The 2005 election was always Labour's to lose. Yet there's a 70-30 chance Helen Clark will emerge in two weeks' time as the first Labour leader to win three elections on the trot. With 218,000 special votes yet to be counted, our peculiar MMP system could yet produce a small shift in the seat count. After all, 10% of the total vote remains uncounted. Not since 1993 has so much hung on specials. On balance, an extra seat for the left seems more likely than one for the right. And even if Saturday night's 50-49 result prevails, the Prime Minister holds the stronger hand. Stable government for three years, however, is unlikely. The margin will be too fine.
Under First Past the Post, National would probably have won on Saturday with fewer votes overall, just as Robert Muldoon did in 1978 and 1981. Nearly doubling their vote from 2002, and taking eleven (mostly provincial) seats off Labour, has given National the most electorate seats. Don Brash's simple message about reducing taxes, restoring family values and one standard of citizenship resonated with middle New Zealanders who work, strive and seek opportunities for their children. At 65 his was a new, refreshingly un-political style. While it occasionally landed him in trouble with the strongly pro-Labour journalists covering the campaign, many voters found his refusal to dissemble refreshing. In the last days there was movement towards Brash in many parts of the country except in the New Zealand Herald's catchment area. When the O'Reilly monopoly dumped an out of date rogue poll on voters suggesting an illusory last minute rush towards Labour, it was enough to staunch the flow in the opposite direction, at least in wider Auckland. Labour's 40.7% is, amazingly, only 1% below its total of three years ago.
The country's wider future seems poised on a knife-edge. Labour has expanded the role of the State, and the bureaucracy has mushroomed. Its so-called tax relief would lock another 300,000 families into a form of welfare dependency where extra effort and higher income earned will be subject to fierce benefit-style abatement rates which could make even more people Labour Party-dependent. Set against that is National's more straight-forward approach to tax cuts that frees people to exercise choice. Restriction versus freedom is a debate that sufficient New Zealanders haven't yet resolved in their minds, despite the overwhelming historical evidence that only freedom works longer-term. Polls showed that many people who ended up voting Labour actually preferred National's tax package, but were scared that some elements of extra social expenditure could be at risk. Australians saw some of this confusion in their last election as people hoped they could have five bob each way. There is room here for a policy rethink and compromise during the behind-scenes horse-trading over coalition or other arrangements during the next two weeks. If the politicians were of a mind to work through compromises over tax the greater good for the greater number could yet be reached. But don't count on common sense prevailing.
While Labour has the better chance of winning the 62 or more needed to form a Government, theirs is the bleaker future, longer-term. Eleven parliamentary seats that could have been filled by new faces off Labour's list will instead be stacked with bodies the electorates thought they'd disposed of. Instead, they've floated to the surface again because of their place on the list. MMP's safety nets work against the interests of a party in decline, as National discovered in 2002. Labour gets only two new faces, neither exciting. National experiences the opposite. Its caucus will have 24 fresh MPs, several with substantial track records, amongst them diplomats, a top lawyer, a major secondary school principal, and a medico. Labour will find itself faced with a much more resourceful opposition than before. While National voters have come to admire Brash, and have much to thank him for, his future is uncertain given that he's less likely to emerge as Prime Minister than Helen Clark. However, in his finance spokesperson, forex trader John Key, the party has discovered a new star. Give him a little time and he could well take National over the top whenever the next election occurs. On present indications that could be sooner rather than later. Prime Minister Massey tried to carry on between 1923 and 1925 with a non-existent majority but found it "hell all the time". That parliamentary reality never changes.