The crowded field of would-be kingmakers

Journalists’ ideal result for New Zealand First on September 20 is 5.01 per cent in the party vote on the night, with the balance of power, and 4.98 per cent in the final count two weeks later. If New Zealand First then requested a judicial recount, election uncertainty would make news well into October.

The best New Zealand First result for National would be 4.8 per cent, too low for a recount and swelling the wasted vote to 6-6.5 per cent, cutting the vote share needed for a majority to about 45.5 per cent plus David Seymour and Peter Dunne.

The best result for Winston Peters would be upwards of 5.5 per cent and bargaining power between two sides if John Key’s charm falls short of 47-48 per cent. New Zealand First has averaged 4.6 per cent in polls this year (4.2 per cent recently), so another term is likely, especially if Labour can’t climb out of its pit.

Certainly, Peters will talk up the prospects this coming weekend at the pre-campaign conference at Alexandra Park Raceway where he launched the party 21 years ago come Friday.

Yesterday was 30 years since the election that ushered in the free market revolution and the Treaty of Waitangi process, which may ultimately prove to have had the greater effect. Peters was not an enthusiast for either.

Peters preferred Sir Robert Muldoon’s one-nation managed economy. Much of New Zealand First’s policy still reflects that preference and he reinforced it in a speech last week.

In that sense Peters is the living embodiment of that pre-1984 era. He came into Parliament first in 1978 and since has been absent only from 1981-84 and 2008-11.

He is now a supergoldcard holder. He is not as sharp in the House as he once was. Some wishful thinkers in the big old parties hope he is nearing his time for the political retirement home, perhaps with help from them coupled with a distinction of some sort according him mana.

Others in the big old parties would like to see him retired this election. These are mostly on National’s side, since Labour can’t confidently expect to lead a government if New Zealand First doesn’t bulk up the numbers so it can shun Kim Dotcom’s missionaries. As for National, to do any sort of deal with Peters, it must neutralise or sedate his intense resentment at Key’s scorning in 2008. (There are ways.)

Some think Colin Craig might help Peters into retirement by purloining some of his populist support. But Craig is not a populist in Peters’ blokeish-centrist way. He pitches a conservative-Christian line on social and moral issues, in effect stretching a conservative strand within National so far beyond the boundaries of National’s broad church that large numbers in that party won’t have a bar of him.

And Craig has acquired a difficult-to-shake media caricature of him as caricaturing himself as an oddball. His task at his Conservative party conference this coming weekend is to put on show people to whom a wider public than 2-3 per cent can relate.

Craig has also to give Key some wiggle room. Large numbers in the National party figure there is no choice but to give him East Coast Bays as insurance against the likelihood that Key plus Seymour plus Dunne do not make 61 seats.

Of course, there is always the Maori party. Actually, there was the Maori party. Its two icons are going, it came third in the Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election and has trailed Labour in polls of Maori electorate voters. If Te Ururoa Flavell has the call on who governs and he goes with National again (which he kept open in his keynote on Saturday at the party’s tenth anniversary), even if at barge-pole length with cast-iron concessions, the party risks suicide.

The party was born negatively in anger at Labour’s foreshore and seabed legislation. On the positive side, it also responded to a logical wish for the Maori electorates to be Maori, not a Labour subsidiary. And it got from John Key a policy gain of substance in whanau ora, which is now established and would endure across a change of government.

But the party is unlikely to have a twentieth birthday. Labour and the Mana bit of Dotcom’s cash venture have stronger pitches now. If Labour could learn that the seats should be Maori seats that happen to be Labour and not the other way round it might re-attach voters back for a time.

Go back to Peters. Backed by prestigious rangatira, he got all five Maori seats in 1996. That win was despite his rejection of “sickly white liberal” attitudes to indigenous claims, continued in his rejection of “separatism” in last week’s speech. He lost them in the 1998 coalition breakup.

Peters’ speeches and policy pronouncements often have a scattergun effect. But, as many have found, there is underneath the bluster a man with (mostly) an old-fashioned sense of propriety. If he has the balance of power when the dust settles after September 20, he will likely base his decision on something along the lines of “stability of the nation”.

Which wouldn’t be a bad note to go out on. (Sometime.)