Governing alone - time to talk about power

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.