It's fringe-theatre politics: enjoy the show

It’s been a week of fringe-theatre politics: Don Brash on his white charger trampling Rodney Hide to save the nation; Hone Harawira making a Maori future with Matt McCarten and Nandor Tanczos; and free air time for the ever-renascent hero of xenophobics, Winston Peters, attacking both.

Under first-past-the-post fringe parties were truly fringe. Labour and National ran single-party governments.

Social Credit, a fringe monetarist party with rightwing tinges, initially took votes mainly off Labour — but in safe National seats where that didn’t count. Then it migrated to the populist centre and took votes off National in safe Labour seats. Then it lost itself in the Alliance out on the left fringe.

The New Zealand party, Sir Robert Jones’s precursor to ACT, siphoned votes off National in Labour’s 1984 landslide. In 1993 the Alliance siphoned votes off Labour, enabling National, though deeply unpopular, to squeeze back in 1993.

Under MMP fringe parties can matter more, in support of, in alliance deals with and in concessions from major parties in power.

It can matter what ACT does on the right if it secures National in office. It can matter what Harawira and friends do on the ethnic and hard-left fringe if it splits the Maori vote and/or chips Labour. It matters whether Peters gets back over 5 per cent.

Do some numbers, starting with some National hubris. Some senior Nationalists have been gleefully painting a picture of Labour falling below 30 per cent on November 26, perhaps even to a repeat of National’s humiliating plunge to a 21 per cent party vote when Helen Clark squashed Bill English.

This National hubris is predicated on John Key’s ultra-popular persona. Last week, one minister glowed to me, Key was accumulating media image-building hits with European leaders, royal meetings and a pole position at the nuptials of our future King William V and Queen Kate.

How far could Key’s popularity take National? Some think to one-party rule.

For that National would need to win at least 47 per cent of the vote if Peters does not clear 5 per cent and at least 48.5 per cent if he does, with Labour below 30 per cent. Either number would be a tall order under MMP, though under FPP Labour, in 1972 and 1987, and National, in 1975 and 1990, did get 47-48 per cent.

Never say never in politics. But a National-only government is unlikely.

In any case, would Key choose to rule alone? If the first referendum to dump MMP passes on election night, he could pull the second referendum forward and pass it in time to continue one-party rule under supplementary member (SM) in 2014. But if MMP stays Key will figure he needs to keep small parties onside for the inevitable return to multi-party government when the gloss wears off.

So attention swivels stage-right to ACT, now effectively in fringe-National losers’ hands, those of Brash and John Banks. Brash lost safe-National East Coast Bays in 1980 and 1981, then the 2005 election, then the leadership. Banks lost the Auckland mayoralty twice.

Nevertheless, in fringe politics losers can be winners. Banks should be surer of holding Epsom than Hide (though Hide probably would have held it). And Brash should add votes nationally and probably lift the prospects for a National-ACT combination in 2014 (though he will then be 73).

But there are catches. One is that any extra votes Brash gets now and in 2014 will come preponderantly off National.

A second is that, while ACT might now be in Nationalists’ hands, they are of an ACT-like faction from which Key has distanced National. Key and Bill English (knifed nearly as brutally as Hide) peremptorily binned Brash’s two catch-Australia reports. They could pat Hide on the head and Nationalise his initiatives. Brash is tougher.

And Labour, the Greens and Peters might manage to frighten voters by demonising a Brash-Key combination. Brash could thereby be the saving of Labour in November, helping it get its 2008 non-vote back out (as Labour did in the Auckland mayoral election and the Botany by-election) and maybe even pushing some centrist waverers across. (Thereby hangs a Labour fantasy — but ramshackle — majority: 37 per cent plus Greens 7 per cent and Peters 5 per cent.)

Swivel attention past centrist Peter Dunne, at risk after a narrow squeak in 2008 and scathing about Brash last week, to the Maori party, for whom iwi-Kiwi Brash’s attachment to a Key ministry muddies its rapport with its voter base and its second-term options.

It is down to four seats after expelling anti-National Mr Harawira. It is unlikely to win either of Labour’s two. Labour’s Rino Tirikatene (third in a dynasty) has hopes of retaking Te Tai Tonga. If Mr Harawira and the Maori party go head to head, it is conceivable Labour could slip through the middle in a seat or two.

It’s all just numbers. But politics is a numbers game. The other number to keep in mind is that it is still six months to election day. Read the fringe-theatre scripts: numbers can change.