Winston Peters prefers National policy but Labour politicians. Which way will he swing?
OPINION: Clearly there is the prospect of a very unpredictable result in this year's general election with a seriously apathetic electorate capable of significant mood changes in the final months of the campaign.
At a national level there is the inevitable unease about the wisdom of giving the National Party a fourth term. While accepting that the National Party has in general provided efficient and responsible economic leadership, there is an undercurrent of resentment at both its style and type of leadership.
Subjectively the Government is seen by many as increasingly self-entitled and arrogant.
Objectively the ongoing problem of grossly inflated house prices, high immigration, the accelerating rich/poor divide, environmental degradation and the problem of a significant underclass all trouble the electorate.
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There is little confidence that the Government has the capacity or the inclination to resolutely address these issues.
In very general terms the electorate is looking for reasons not to vote National rather than reasons to vote National.
The National Party's life-line remains the perception of an ineffective Labour Party unable to provide a credible leadership under the auspices of a three-way coalition with the Greens and New Zealand First.
Andrew Little has the opportunity to become the next Prime Minister if he can succeed in consolidating his image of pragmatic social concern and measured and responsible leadership in addressing the perceived policy failures of the National Party. While clearly he has a working relationship with the Greens his challenge is going to be his ability to constructively engage with Winston Peters.
The prospects of Winston Peters holding the balance of power looks increasingly inevitable. He is polling at a considerable higher level than he has ever done at this stage of the campaign and has a level of acceptance and credibility that is genuinely respected by his supporters on the one hand and resented by his critics on the other hand.
He can no longer be perceived as a irritating maverick by the media but rather has morphed into a mainstream politician who will inevitably run a more exciting and dynamic campaign than any of the other leaders.
He will almost inevitably decide the composition of the next government and he will certainly not be making the decision on whom he will go with until after the election.
Ideologically Winston will have more in common with National than Labour. Empathetically he would be more comfortable with Labour. He neither respects nor likes many of the senior National MPs.
It would be very wrong to assume that the Labour Party and New Zealand First cannot establish a creative friction that could constructively result in a responsible administration with New Zealand First modifying Labour's overly aggressive social agenda and Labour modifying New Zealand First's rather more xenophobic ambitions.
The reality is that one must assume Winston is genuinely keeping his options open and could support either of the two main parties.
A subset to the election will be the outcome of the half-dozen Christchurch seats which have the capacity for a significant change.
Historically Christchurch has been a Labour stronghold with only Ilam being a traditionally safe National seat. In the last two elections National has made remarkable gains.. Logically this would mean the existing Labour members of Parliament for Wigram, Lyttleton and Christchurch East working very hard to retain their seats contrary to the party vote.
The reality, in the opinion of many, is very different with the two National-held seats of Christchurch Central and Ilam being potentially the most vulnerable. Christchurch Central, a historically Labour seat, has been held by Nicky Wagner on behalf of the National party for the last three elections.
Nicky has established a reputation as a nice but but politically insubstantial person. Her electoral prospects will be substantially affected by her success or failure in brokering a solution to the restoration of the Christ Church Cathedral which she has committed herself to resolve before the election. If she can do that she deserves to be re-elected.
Ilam is a very different story. Gerry Brownlee had won a reputation as an abrasive and forthright Minister for the Christchurch Earthquake recovery. While he is respected for having made specific decisions he has in manner and substance offended many of the leading members of the community.
Under normal circumstances he could treat his re-election as automatic but is being opposed by Raf Manji, one of the most respected members of the Christchurch City Council, who will be contesting the seat as an independent advocating a strong voice for Christchurch at central government level.
This contest will be by far the most intriguing of the Christchurch contests. The challenge for Manji will be to persuade the electorate that by giving him their electorate vote they will then have double representation as Gerry Brownlee will inevitably be elected on the Party list
Manji is clearly committed to running a comprehensive and substantial campaign emphasising the need for a specific and committed Christchurch representation. It will be fascinating to see if he can educate enough of the electorate to give him their electorate vote while still respecting their party allegiance.
September 23 will be a most interesting evening.
Philip Burdon is a former senior Cabinet Minister and colleague of Winston Peters during 15 years in Parliament (1981-96).