Little more than a week out, National is still holding a majority in the polls. It's time to talk about what it means if that's how it winds up on election night

So, let's just say it out loud, shall we? What do you think about National governing alone? Well, not precisely alone because they will wear a fig leaf of coalition deals with United Future, the Maori Party and perhaps ACT, if voters permit. But what do New Zealanders think about the prospect of having a single party having a majority of votes in the House?

This will be a vital question heading into the final week of the campaign, with all three polls in the past 24 hours having National on at least 49 percent.

It could be that National becomes the first party since 1951 to win a majority of the vote. Or it could be that National gets less than 50 percent but thanks to wasted votes still holds a majority in parliament. Either way, the bridle of MMP comes off and the governing party will be free to implement whatever policies it wills. With no constitution and no Upper House we are giving them an immense amount of trust.

We've never done that before under MMP - Helen Clark had hopes in 2002, but Corn-gate scuppered all that. The teapot tape just doesn't have the same level of import, however (sorry Steven Price, it doesn't warrant the -gate suffix). That's not to say it doesn't have life of its own - while I don't think voters care about what was said and don't think the recording should have been made, it does make them wonder about John Key's judgment.

There are distinct similarities between 2011 and 1951, as I posted back in August. Then I was met with scorn by some. But it always seemed to me that if a party was going to repeat Sid Holland's feat of 60 years ago, the stars were lining up for this National administration. 

Of course this is far from certain - so much happens in the final week of a campaign. And if New Zealand First can win five percent, then the counter scenario comes into play - National losing altogether. But there are a lot of 'ifs' to get to that point.

National's polls have been stubbornly consistent for three years, there are few appealing parties for soft National supporters to flee to and the amount of wasted vote likely to be provided by the likes of the Conservatives - and perhaps even New Zealand First - only makes it easier for National to command a sub-50 percent majority. (Key's teapot gift to Winston could yet be inadvertently returned, if New Zealand First gets three or four percent, making life easier for Key).

National is certainly benefiting from its allies' woes, whereas Labour is suffering at the hand of its ally's growth.

Such an outcome offers National huge opportunity - and huge risk. If, if, it has a majority of MPs it can get through all its election promises without having to compromise in coalition negotiations. But it also owns the entire agenda and can't share blame. Further, it risks hubris and over-reach. True, it's not something Key and English have been terribly guilty of thus far, polling everything to within an inch of its life and usually choosing the conservative option. But with power comes temptation.

Think about the second term of the Lange government. Labour won so convincingly it almost out-polled National in Remuera, prompting Lange to wonder out loud whether he had gone too far. Within months it became clear that Roger Douglas thought Labour hadn't gone far enough and the whole thing imploded.

What voters need to consider is whether it's wise to give such power to so few - and given Key's power within Cabinet it is very few indeed.

Let me give one example. Many have qualms about National's plan to require parents who have another child on the DPB to look for work when that child turns one.

In coalition, National may have to compromise or give that up. United Future and the Maori Party have both said they'd vote against. If they held the bridge between 40-something and a majority of MPs, National would be reined in. If there is no bridge and National commands both sides of the river, well, it can do what it likes across the entire welfare sector.

The only bridle on National would be the next election.

Of course some will argue that for three years at least we'd be able to return to the old era of "strong government". Just as the last British election showed that First-Past-The-Post can produce coalitions, this would show that MMP can produce single party governments.

This, however, would be an immense, historic gift of trust to National. I, for one, admit to being nervous about going back to the days when any one party had so much power.

Comments (28)

by Richard Aston on November 18, 2011
Richard Aston

Its a scary prospect Tim, very scary.  The hope of MMP was that this degree of majority power would be less likely.

I my view a government comprised from a variety of coalition or other relationships is more stable and more representative of the people ie democracy.

The other concern is how much the Nats have talked about this election giving them a mandate for their policy changes, all of them. Shoring up ill thought out policy with " well you voted for us" is irresponsible at the least.




by Dave Boyce on November 18, 2011
Dave Boyce

What this does is bring sharply in to focus the referendum.

by Raymond A Francis on November 18, 2011
Raymond A Francis

Well I for one would prefer a strong Government at this time (financially things could easly go tits up for the whole world if Europe does not get its self under control) rather than hydra headed coalition with Winston Peters anywhere near the controls

Hopefully the Maori Party will be there and their votes needed to smooth Nationals rough edges

by william blake on November 18, 2011
william blake

The prospect of a fully mandated right wing party ruling this country for the next three years saddens me, but with MMP we have a highly functional democratic structure, so if this occurs we get the government we collectively, want and deserve.

by Deborah Coddington on November 18, 2011
Deborah Coddington

It won't happen Tim. You're just trying to scare people out of voting National, just like Matthew Hooten's trying to scare the right in Epsom into voting for John Banks. It won't work.

National won't get an outright majority for one thing (and if they do, I'll run around the vineyard starkers when nobody's looking). And even if they do by some remote chance, they'll still go with the Maori Party who'll get three seats for sure.

by Richard Aston on November 18, 2011
Richard Aston

Deborah - thanks for the reassurance - why are you so sure the Nats won't get an outright majority in parliment - the polls seem to indicate this.


by Tim Watkin on November 18, 2011
Tim Watkin

Nothing to do with scaring anyone, Deborah. Are you seriously saying that a week out from the election when the governing party has polled above 50% for almost three years, it's fearmongering to ask about the implications of them winning a majority? That's tosh. 

By that logic Audrey Young was trying to scare people by laying out the unlikely Labour-led coalition on the front page of the Herald. Or anyone writing about any potential coalition formation is trying to scare some sector of voters.

I'm talking about a very possible scenario and its implications. For me, that's just analysis. And as I wrote, it can come short of an outright majority and still essentially govern without a coalition, which amounts to much the same thing.

Oh, and if you're wrong, how will we know you ran starkers? Shall we send a film crew? Otherwise it's just a tree falling in an empty forest...

by Tim Watkin on November 18, 2011
Tim Watkin

Hi Raymond, interesting the confidence you're placing in the Maori Party. I wonder if others are working on the same 'smoothing' assumption.

by Deborah Coddington on November 18, 2011
Deborah Coddington

I really don't think it will happen. It might, but I reckon on the day Labour will go up a bit. Still, who knows, that's why this election is so fascinating. Anyway, as I said, even if N does get enough to govern alone, and if you average out the last five polls they do still get enough to get 65 seats, (and I think Act are surely dog tucker) I still think they'll hook in the Maori Party because they'll be looking towards 2014.

How will you know if I run around the vineyard starkers if nobody is watching? Because there will be a stampede of terrified animals heading your way.

by Pete George on November 18, 2011
Pete George

Of course I'd prefer to see a party, or two preferably, holding enough seats to make National work for it's majorities, but I'm not too worried about National having a majority of seats - they have already assured they will include other parties so they won't rule alone anyway, they'd just do it without having to work so hard.

If Nats do have a majority I think their biggest problem will be voters on the right hissy fitting because Key/English aren't "bold" enough. That would make 2014 more difficult, and would leave an opening for Act to resurrect or Conservatives to hang in there.

by nommopilot on November 18, 2011

"even if N does get enough to govern alone, ... I still think they'll hook in the Maori Party because they'll be looking towards 2014."

& "they have already assured they will include other parties so they won't rule alone anyway"

it doesn't matter whether they "include" other parties, if they have a majority they will spend their political capital and sell as many of the assets as they can because they won't get another chance.  and get as much drilling, fracking and mining underway as they can.  probably eat a few babies as well if they can.

They certainly won't enter into a coalition that will hamper their policy agenda unless they have to.  They will make policy concessions on their pet party's pet projects but they will certainly go ahead with the big sell-off they've been rubbing their hands together over for the last 3 years.

by Andrew R on November 19, 2011
Andrew R

National winning outright would be a good reminder (or for youger ones their first experience) of why first past the post was dumped.

by Steve F on November 19, 2011
Steve F



I posted this comment up on Jon Johansson's blog a few days ago, but it didn't seem to get much traction so I thought your latest post being more fitting, I'll repeat it here.


Democracy or Dante's Dance ?

I sent this little piece off to the paper wondering if it was worthy of printing as a letter. They wanted it chopped to 200 words. Difficult to get the message across so I'll post it here. But I suppose I will only be preaching to the converted.

...........Some may have read Wellington's Dompost front pager last Wednesday, "Nats Heading for Historic Outright Win" and shrugged their shoulders. Like, what's new. Others would have inwardly grinned and thought, "good on yer mate". On the other side of the divide there would be those who surmised, absolute rubbish, Labour will close in. Very few would have felt a queasy, "this is going to disturb my sleep".

What appears to have slipped totally under the radar by all commentators leading up to this election are consequences imposed upon our society by this country's very fragile constitutional position. I can see many yawning at the prospect of the mention of the word but it has the potential to really upset your day. Consider three things, or possibly four.

New Zealand does not have a constitution. No written document that enshrines the make up of our government to keep the powers separated and balanced between the courts the parliament and the executive. Oddly this inimitable situation is shared by only one other nation in the civilised world, Israel. As for those wondering about the motherland, well I'll give some latitude and consider the Brits bound to the treaties of the EU. What we have is a cobbled together set of conventions, and pieces of law, including our Constitution Act, that can be meddled with by simple majority. Like more than half of those sitting in the house.

New Zealand has no upper legislative chamber. No senate, no house of commons. Just the one house of representatives to decide upon and make all the laws of the land. So if a majority single party government decides one day they want to fiddle with the statute books and do it under this thing called urgency they simply say:

"guys get your blazers on, jump down into the house and raise your arms when asked. You'll be home and in bed before midnight."

New Zealand has no binding Bill of Rights. So all those fundamental rights that are so dear to us as a nation and that we take for granted as background noise in our daily lives, can be meddled with by a majority single party government without any checks or balances in the legislative chamber. Indeed the opposition can make a lot of noise but they are powerless to do anything about it. Alongside the Bill of Rights every single piece of legislation on our books, all the laws of the land, including the entrenchment provision in the electoral act can be fiddled with, added to, subtracted from, or even wiped out altogether by a simply majority. As long as half or more of the arms are in the air, the "ayes" have it.

Now there is this thing called royal assent before bills become law. But today we have a retired career soldier as Governor General who has been obeying orders all his life. Hardly likely to rock the boat with the guys who recommended the Queen put him in his seat.

So you see, running a country with a single party majority which was actually par for the course under FPP, is a bit like playing cricket without a wicket keeper. The government has gone in to bat and the other guys, all of them regardless of colour or affiliation, haven't a hope till the next innings. One might argue that after all, more than half the voters allowed a single party unbridled power,  but on the other hand I really don't think many of them would have considered the consequences of our fragile democracy. The age old doctrine of the separation of powers will be sorely tested this time around.


by Andrew Geddis on November 19, 2011
Andrew Geddis

"New Zealand does not have a constitution."

For accuracy, New Zealand does not have a written constitution (in the sense of a single, entrenched, superior law document setting out the ground rules under which public power is held and exercised). As you go on to point out, New Zealand does have a lot of constitutional rules - it's just that they are conventional/customary in form and so easily changed in theory (even if not in practice ... for instance, we could change our electoral system by a bare majority vote in Parliament, but if this were tried there'd be a quite justifiable public uproar).

by Tim Watkin on November 19, 2011
Tim Watkin

Steve, you could easily make your point in 200 words! You're wrong that we don't have a constitution – just not a written one. And our BORA is reasonably strong; just consider the police's unwillingness to move on the 'Occupy' protesters.

But we're mostly in agreement – with no constitutional safeguards, a single party majority would be onstrained only by politics. Again, that's something to think long and hard about.

by Tim Watkin on November 19, 2011
Tim Watkin

Andrew - snap!

by Jake Morrison on November 19, 2011
Jake Morrison

Dear Mr Watkin,

Firstly, big props. I am a big fan of Q&A. But WHY are you putting bloody Winston Peters on tomorrow morning alongside Goff and Key?! The Greens are polling higher than the rest of the minor parties combined, yet who do you put on the show alongside the big party leaders? A big, stupid populist ratings winner, that's who. Grr!

Yes, I am partisan, and yes I know your job is to get eyes on screen, but this is pure theatre.


by Tim Watkin on November 19, 2011
Tim Watkin

Jake, it was much discussed. We have had both Norman and Turei on during the campaign, and paritsan or not, Peters is one of the momentum stories of the moment.

We didn't decide to give him a poll boost, just that he deserves to have some quesitons asked of him as a result. And we are required to provide balance, not to take sides.

If he gets 5% or not, it matters and we don't want to look back in a week and say we ignored an important element of the campaign.

Oh, and thanks re Q+A.

by Matthew Percival on November 19, 2011
Matthew Percival

I'll throw it out there that National may not need to get 50% of the vote to get a majority.

There could be a fair number of wasted votes this election. New Zealand First could get 4.5%, ACT 2% (and an Epsom loss), Conservatives 1% and when you add up all the other minors we could see around 8% of votes being "wasted".

As I type ipredict has National with 61 seats in a 121 seat parliament with 47.9% of the party vote. National may only need around 47% of the vote to form a majority. Such a figure is below what the party has been polling at for the last 3 years.

by Tim Watkin on November 20, 2011
Tim Watkin

That's what I said, Matthew.

by Brendon Mills on November 20, 2011
Brendon Mills

Tim, would you rather have National govern alone or in an 'arrangement' with an ACT party that includes John Banks, Don Brash and Don Nicholson?

I know what I would rather have.

by Chris Werry on November 20, 2011
Chris Werry

Serious question: should Green supporters "hold their nose" and vote NZ First? I'd rather not - Winston's pantomime theatrics are tiresome and his immigration views make me gag. However, if it stops the asset sales I would consider it. I had a go at the maths and it didn't seem to have a materal effect.

by Judy Martin on November 20, 2011
Judy Martin

Chris, re your serious question, no, Green supporters should party vote GP. That will provide more guaranteed votes against asset sales in Parliament, while NZ First still has a high chance of missing the "cut" and losing thse votes altogether.

Better to persuade your acquaintances who are considering voting National but against asset sales to vote NZF

by Ian Tinkler on November 20, 2011
Ian Tinkler

I don't worry about a party getting a majority under MMP.

I recal in Germany today two States have majority governments one CSU and one SPD. Scotland that has a version of MMP (the version I think NZ should adopt) and has a majority SNP government. What MMP prevents is situation in 1978 and 1981 where Labour got more votes but fewer seats than National

by Tim Watkin on November 20, 2011
Tim Watkin

Ian, you make a fair point. But do those German states or Scotland have other consitutional constraints on their governments? We don't have a fig.

Chris, it'd be a hell of a gamble. Even if NZF gets 5%, it doesn't mean he holds the balance of power. Not unless all of his vote comes from National and even then it may not be enough. The unintended consequence is that if NZF gets to 4% in the polls, that's wasted vote and it's even easier for National to govern alone.

I'm not sure there's any realistic way a minor party could stop National selling assets, unless the Maori Party ended up with the balance and was convinced to change its mind.

by tom farmer on November 21, 2011
tom farmer

Hi there,

viz a viz polls.. likely their structures, operations, transparency etc.. can one assume the polled sample is varying. ie not the same 'crowd' each time or overly reiterated per whatever practical schedule may be in operation..

constancy of outcome could be little more than a reflection of constant input.. yes?

by Jake Morrison on November 21, 2011
Jake Morrison

Hi Tim. Thanks for the reply. And I must apologise. I understood the programme was to feature Key, Goff and Peters together. Grumpy comment withdrawn!

by Tim Watkin on November 21, 2011
Tim Watkin

Hi Jake, that would have been something to behold! Of course no chance in hades any of them would agree to that... Thanks for your note though.

We got a lot of flak about not having the Greens on Q+A on Sunday. Mostly from Greens. I pointed out we've had Norman on five times this year and Turei on once, which is more than from any other party. (More Nat ministers, of course, cos they're in power, but Key only on 4 times).

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