Key's conundrum: how to make his big reforms stick

One interesting number in the Christchurch East by-election is Conservative Leighton Baker’s 487. The better Conservatives do countrywide from here on, the more chance of a National-led third term — and thus that National’s regulatory changes will bed in.

Baker’s 487 was 3.7 per cent, twice his 1.8 per cent electorate vote in the 2011 election. A National optimist might extrapolate from that a supportive Conservative contingent next year of four or five seats, if compliant National voters give Colin Craig an electorate.

That might well be the difference between a third term or not for John Key. ACT and United Future may well add zero net seats between them to National’s total and the Maori party only one or two (and that assumes it doesn’t do a Jim Anderton-type deal with Labour to stay alive).

By-elections are slippery hunting grounds for solid data. Party leaders notoriously distil whatever suits their rhetorical need.

Labour can focus on Poto Williams’ 61.1 per cent, higher than popular, long-term MP Lianne Daiziel’s 55.5 per cent electorate vote in 2011. By-elections often cut the incumbent party’s vote. Labour can say Baker’s 3.7 per cent was not much up on the Conservatives’ 2011 2.7 per cent nationwide party vote.

National can say Williams should have done still better because the earthquakes boosted National’s party vote in Christchurch in 2011 and gratitude has since turned to resentment. National can say its vote was low because little hung on the result in a safe Labour seat so turnout was low (actually, in part because many voters have been displaced). A Greens excuse could be the David Hay silliness last week. And so on.

The next vote to argue over is the asset selldowns referendum.

National has promoted two bits of sophistry to dismiss a majority against sales.

One asserts a mandate because asset sales were high-profile in the 2011 election and Labour’s Phil Goff called that election a referendum on the sales. It was not. Opinion polls consistently recorded around two-thirds opposed. National’s win was despite its sales promise. National has a mandate to govern, not for every manifesto item.

National’s other line is that selldown supporters won’t bother to vote and in any case turnout will be low so a majority will be a minority of eligible voters.

But opinion polls still have big majorities opposed. TV3 last month had 68 per cent against sales (25 per cent for). Even National voters were only 49-43 per cent for.

Moreover, a low turnout would likely stem from two factors. One is that asset sales are no longer a do-or-die election issue — as a capital gains tax will not be after it is in place. The other is the knowledge that the government will ignore the result, so why bother?

There is a deeper issue.

Key legislated for the selldowns on a bare majority of Parliament, made up by the disgraced John Banks and the diminished Peter Dunne. And that was not a one-off: he has also had bare majorities for major changes in resource management, local government and workplace relations law, the spy-on-everyone law and the Sky City slinter.

All were rammed through Parliament in the face of much public opposition.

Dunne has baulked at some changes, such as the proposed change in the Resource Management Act’s purpose and legislative interference to bail out Chorus (though the cabinet had already given up on that) and has won small concessions, as in the spy bill. But in the crunch he needs National votes to stay an MP.

So Key has got nearly all of what he wants on 61 votes. And what he has wanted is big: he is the most active economic reformer since the radical deregulation of the 1980s. It is a big, fast programme.

In the 1980s the electoral system delivered an “elected dictatorship” deploying what Sir Geoffrey Palmer called “unbridled power”. The reforms stuck despite wide public opposition (evident in a 13 percentage point drop in Labour’s vote from 1987-90) because National backed and extended them (at the cost of a 13 percentage-point cut in its vote in 1993) and eventually the new settings became the status quo.

Cross-party consensus between the two big parties was critical. Key’s fast-track changes don’t have that.

There is widespread Labour-Green-New Zealand First agreement for major reversals. A 2014 change of government would undo much of Key’s handiwork.

Contrast Key’s winner-take-all arrogance with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent junking of an expensive new high-speed rail line on the ground that such a major project needs bipartisan support and the opposition Labour party was backing away.

Cameron may have been looking for way out of a heavily criticised project. But his decision also made an important point: for major change in a democracy wide cross-party support is critical to maintaining public confidence.

It takes time to build such a public consensus. For that, Key needs a third term. Hence the relevance of Baker’s flimsy straw in the breeze.