It's all about 2014

Natural and international disasters have absolved National of the usual competency tests, but do New Zealanders really want a single party majority government?

As polls continue to show National postioned to govern alone just two weeks out from the election, voters are going to have to confront a stark choice. Do they want any government, let alone this one, to govern on its own.

Or, in an alternative universe coming near to you soon, and as the fear-mongers have begun to shrill, is the specter of some hydra-shaped-Gila-monster-alternative-coalition going to shake us from our torpor and stiffen our resolve to give National what it wants so we don't all fall off the planet?
Under normal conditions most political junkies would have been very sceptical about National achieving outright or effective majority support. But we are not experiencing normal conditions. Global economic insecurity, our own market failures, bail-outs and economic malaise, the emotional residue of Pike River and the Christchurch earthquakes, salved only temporarily by the World Cup success it feels like now, has delivered us a highly unusual campaign dynamic. 

Our political history also, and always, favoured National's re-election, which shouldn't be lost sight of in the wash. Only two one-term governments since World War II (1957-60, 1972-75) signals the general goodwill extended by voters to incumbent parties seeking a second term.

Again, under normal conditions, this proposition may have been more thoroughly tested because National has failed to fulfill any of its own promises. Step change and catching up with Australia have failed to materialise but it hasn't mattered because Key and National have not been held responsible. Their situational milieu has absolved them from the competency test in 2011.     

In this sense the situational variables have swamped the government's agency to achieve its ambitions and I suspect that long after this government has been and gone we'll remember it as the 'Reconstruction Government'. Whether it agrees or not, or likes it or not, restoring the rubble of Christchurch is its defining purpose. Events have dictated that and National cannot escape it.

Despite leader John Key's empathy in disaster and his effortless ability to make black sound white this government's performance has been very uneven, yet the public's suspension of disbelief continues. 'Show me the money' shields a lot of unpalatable truths about New Zealand's present conditions, including the government's own economic performance. The staggering numbers of youth unemployment - surely a ticking time-bomb, a crisis in situ in other words - stagnant growth, and no serious plan to broaden or develop the breadth of our economy, leaves National's promised 'brighter future' narrative reduced to little more than 'more cows: less public servants'.

If, and it's a biggie, the books are returned to surplus by 2014/15, then isn't New Zealand effectively back to where it started just a few months out from the 2008 election? No forward progress, still muddling through. First principle questions still not asked. 

Labour, struggling mightily to avoid the mirror-image of what happened to National in 2002, has offered a rejuvenation of sorts through its politically courageous yet risky policy innovation. However, it has not and cannot offer a rejuvenated face to the electorate. Its public face is still a reminder of a recent past New Zealanders turned away from three years ago. There is nothing Labour can do about this now. Its strategists will be waking each morning gripped with something akin to 'the fear' its National equivalents suffered during the English patient's near-death spiral nine years ago.

If Labour is decimated in two weeks time it will be mightily difficult for it to seriously challenge National in the 2014 election. And that I think has always been the underlying driving ambition of both red and blue camps: 2014.

If Labour's vote collapses then Key's odds of staying round to challenge next time round will markedly increase. If Labour achieves respectability from its last two weeks' efforts, then all bets are off and we're gonna have a very interesting (and, for many, a surprising) next three years. The ambitious on both sides - some playing a short game, others a long one - will be sweating on the election result as well for their own self-interested reasons.   

Key has also adroitly learned his history. Clark failed to achieve her desired majority government back in 2002 because she was seen to too baldly and badly covet it. Key has inoculated himself against this sort of hubris by indicating that even if he did receive the gift of government outright he'd invite others into his tent, the 'stable' ACT party - surely the stupidest utterance Key has made during the campaign - the fractured remnants of the Maori Party, Peter Dunne, and, of course, the big symbolic prize if you're John Key, the Greens.

Further isolating Labour would suit Key's 2014 interests well if he can lure the Greens further into National's gravitational orbit. Polling suggests it might also suit the wider electorate for I think if there is a strand of new thinking emerging it lies amongst those New Zealanders looking for a better marriage between the market economy and ideas around sustainability.

If there is any 'new' generational thinking on display in the campaign, that would appear to me to be the extent of it.

Coming into the final two weeks - the most intense part of the campaign, as surprising events always seem to be attracted to the final act (pun intended) - perhaps only a shift in the dimensions of voter choice or a surprise can slow the Key juggernaut.

The stakes are high because there is such a small margin between governing alone and being forced into the quagmire of multi-party deals, one where National's ability to shape the next governing arrangements is more circumscribed.

Labour needs voters to think about the risks of National governing alone and to reflect upon Labour's 2014 prospects if they abandon the red team. National needs the campaign clock to run out and it needs voters to be thinking about giving it the authority to govern on its own terms.

Meanwhile, for the rest of us, the trick is to sit back and enjoy the spectacle of our democracy's dance. As for the result, a two-line poem by American Robert Frost gets to the nub of it: 'We dance around a ring and suppose. And the secret sits in the middle and knows.'