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National’s dilemma: If not Labour Lite, then what?

National’s dilemma, if elected – if not Labour Lite, then what?

The irony about National retaining such a handy lead in the polls is that while the public seems to have decided it is time for a change, it is still not giving National a mandate for change. Public support for National remains conditional on National not straying far from the policy positions Labour has set in place.

Today’s subsidiary poll questions for instance, on (a) whether the country is on the right path and (b) the preferred Prime Minister showed the country to be very evenly split – with the satisfaction/dissatisfaction levels with the government and its leadership being nothing like the gap between the major parties. Hitherto, the change that the public seemed to want was Labour without Helen Clark – but even the polling on that point is now either pro-Clark, or falling within the margin of error.

Would National in government be prepared to be merely Labour Lite ? Probably not. If elected though, National will face something of a dilemma, one heightened if it needs to incorporate the Maori Party into its policy equations. It will either have to disappoint fervent supporters hoping for a free market millennium, or it will risk incurring the wrath of the wider public, for enacting radical changes that National never signaled before the election.

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The latter of course is what happened in the US, after the 2000 election. As a candidate, George W. Bush had run as an economic moderate, strongly critical of US foreign policy that sought to install democracy elsewhere. The election result gave him no mandate for radical change, or even to govern at all - but he then proceeded to erase the surplus, enact massive tax cuts for the rich and invade Iraq… in order to install democracy. Its not a happy precedent.

The Roger Douglas theory of governance of course, is that you crash on through with your radical programme during the early, heady days immediately after the election – and convince the public about it later. That is no longer viable, and the public would rebel at a repeat. In 1990 for instance, the public thought it time for a change from a tired and unpopular government, and elected a National government in a landslide, and expected moderation from it.

They got another revolution instead – and took their revenge in 1993 by almost turning National into a one term government. Jim Bolger’s anguished ‘Bugger the pollsters!” comment was a recognition of just how thoroughly National had misled itself into thinking it could get off lightly with the deception. What we can expect from National this time is symbolic radicalism, amid business largely as usual.

What do I mean by symbolic radicalism ? Key’s promise to re-return to a governance role the sacked DHB in Hawkes Bay in the name of democracy is a good example of the sort of grandstanding we can expect. Key’s stance over the DHB is pure Peters style populism, not based on any newfound respect for democracy. Because when National talks about amending the Resource Management Act, it is talking about scrapping the forms of local democracy – about who will have standing to challenge a development project – that it is now pretending to defend in Hawkes Bay, and is doing so even while the DHB issues involved are still before the courts.

Meanwhile, the 3News poll is indicating the Maori Party are shaping as kingmakers. Just as National is ready to govern without having much reason for governing, the Maori Party are enjoying their current sense of importance – but without being able to cite any winnable policy that could possibly justify a three year long alliance with National. Like Roger Douglas, are Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples hoping to crash on through – scrap the dole ! - and convince their supporters afterwards of the wisdom of their choice? Hardly, not when they are also pledged to consult with their supporters after the election, before making a final choice.

This current stance, that treats both major parties as necessary evils of equal magnitude, could easily backfire on Turia and Sharples. The Maori Party’s kingmaker role – however gratifying - must be making a lot of Maori voters nervous, and intent on voting Labour on the list just in case the Maori Party leadership isn’t bluffing about National. Sharples, mindful of that possibility, is now sending counter signals that he, personally, would prefer Labour. Clearly, National is not the only party right now that lacks a genuine mandate for the kind of changes that it harbours in its heart.

And what, finally, of Winston Peters and New Zealand First? It was always going to be hard for Peters in the year of a National Party resurgence, under leadership widely seen as moderate. NZF has always needed a doctrinaire National Party to give it a firm reason to exist.

In the Herald poll, NZF is rating barely over 2 %. In the 3News poll though, it is at 3.5%, with the MMP threshold in sight. If Key can’t be relied on to drive the centre-right swing vote back towards NZF, will this leave Labour voters facing a truly nightmare prospect? Should they now be girding their loins to vote tactically for New Zealand First, in order to get it over the 5 % threshold - as the best way of returning a Clark-led coalition to office? It may come down to that.


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