Three more years

On any measure, the result of the 2011 general election is a resounding vote of confidence in the leadership and policies of John Key and the National Party. Not since the 1972 Labour victory of Norman Kirk has a single party reached such high levels of support, with National gaining 48% of the vote and 60 MPs in Parliament (pending the outcome of the special votes). The achievement is all the more remarkable given the challenges the country has faced during the past three years.

Mr Key came to office on the steep downside of a global financial crisis. His party has had to negotiate two shattering events of a more local nature - the terrible tragedies of the Pike River coal mine explosions and the Canterbury earthquakes - of the past 13 months. There has also been the continuing fallout of the financial crisis, perhaps most acutely with the failure of South Canterbury Finance.

But Mr Key and his colleagues, notably his deputy leader Bill English whom the Prime Minister was quick to acknowledge on Saturday night, have shown a sure-footed style in government. They have communicated their intentions clearly and have for the most part followed these through fastidiously. There is no reason to suppose it will be any different during the coming term.

The most contentious issue of the election - the partial sale of state energy assets - was, according to polls, disliked by a great many New Zealanders, National supporters among them. If this was indeed the case, it did not translate into votes and it would be both churlish and illogical now to argue the Government does not have a mandate to proceed.

The voter turnout of 68% was the lowest in this country since the 1880s and continued a disturbing trend of voter disenfranchisement. While this does not undermine the Government's mandate it does, perhaps, raise questions about the approachability of the political-media milieu: about a million eligible voters chose not to exercise their democratic prerogative.

John Key was gracious in victory to his opponent Phil Goff on Saturday evening. In the aftermath of an uncompromising series of debates in which the two men proved much more evenly matched than many predicted, he spoke of Mr Goff's commitment and hard work in service of his country. Such magnanimous sentiments cannot, however, disguise the extent of Labour's poor showing - the 27.1% vote arguably its lowest since 1928.

Nor can the party point to the low turnout as the entire or even primary reason for the rout. This will certainly have been to its disadvantage, but it has serious questions to ask of itself, not least in once-solid Labour electorates such as Dunedin South, where Clare Curran was re-elected with a much-reduced majority of 3867, down from 6449 in 2008, and having been overtaken by National in the party vote.

In Dunedin North, the drop in majority is more explicable, with the experienced MP Pete Hodgson stepping down in favour of Dr David Clark, who performed creditably. Simply put, there seems to have been a disconnect between the voters and the party. By common consent it, and Mr Goff, campaigned strongly, but to little avail.

Some Labour support will have gone to the Green Party, which won an unprecedented 10.6% of the vote, making it the biggest single third party of the MMP era.

It might have been even more but for the re-emergence of the wily Winston Peters and New Zealand First whose eight seats - more likely aligned in policy terms with Labour, the Greens and Mana than National - will help form a solid centre-left opposition. In fact, despite the size of National's vote, the division of spoils, when entertained through the Right-Left prism, looks diminished.

Assuming the seat allocation is not changed by the special vote count, National can depend on at least 62 votes (including one each from John Banks/Act and Peter Dunne/United Future) and, according to post-election arrangements, on potentially a further three from the Maori Party. In the 121-seat Parliament, that would make the majority 65 to 56; or in the event the Maori Party were to take a more independent stance, possibly 62-59. Thus does MMP, which early referendum results indicate will be retained, dampen the ambitions of overreaching power.

 

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