed for a National-led majority in Parliament gives it room to start deal-making without the hothouse pressure of making or breaking a government.

The training wheels stay on a bit longer. Its first term conduct suggests it will make good use of them. But there are big risks: get too close to National and Labour may siphon off support. Pita Sharples said Maori and Labour are “joined at the hip”, at least in Maori party voters’ minds. The real logic is a 1930s Labour-Ratana type of arrangement, linked but separate.

National needs to cut across that if it is not to face a left majority in 2011. One way of redressing its paucity of brown votes is a connection with the Maori party. But to build a relationship will require imaginative and sensitive rethinking of Treaty of Waitangi politics, not bumper-sticker slogans about abolishing the Maori seats.

There is another threat to the majority. The long, remarkably consistent uptrend in support from late 2002 reached high tide in mid-2008 polls. There will be a honeymoon but, given the size of the policy challenges in a credit-crunched world, that may not last long. This win looks concrete. In reality it is rubber.

But it is not marshmallow. National has cleaned Labour out of the electorate seats in the provinces, except for only Palmerston North and, possibly on the specials, New Plymouth. It has pushed into the suburbs, taking Auckland Central, Maungakiekie and Waitakere and nearly taking Waimakariri and Rimutaka. It has twice Labour’s haul of electorate seats.

Electorate seats count in two ways. One is MPs’ presence: two electorate offices besides the official title versus a single office and no special status for an assigned list MP. The second is a head start if MMP is swapped for a more electorate-based system such as supplementary member, which Key wants and plans to put to voters in 2011.

But National has another foundation for longevity: its remarkable intake of able, younger MPs among the 15 new ones — the best in nearly 50 years. Key has the raw material to rebuild his cabinets through a second and third term if he can keep winning.

He will need it. Labour’s outgoing achievement is its own intake of 12 new MPs, many of them young and able, with two to come yet if, as is likely, Clark and Michael Cullen leave Parliament as well as the leadership. That is part of Clark’s legacy to the party: regeneration through candidate selections. The makings of a sixth Labour government are already in the House.

Phil Goff is an obvious candidate. He has a wide command of portfolios, is one of Parliament’s strongest debaters, important for morale in an opposition, and is centrist.

But at some point, as the Parliament turns over to a new generation (with more women, Maori, Pasifika and Asians than last time), Labour will need its leadership to reflect that.

And the outgoing leader? Clark is highly respected offshore in a way no previous Prime Minister except, perhaps, Peter Fraser was. A top international job awaits. She may be out but she is not down. Quite the opposite.