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ELECTION 1999: Winston Holds MMP to Ransom

Over the last few weeks it has looked increasingly likely that NZ First will again hold the balance of power after this election. Realising this, the games of Winston Peters have begun in earnest although this time - unlike last - he is holding the country to ransom before a vote is even cast.

Saying he will vote supply for the main party with the most votes and then remain on the cross benches and vote issue by issue, Peters is once again making a mockery of the MMP system he claims to advocate. Having probably shot MMP to pieces in the minds of most voters with his performance at the last election he looks certain to sink the fledgling electoral system for good if his party has any influence post-election. Unfortunately for MMP this looks likely.

How the party leaders deal with the issue of Winston Peters is becoming increasingly important as voters catch on to how things are shaping up. ACT have taken the most popular and principled stand, categorically ruling out participating in any government which Peters supports or is involved with. National are also firming against Winston Peters but, in a rough week for Labour in the media, their position is looking shaky and desperate.

Earlier this week Labour leader Helen Clark indicated she would be prepared to revisit her party’s promised tax increases if necessary to form a government with the support of Winston Peters. This tax increase is the most significant, and certainly the most symbolic piece of Labour policy this election and Clark’s comments have caused the cracks, both within her own party and with the Alliance, that have grown throughout the week.

Jim Anderton said Clark should not compromise Labour’s tax rates for Winston Peters and Labour Party president Bob Harvey also contradicted Clark by also saying Labour should have nothing to do with Winston Peters. This clearly annoyed Helen Clark who pointed out sharply that Harvey was not the party strategist but the cracks in the party hierarchy have, with appalling timing, begun to show.

Earlier in the week Bob Harvey piped up again, this time criticising Labour’s election advertisements for being negative and for committing the cardinal sin of naming the opposition. He made the extraordinary confession that he, the party president no less, had not even seen the party’s ads and said the party was simply becoming a cash dispensing machine to the campaign which was being run out of Helen Clark’s office.

Clark said if Harvey wanted to see the ads then it was up to him to do so but Harvey looks right out of the loop and internal party communication looks poor, if it exists at all. That said, Harvey is a major liability this close to an election and Clark will perhaps be wishing she had listened to Roger Sowry and sent him to Disneyland for a few weeks.

But the cracks in the Labour hierarchy are nothing compared to those that appeared on Wednesday between Labour and her future coalition partner the Alliance. Labour finance spokesperson Dr Michael Cullen put the boot in to Anderton when the Alliance released their alternative budget, saying their desire to spend a third more than Labour was “heroic” and that there was to be no post of Minister of Economic Development for Anderton post election.

Anderton wants this post and until now most thought it was a mere formality. However Cullen was explicit that under a Labour led government economic development would ride on the back of the private sector and a Minister of Economic Development was at odds with that. Anderton was clearly angered and the well preserved non-aggression pact between the two parties temporarily broke down, albeit briefly.

Clark tidied up saying that first the election had to be won and only then would cabinet positions be discussed. The incident however will harden the Alliance’s resolve to campaign harder than ever for the party vote over the next two weeks to ensure they wield significant influence in a new government. The Alliance campaign has been perhaps the best so far and a fired-up Anderton could take more support from Labour yet.

Despite polling consistently well so far ACT have also had a rough week in the media, starting with Prebble losing his rag on National Radio’s Arts Week show and storming out. See… Prebble Spits Dummy Over Arts Interview. Later in the week ACTs newpaper ads promising to ‘fix the Treaty’ came under attack as the landscape shown was thought to be one from overseas instead of from New Zealand. Prebble couldn’t confirm or deny the origin of the photograph and in response to repeated questioning could only say “All I can tell you is that I am saving this country.” It looked irrelevant, desperate and rather pathetic.

Polling over the last week has confirmed a trend towards the left. A TV3 CM Research poll put Labour on 41 per cent, National slumping to 28 per cent, the Alliance on 10 per cent and ACT on 11. See… Left Break Away - 13 per cent Between Main Parties. This gives Labour and The Alliance a one seat majority in the House and as such the ability to form a new government without a third party. The daily rolling poll from Waikato University upon which last weekend’s Sunday Star Times lead was based both tend to support this swing towards the left although neither paint National in such a poor light.

A vigorous Alliance campaign and the good form of Anderton seem to have translated into a substantial increase in support, and, while Prebble is consistently the least impressive performer in the leaders debates, his party seems to be pushing the right buttons and looks positive and stable in the polls at around 10 per cent.

The Greens had a boost on Wednesday night when a TV One Colmar Brunton Poll showed co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons in front of National MP Murray McLean by 39 to 36 per cent. See… Fitzsimons Edges Ahead in Latest Coromandel Poll. National is going to find it hard to build that 36 per cent support as ACT is not standing a candidate but the Labour candidate in the seat is still on 13 per cent and the Alliance candidate has eight. The anti-National vote is strong and the odds of the Greens making it back to parliament are now looking good. Labour must make a more definitive statement about tactical voting in the seat if they wish to make a Fitzsimons victory a certainty. Clark’s comments to date seem to have made little impact.

With Winston Peters saying he will not support any tax increase both Anderton and Clark will be aware of just how significant three or four supporting Green MPs could be in the formation of a new government.

In another significant seat ACT leader Richard Prebble is polling just behind Labour’s Marian Hobbs in Wellington Central. A TV3 and an Evening Post poll - conducted after Alliance candidate Phillida Bunkle had withdrawn - both put Hobbs on 48 per cent and Prebble on 47 per cent. See… Poll Shock For Prebble in Wellington Central. A cliffhanger on election night to be sure.

In terms of other important electorates the most cheeky approach yet came when National’s Tauranga candidate Katherine O’Regan approached Labour’s Margaret Wilson and asked her to consider standing aside to aid her chances of unseating Winston Peters. The unusual approach was declined outright but you certainly can’t blame O’Regan for trying.

National have this week promised to allow police to take DNA samples from burglary suspects by force if they win the election but the creepiest development of the week came from that gritty little battler John Delamere. Battling against the Ministries of Justice and Health and the Crown Law Office (to name but a few) Delamere finally – after a year of trying – succeeded in banning refugees from New Zealand who have the HIV virus.

The rationale for this move is not clear as refugees have not been found to have spread the virus in New Zealand, and the move sets a disturbing precedent. What about the tourists who, one would have thought would have posed a much greater risk to the health of New Zealanders? Despite floundering hopelessly through a Kim Hill grilling on the move it is plain that this is a case of Delamere knows best. He has ignored the advice from a handful of high-powered government departments and passed an unfair and discriminatory law which will no doubt further disadvantage some of those people who are desperate for New Zealand’s help.

When asked about the case of Eve Van Grafthorst who contracted the virus through a blood transfusion Delamere said the problems she faced were due to the way the Australians treated her. And now we are following suit. Although Delamere fronted the move it was eventually a cabinet decision and was approved unanimously.

With two weeks to go there is a definite element of desperation creeping into the campaign now and the cracks are starting to show. The performance of the parties, especially their leaders is absolutely crucial from here on in. Can the cracks be plastered over for another two weeks?


Postscript: As the final two weeks are now upon us, Friday morning’s Herald Digipoll has shown the major parties dwindling and the minor parties surging. See… Greens Surge in Latest Herald Poll. Still far too close to call.

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