People of a certain age experienced an odd feeling at about 9pm on Saturday. It took a while to identify it but, all of a sudden, there it was: the realisation that one party had clearly won the election and that we knew precisely who the next government was going to be before we went to bed.
That hasn’t happened since 1993, which means that anyone younger than about 40 has no experience of life under a single party majority government. They may be about to learn what it’s like – and the rest of us are shortly to be reminded what happens when just one political party controls a majority of seats in the Parliament.
Assuming National retains 61 seats after special votes have been tallied, the probable return to a style of government that was the norm for the better part of the 20th century, and which many mistakenly thought had gone forever under MMP, is the real story of this year’s election.
Before focusing on the implications of this, let’s quickly run through some of the other implications of Saturday’s historic election. First, the myth that small parties exercise too much power has been demolished. The tails have not so much wagged as been hacked off. One, and perhaps more, of the parties which supported the Prime Minister’s first two administrations may play a role in his third (see below), but none are required to form a government.
Second, Māori have come back to Labour, and the parliamentary prospects for a dedicated Māori party have been snuffed out for another generation. Mana’s alliance with the Internet party put paid to its status as a vehicle for Māori aspirations, and without the mana of its former co-leaders (and having failed to find a reason for existing post-Foreshore and Seabed) the Māori Party is now an organisation whose sole purpose is to provide a fig leaf of legitimacy on Māori issues for National.
However, and to channel Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana, while six of the seven Māori corners have been delivered to Labour, the party itself is looking at a significantly extended spell in opposition. It took National six years to take office following its 2002 nadir, and its caucus had the luxury of choosing its leader. Modern day Labour, on the other hand, has written itself some rules which mean it is possible it will be saddled for the next three years with its least electorally successful leader since 1922.
Fourth, falling turnout remains a problem, particularly amongst younger people, and the solution does not lie in a misplaced appeal to digital technology. Dotcom’s vanity project aside, those who mistake their own faith in digital bells and whistles for a solution to an issue with deep material roots have been exposed for the naïfs they are.
Each of these, however, is a sideshow to the main event. There are two ways in which National’s parliamentary majority might play out. Mindful that Saturday’s result is likely to be a one-off, and with eyes on a fourth term, National is likely to maintain relationships with its erstwhile support parties. Given that the constituencies of the ACT and United Future parties are virtually non-existent, but that the number of Māori voters will continue to climb, the Prime Minister will likely invite Te Ururoa Flavell to take up where Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples left off.
Making Flavell Minister of Māori Affairs outside of Cabinet would send a signal to Māori voters at no cost to National: We continue to value your support (even though we don’t actually need it to govern, and we don’t value it enough to seat your Minister at the top table).
But the temptation not to invite anyone to its party must be strong for National. For a start, there will be pressure from a larger-than-expected caucus for ministerial jobs, the flipside of which is the incentive for Key and his senior colleagues to ensure there are sufficient National ministers inside and outside Cabinet to maintain control of the caucus. Look out for an administration of around 28, which is large enough to enable Key to reward up-and-coming talent, and to give experience in government to the next generation of leaders who aim to take the party into a fourth term in 2017.
Moreover, voters have given National a golden opportunity to radically reshape the country, and they’re unlikely to pass it up. Senior members of the party recall the urgency Ruth Richardson (first as Minister and then as select committee chair) demonstrated in making sure the Fiscal Responsibility legislation was enacted before MMP took effect. Richardson knew full well – as did the Treasury officials who advised her – that major structural reforms are nigh on impossible to roll back under the conditions of coalition and minority government that are typical of MMP.
So here’s the rub. National announced precious little new policy going into an election, which has given them the power to legislate with impunity. Now sit back and watch the reforms roll out.
Those of us of a certain age have been here before, and we now what happens. New Zealanders are about to witness the most reforming government since the last time National held a parliamentary majority in its own right. Hold on to your seats.
Associate Professor Richard Shaw Head of Politics programme School of People, Environment and Planning