Key's extraordinary mandate tempered by harsh reality

The bar had long closed. The dimmed lights in the cavernous functions room had been turned up to full brightness.

Stacking chairs and stuffing popped balloons and bunting into rubbish bags, the cleaners moved discreetly, but purposefully among the loitering guests.

The time was fast ticking towards the wrong side of two o'clock in the morning. But the hardy souls who remained in the New Zealand Room at Auckland's Sky City Convention Centre were not yet of a mood to leave.

For the host of Cabinet ministers, MPs, branch and electorate officials, activists and sundry party members at National's election-night party, this was a rare moment and one to truly savour.

The sheer size of National's vote on November 26 was on a scale which occurs only once in every couple of decades or so. This was an emphatic victory.

Sure, National had fallen short of an absolute majority. The election had shown that ideal to be nothing more than a cruel mirage.

Sure, National nearly fell victim to the punishing arithmetic of MMP politics. Having eaten up the vote of its in-decline partners, it is now relying on a parliamentary majority of just two on most issues, assuming the normal voting pattern of the Maori Party.

But the new Government is stable.

John Key promised stability. He delivered.

The sense of power not just renewed, but power enhanced was palpable as the Prime Minister circulated the room on election night.

While the congratulations showered down on him like confetti, everyone also instinctively knew - but would never tell him - that it might never feel so good for Mr Key again.

He is now swimming against the harsher currents of second-term politics. Labour will regain strength under its new leadership. National will suffer a slow erosion of its popularity in what may well prove to be a very difficult term, given the state of the global economy.

Within days of the election, the Treasury was revising its economic growth forecasts downwards, thereby already putting a big question mark over National's timetable for a return to Budget surplus.

Attitudes towards Mr Key have already undergone a hardening within the Wellington Beltway since the Epsom tea party fiasco.

A crowning first six months of 2011 for the Prime Minister was superseded by a less than majestic second half of the year. The election result suggests his series of minor gaffes and foibles had little impact on Mr Key's standing in the greater public's eyes. But they will if they continue.

What Mr Key does have going for him is that he has a mandate for second-term action - and a strong one, especially for the partial sale of some state-owned enterprises. That he does not is the first post-election canard being spread by National's opponents.

The scale of National's mandate becomes clearer once Mr Key's victory is put into historical context.

For starters, he comfortably beat his own record for the biggest party vote under MMP with National securing 47.3% this time as against 44.9% in 2008. That percentage was just a shade behind those attained by Sir Keith Holyoake in 1960, Sir Robert Muldoon in 1975 and Jim Bolger in 1990.

Those crushing victories, however, were achieved from the vantage point of Opposition under the extravagant swings of the two-party dominated first-past-the-post electoral system which meant votes for minor parties were almost always wasted votes.

On another measure - the unlikelihood of an incumbent prime minister increasing his or her party's share of the vote from the previous election - Mr Key's victory easily betters Helen Clark's success in 2002, when she raised Labour's vote from 38.7% to 41.3%. It falls just short of David Lange's second election win in 1987. It betters Mr Holyoake's victory in 1969. You then have to go back to the extraordinary circumstances of the waterfront strike election of 1951 for an example that betters Mr Key's result.

The figures speak for themselves. Power is the bottom line. For that reason alone, John Key has to be the politician of the year. His challenge now is to create a legacy in his second term which has the history books saying he was much more than just a sound political manager.

Mr Key just heads off Cabinet colleague Gerry Brownlee for the title. As Earthquake Recovery Minister, Mr Brownlee was on a hiding to nothing.

He soaked up a deluge of criticism, especially over the length of time it took to classify properties as habitable or not. He stuck to his own timetable. He knew he had one chance to get it right when it came to financial assistance to homeowners. He must have done something right. On election-night figures, Labour's share of the party vote in Christchurch - long deemed to be one of that party's bastions - crumbled by a massive 35% compared to just under 23% nationwide.

Mention must also be made of Russel Norman and Metiria Turei. No-one any longer talks of the Greens being economic looneys living on another planet. The party's two co-leaders have simplified and translated Green ideology into something with which voters can not just admire, but something with which they can connect and with which they feel comfortable.

The question now is how much closer the party can edge towards the centre and an eventual deal with National without ripping itself asunder.

Last, but not least there is Winston Peters.

He achieved the near impossible in getting his party out of the wilderness and back into Parliament. His success was based on the solid groundwork of a year-long speaking schedule which took him to places where other politicians are rarely if ever seen, and, the widespread disillusionment with Labour. At year's end, it is time to hand out some other awards.

Backbenchers of the Year: Labour's Jacinda Ardern and the Greens' Gareth Hughes. Much-hyped by her colleagues on her arrival at Parliament in 2008, Ms Ardern has begun to live up to the billing. Clever, articulate and persuasive, she has relished the shadow employment portfolio. She does her homework and is on track to becoming a versatile performer in Parliament.

She is now a certainty for a slot on Labour's front bench. Mr Hughes has only been an MP for two years, but is one of the most visibly active. Set to flower into one of the Greens' best MPs.

Gone, but not forgotten: Jim Anderton, Sir Roger Douglas, Simon Power, Wayne Mapp, Sue Kedgley, Keith Locke.

Disappeared without trace: Labour's Darren Hughes; Act's Hilary Calvert.

Death with dignity: Rodney Hide exited Parliament with extraordinary grace, despite being dumped in the most public and humiliating fashion as Act's leader by Don Brash.

Damp squib: Mr Brash's failure to breathe new life into Act.

Jury's out: David Shearer's leadership of Labour. Has the right ideas for reviving the party. His execution of them will be compulsive viewing in 2012.

Mission impossible: Phil Goff persuading people of the merits of a capital gains tax.

Best speech: The Prime Minister's address to the nation the day after the February 22 Christchurch earthquake.

Vindicated: The opinion pollsters. Pretty much got the election result right.

• John Armstrong is the The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.



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