Matthew Hooton has done a 180 degree turn on his prediction for the 2014 election. Yet the new prediction seems as risky as the last one
Playing the 'what if' game and picking the results of future elections is part of the fun of political punditry. And few enjoy the fun of political punditry as much as Matthew Hooton. For much of this year he's been telling anyone who'll listen how the Conservatives and Winston will get National a third term. So what a surprise his latest NBR column is.
At the end of last week Hooton changed tack and began his column:
"In two years, John Key will be looking for a new career and Judith Collins will be opposition leader... In the Beehive David Shearer will be setting up New Zealand's most left-wing government since 1975 in partnership with Russel Norman".
Now I enjoy prediction fun as much as anyone, that's quite some swing from, say, this. Mischief-making is one thing, and I like Matthew's willingness to say what he thinks - or at least, to say strongly what his clients want him to think!
I'm making fun there... I actually appeciate how forthright Matthew is. But lurching?
I had my doubts about his original theory. I agreed with Hooton that the Conservatives are an unknown yet fascinating factor, a party which could yet influence the 2014 election. But beyond that I didn't understand his confidence.
For a start I've watched all year as New Zealand First press releases have arrived in my inbox, written by a former Labour Party staffer and reading as if they were still coming from the red corner. I started making a list (which I've since lost), but the policy alignment was there for all to see on asset sales, Kiwirail, alcohol reform, private prison, foreign ownership, job creation, biosecurity, and much more. In contrast, John Key can hardly suck his teeth for a second without Winston Peters launching an attack.
Interestingly, NZF was even finding common cause with the Greens, to the point of their joint press release and media conference on the 'manufacturing crisis'.
Of course Peters has given every encouragement to National's opponents without getting his hands dirty on what his party's stances means for a future coalition.
My first thought is that differences in crucial policy areas such as superannuation remain. And the policy similarities between the three parties might be the very reason New Zealand First could opt for National should it hold the balance of power in 2014. Peters knows all too well that small parties without clear points of difference from larger coalition partners tend to disappear from the public eye -- and lose voter appreciation.
The second thought is that, for all of Hooton's previous confidence, anyone who predicts Peters' choice two years out is asking to be made to look a fool. Only Winston knows what Winston will do in 2014 -- and odds on he doesn't know yet either.
And my third is that New Zealand First and the Conservatives are fighting over many of the same voters -- Peters is wary of Colin Craig in the extreme, seeing his potential to take over Peters' long-held position as a favourite with older voters. So Peters and Craig shaking hands seems the least likely of any of these unlikely scenarios.
For all my doubts about this earlier prediction, this past week's u-turn by Hooton is as perplexing. Is Shearer's one good week and Labour's KiwiBuild policy really an election winner two years out? I don't think so.
You can toss in all the reasons above, and more I'll add below. But it comes down to this: IT'S JUST TOO SOON.
The poll trend towards the left has been noticeable this year, but only just. Voters seem to be belatedly picking up on National's looseness all year and expressing some doubts, but it's hardly been a rush to the exit and National's numbers in the middle of its second term look pretty robust. As impressive as the Greens have been this year, their support has slid a little and Labour has frankly had a mess of a year.
So I don't know where Hooton's sudden and oppositve confidence in a Labour-Greens win comes from. He may be simply mischief-making, and having some fun. But claiming any sort of certainty around that scenario makes as much sense as confidently predicting a National-NZF-Conservatives coalition. It's hardly insightful to say an election is all about numbers; but numbers are crucial and have plenty of room to move.
Another global financial meltdown... some flame igniting Labour's internal bickering... National's increasing anti-environmental approach... or conversely a major oil success... house prices... National's (in)ability to reach surplus... even a decisive campaign performance by one leader or another. The variables go on and on.
If either New Zealand First or the Maori Party hold the balance of power, who knows which way they might choose? (Mana and the Conservatives could hold the balance of power, but that's less likely and easier to predict).
So enjoy any political predictions, but let's not take them seriously. This race has miles left to run.