When Robert Muldoon gave one month's notice of a snap election in 1984, a journalist pointed out that it didn't give him much time to campaign. Visibly tired and emotional, he replied: "It doesn't leave my opponents much time, does it?" As it turns out, it was more than enough for David Lange's Labour Opposition, who romped home. This year, Prime Minister John Key has named his date early and, in doing so, has given his opponents what seems like lots of time - more than six months - to pitch themselves to the electorate. Yet still it feels like a short time frame for the opposition.
OPINION: Traditionally, New Zealand elections have been held on the last Saturday in November but, since that 1984 snap election, the tradition has been honoured mainly in the breach. Another snap election called by Helen Clark in 2002 further helped to upset the rhythm. Clark won that one, memorably calling the Greens "goths and anarcho-feminists" then stitching up a deal with UnitedFuture to form a government. How things have changed. In 2014, the contest is between National and possibly UnitedFuture on one side and Labour and the Greens on the other.
Key has given his reasons for going to the polls early, not least the G20 summit in Brisbane in November, and the complication that the attending world leaders might want to come calling here around the time of an election campaign. Essentially, however, the early date seems to give him a strategic advantage. Opinion polls have generally been running in National's favour. The online futures prediction site iPredict yesterday rated the likelihood of a National prime minister after the election at 71.8 per cent. Key obviously feels that to win this, National just need to keep doing what they are doing now. An earlier election gives them fewer chances to drop the ball, and any Budget warm fuzzies may not have worn off by September 20.
Labour, on the other hand, have their work cut out as the main challenger, with the given support of the Greens. Labour's David Cunliffe is still finding his feet as leader and significant broad-appeal policy announcements are still to come. The party has a capable and aggressive campaign manager in Matt McCarten, but he is perceived as Left-wing, so even his presence may polarise the party faithful.
Opposition parties usually succeed when there is an electorate mood for change. That is largely absent this year. Where voters are disgruntled, for instance around the Canterbury rebuild, Labour has not yet made credible moves to take advantage of that feeling.
National, then, will fight a defensive campaign. Labour needs to take the offensive but it has yet to reveal its plan of attack. National's message will be one of "steady as we go"; Labour's will have to be "we can do things better", but that will require well-articulated policies that the voters will go for. And now Labour has only six months to announce them and convince the electorate that they will lead to a more positive future. That's why the time frame looks short.
The referendum on the flag, meanwhile, will not take place on election day but is still in the offing. It remains therefore a convenient distraction for Key.
- The Press