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MMP a spanner in National's works despite lead in poll

Last updated 00:00 01/01/2009

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There was probably plenty of quiet backslapping taking place after the latest Fairfax Media-Nielsen political poll.

But you might be surprised by just whose backs enjoyed the loudest slaps.

National may still be ahead – but Saturday's poll showing alift in Labour's support puts Helen Clark back on track. Forty by Christmas was the prize and she is ahead of schedule.

If it sounds Pollyanna-ish to rate Labour the winner in a poll showing it continues to trail National by five points, blame MMP.

On the surface of course the poll is hardly bad news for National. But – once the vagaries of MMP are thrown into the mix – that is not the same as good news.

Sure, National's support has dropped – but at 50-odd per cent, which is where National was polling in September, there was always likely to be some slippage. And a result of 45 per cent on election night would put the Treasury benches within National's reach. But – and this is where the worry beads get pulled out – not close enough to be assured of crossing the line. Based on Saturday's poll results, National would hold 57 seats and could muster another two with the help of its natural allies, ACT and UnitedFuture. Close – but not close enough to break out the cigars.

Labour, in the other camp, would hold just 51 seats, but can call on its natural allies the Greens and the Progressives, taking it to 58 seats.

Under this scenario, the Maori Party is kingmaker. And if events of the past few weeks have proved anything, it is that they remainan uncomfortable fit with either of the major parties. Its response to the police terror raids put it beyond the outer fringes of where most of Labour and National's mainstream supporters stand.

Of course, MMP has ways of making uneasy fits work – the Greens and Labour are incompatible on numerous policy fronts (take trade, for instance). But the lessons forced on both by the genetic engineering standoff – coupled with the comfort that comes from having fashioned together a good working relationship over Labour's eight years in government – have stayed with it.

The Maori Party is of course by no means a comfortable match with Labour. Tariana Turia's longstanding antipathy to her former party and leader alone could derail relations. And the Maori Party has made far too much political capital out of lampooning Labour's Maori MPs as powerless and ineffectual for there to be much love lost around the negotiating table come the day after the next election.

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But National and the Maori Party are even less of a match made in heaven – a fact reinforced by figures to the Maori Party conference recently.

They show that the Maori Party voted with National on 55 occasions, and voted differently 112 times. That compares to a roughly even split with Labour, with whom the Maori Party voted the same 89 times, and differently 80 times. The party with which they had the most in common was the Greens. Their votes were the same on 108 occasions, and different on 55 occasions.

The nightmare scenario for National is that the subterranean-level talk about a Green-Maori voting bloc becomes a reality; a National government in those circumstances would seem a stretch.

But leaving aside that option for now, significant obstacles to a National-Maori Party government remain. There is a taste of that in the voting figures above, and in some of the stakes that are likely to be placed in the ground as the price of doing a deal.

Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples has hinted at some; beefing up the language around iwi consultation is one. That means a right of veto over land use consents for a start. National's core platform of fast-tracking the resource consent process instantly hits sticky ground.

The Maori Party may yet decide to stay on the cross-benches – that debate is still raging within the party.

National then might be able to form a minority government courtesy of an abstention deal from the Maori Party on confidence and supply – but its agenda would be hostage to a Parliament which, on voting record, would be predominantly Left-leaning. The joker in the pack, of course, is NZ First which, on Saturday's results, would fail to make the cut. But few would be foolish enough to discount the Winston Peters factor.

It won't be these post-election calculations that are giving National cause for sleepless nights in the latest poll results, however. Those headaches will disappear if it delivers Labour a sound enough trouncing.

But after a year in which National has spent much of the time running with the wind in its sails, Labour is the one wrapping up 2007 witha tailwind behind it. And if the devil is in the detail, then that makes sobering reading for National too.

National and John Key remain the party du jour in small town New Zealand and the conservative south. But Helen Clark rules again at the business end of the poll.

In Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington, among women voters and younger voters, she remains the popular choice for prime minister. Even in Mr Key's strongholds – in small towns and rural areas, among men and older and wealthier voters – Miss Clark is regaining lost ground. The recovery, in other words, is across the board.

The worry for National is that it has failed to significantly dent Labour's core support. It has been a useful bolt-hole to some whenever Labour is hit by scandal or controversy – but as soon as Labour hits clear air, its supporters have drifted back.

There is some cheer for National then that Labour hit fresh turbulence last week over Madeleine Setchell's sacking and the Electoral Finance Bill. That is likely to arrest Labour's momentum for now.

But it won't answer the deeper questions National must have about Labour's resilience. It might just have to hope there are more scandals over the horizon.

- The Dominion Post

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