OPINION: If the election campaign falls as flat as this year’s adjournment debate, we could be in for a lacklustre seven weeks.
As they drooped in their seats for the last time this term, MPs looked and sounded like the past three years had knocked the stuffing out of them.
Only Finance Minister Bill English seemed to have survived the term with sufficient reserves of humour to gently poke fun at his opponents during his 10-minute speech.
Labour’s Grant Robertson tried hard to match English, but even one of Parliament’s better speakers could muster only a rehash of some of his best lines from the previous 12 months.
Like the rest of his colleagues, Robertson seemed too worn out by three years of palace politics and leadership ructions to find much to laugh about on the final day.
But Robertson also had the disadvantage of being preceded by his leader, David Cunliffe, who, rather than using the debate to skewer National with witty put-downs, chose to deliver a stump speech about Labour policy.
That seemed to set the tone for the rest of the afternoon.
As the last surviving member of the generation of MPs who prided themselves on their oratory rather than knowing their way around an iPhone and the twittersphere, NZ First leader Winston Peters might have tried to show the youngsters how it was done.
But in a sign of his increasing cantankerousness, Peters’ speech was mostly a litany of grudges.
National’s funny man, Gerry Brownlee, noted after the applause had died down: ‘‘Every one of those members applauding there was simply slapping their face to wake themselves up.’’
Even Brownlee could muster only a handful of one-liners. He is clearly still bruised over his tumble from grace after an airport security blunder.
That has been the defining story of the 50th Parliament and National’s second term in government. MPs have left disgraced, ministers’ heads have rolled, reputations have been ruined and the easy days – in Government and Opposition – have been few and far between. It has been torrid and it has been brutal. And now MPs have to drag themselves on to the campaign trail and ask voters to let them do it all again for another three years.
So what shape are the parties already represented in Parliament in?
Prime Minister John Key and his Government defy convention and are more popular now than they were on election night 2011.
Heading into the campaign, National is polling in the stratosphere, which, perversely, means it could lose if complacency takes root and its voters don’t bother to turn up.
But looking like a done deal to win the election has some advantages, particularly when it comes to getting businesses to open their chequebooks.
National starts with a huge war chest and a slick campaign team that knows how to win elections.
Still only part-way through the revolution imposed on the caucus by the grassroots, Labour has been too busy warring with itself to take the fight to National.
It has plenty of foot soldiers and a plan to mobilise the vote in areas like South Auckland, but it is not clear whether the grassroots are motivated enough to give the plan any grunt.
Labour’s poor polling has also turned the focus of many MPs inward to their survival in previously safe seats that could turn if the tide continues to go out, meaning the crucial party-vote message is not getting through.
We hear, meanwhile, that money is tight, though it is not clear whether that’s because party president Moira Coatsworth has failed to knock on enough doors or because those doors are firmly closed.
The secret fear that keeps Labour MPs awake at night is an old-fashioned rout.
The Greens’ leaders, Russel Norman and Metiria Turei, are more match-ready than any of their allies in Opposition.
They also have a strong team. The Greens have some of the most talented and energetic people in Parliament working for them.
Never short of creative capital, they are noted for running slick campaigns, though their Love New Zealand billboards may have missed the mark.
A lot of work has gone into matching the creative side with a better-run effort on the ground this election.
The biggest threat to the Greens is being starved of oxygen by the likely focus on smaller parties like Internet Mana, because of the Dotcom factor, and NZ First, through its potential importance to National.
Winston Peters had plenty of fire in his belly when he launched his comeback on the 2011 campaign trail.
Motivated by pride and thoughts of revenge, he was a formidable and indefatigable opponent.
But did those three years of fishing and relaxing in his semi-retirement give Peters a taste of what he has been missing since his return to Parliament?
Peters will have to scrap hard to raise his party above the 5 per cent threshold yet again.
Now knocking 70, the Lazarus of New Zealand politics must be wondering whether it is all worth it.
Fighting perceptions that it is a spent force and facing an uphill battle to hold on to the Tamaki Makaurau and Te Tai Hauauru seats vacated by Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia, the minor party will struggle to be heard against aggressive newcomer Internet Mana.
Key has done all he can to boost the party’s support by attending fundraisers and urging Nats in the Maori seats to give their electorate vote to his coalition ally.
But the party will struggle to get more than one seat in Parliament, that of co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell, though he faces a fight in his Waiariki seat.
The new kid on the block is brash, monied – thanks to the largesse of internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom – and cool, if attendance at its well-publicised ‘‘party parties’’ is anything to go by.
Bankrolled to the tune of $3 million by Dotcom, the unexpected combination of Left wing radicalism and deep pockets is a new phenomenon on the New Zealand political scene, which makes it an unpredictable factor in the campaign.
If it succeeds in harnessing both effectively, it could prove to be a potent force.
The minor party didn’t think things could get any worse after being returned to Parliament with just one MP, John Banks, who became the reluctant leader after Don Brash.
But they did get worse – a lot worse.
After a miserable three years in Parliament, Banks is gone as leader and from Parliament altogether after being found guilty of submitting a false election return.
Barring further self-destruction, National’s electorate deal in Epsom should give the party a chance to rebuild with at least one MP in the next Parliament.
Sacked from the Key Cabinet after being suspected of a government leak, Peter Dunne proved his title as Parliament’s great survivor when Key reinstated him and later gave National voters the nod in Dunne’s Ohariu seat to throw him their electorate vote.
That should guarantee his survival through to the next Parliament.
Chucked out of NZ First after allegations surrounding his mother’s estate, Horan has done better as an outcast than might have been expected, thanks largely to a canny decision to hire former Alliance staffer Phil Lyth.
But the election will do what NZ First couldn’t manage. It will see him out of Parliament altogether.