Poll after Labour leadership change has not changed dynamics of election

NZ First leader Winston Peters will hold the balance of power in the election, Liam Hehir says.

NZ First leader Winston Peters will hold the balance of power in the election, Liam Hehir says.

OPINION: Last week, I penned a jeremiad against the hyping up of supposed "game-changers" by the political media.

In the days following that, a new Colmar Brunton poll for 1 News looks to have shaken up the election. This may seem like poor timing on my behalf and I certainly copped my share of jibes from friends and colleagues.

I regret nothing.

The poll looks exciting, no doubt about it. National went down three percentage points to 44 per cent. Labour surged by 13 to 37. The Greens plummeted by 11 percentage points to just 4 per cent – which is enough to see them out of Parliament.

NZ First dropped just one percentage point to 10 per cent.

But amid all the hosannas from Labour and the press, it is not clear that this poll heralded any fundamental change to the dynamics of the election.

It has been clear that Winston Peters will select the next Government since the 2015 Budget Day at least. National's polling has remained resilient. However, the combined total for the Opposition parties has always either been close to, or exceeded, National's support.

Accordingly, neither this Government nor its supporters have been in a position to take re-election for granted. And, if they have, they have been foolish. After all, in the past three elections, National has only scraped into office despite getting the three highest-ever vote totals in the MMP era.

Under our electoral system, every election is a knife-edge affair. This one has been no different.

This latest poll shows that Peters is likely to hold the balance of power. The first poll released after Jacinda Ardern's elevation to the leadership showed this also. So did most of the polling prior to the change in leadership.

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We are not in a position to say that Ardern has altered the political landscape in the way that Don Brash did with his Orewa speech in 2004. At least, not yet. Prior to that speech, National was mired in the twenties. Afterwards, it didn't just shoot up a bit, it rocketed into the forties. In some surveys, it was polling in the very high forties. That's a game-changer.

The effect lessened over time, but there was also a fundamental shift in the dynamics of the election. That's a game-changer.

Against this, some people argue that the 1 News poll means that regime change is more likely than before. Their conclusion is that NZ First is more likely to choose Labour if the Greens are shut out of Parliament. In support of this contention, they offer up Peters' historical feuds with the Greens and the relative simplicity of a two-way deal.

But this assumes a propensity for consistency that is not in evidence. After all, who would have predicted that Peters would – eventually – install Jim Bolger as the first prime minister of the MMP era in 1996? His decision to back the party  that had expelled him from its ranks came as a shock – and even a betrayal – to many NZ First voters.

And as we were all discussing a month ago, such a deal might involve cutting the Greens out of power anyway. The party has made it perfectly clear that its No 1 policy goal is securing a change of Government. By painting themselves into that corner, the Greens would have little choice but to acquiesce in their own exclusion.

Maybe this is too cynical, but I have always thought Peters will choose whoever offers him most of what he wants. After nine years in the wilderness, Labour is desperate to get back into power. If Labour offers him everything he wants – with the implicit support of the Greens – why wouldn't he take it?

Because of his prior suggestions that the party with the most votes on election night should get the first chance to form a government? Again, it would be a mistake to impute too much dogmatism to NZ First.

Remember when Peters gave a speech disavowing "the baubles of office" in 2005?

Once the election was held, he then accepted appointment as Minister of Foreign Affairs and of Racing.

At this stage in my life, I am a Centre-Right voter. I don't agree with everything National does. Far from it. Nevertheless, I prefer National Governments to Labour ones.

So lest I am accused of whistling past the graveyard, let me say that nothing above is of comfort to National. Quite the opposite. Peters is, after all, beyond its control too. And if the party has been clinging to the idea of governing without NZ First then it has become divorced from reality.

The past month has been dramatic. But this election was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, Winston Peters without end. Alas.

 - Stuff


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