The news declared that the National Party had had a 'historic' election victory on Saturday but, if that was true, National Party people would be looking happier. The reality is much more complicated

Here's the bullet-point version, to begin:

  • National won about the same number of votes it did three years ago (it got a higher percentage of the total vote owing to falling voter turnout)
  • National has an almost unmanageably thin majority in Parliament; party insiders are not at all happy
  • Winston Peters is back as a fly in the National Party's ointment, in a large part because John Key and Steven Joyce mucked up over the Epsom tea party
  • MMP is here to stay, meaning governments need to win a real majority and not just a high single party vote
  • 50% of voters voted against National, despite its popular leader
  • Many National votes were won because of its apparently easy-going and centrist leader, not because people necessarily support its policies
  • Well over 50% of the public opposes key National Party policies such as privatisation ('asset sales')
  • The ACT Party, National's most important coalition partner, died on election night
  • There are signs that National has passed the high point of its popularity and will now start to decline
  • There are signs that National leader John Key has passed the high point of his popularity and will now start to decline.
  • The coming three years will be the playing out of these things. It is going to be very different to National's first three years in government.

That's the summary. If you’d like the long version, read on.

Looking more closely, the most important issue is long-term trends in public opinion. This is clearly seen in John Key's behaviour, as it was with his predecessor as National Party leader, Don Brash. Both have found it necessary to present themselves as centrist politicians. This is not because they are, but because the basic values and beliefs of a majority of New Zealanders (on welfare, privatisation, environment and so on) are closer to Labour and the Greens than to National.

Key is not naturally centrist, as seen in his public statements earlier in his political career. But National leaders have no choice but to try to persuade the public that they are not right wing. Key has done this successfully to date, helped by the fact (in my opinion) that he doesn't believe very strongly in any policies and so can move quite easily as conditions require.

However the important point here is that National knows that its core policies and beliefs are not in accord with a growing majority of New Zealanders. It has been riding high on a cult of personality, not support for its policies. This unpalatable reality was discussed openly by Brash and his staff in documents reproduced in my book The Hollow Men (when John Key was Finance Spokesman).

For instance, National's main policy and strategy adviser, Peter Keenan, wrote: "I am a core supporter but if Don said all the things I personally like to hear, Don would be unelectable". He said: "In my view the problem is not lack of new policy, especially tough policy stances, but rather public perception of what National and Don Brash stand for – ie perceptions of existing policy, many of which are significant negatives... that will stop people voting... for us".

These negatives included "a worry that National under Don Brash means a return to the days of major reform, with privatisation, welfare cuts, spending cuts on core services, and another round of employment law reforms that will drive wages down". (Chapter 3, The Hollow Men).

It is the same today, where National and Key constantly need to woo a large section of the public who do not share the party's core beliefs and goals. This means that in future National is going to have more and more trouble constructing a majority coalition government.

The second and related issue facing National is its terribly thin majority in Parliament, which looks set to drop to a single seat after special votes (with Peter Dune and John Banks included).

People unfamiliar with Parliament could presume that a one-seat lead is enough. But the mechanics of running a government are more complex than that. Yes, they can (probably) win crucial votes. Yet a terrible friction slows down processes and there is much more scope for mischief and disruption. This is bad news for National. The bare 50% coalition achieved on Saturday (with virtually 50% against them), even when Key was at the height of his political support, is the reason Key has been moaning about the election results in the media: blaming the electoral system when his real problem is the lack of a natural majority coalition. Governing just got much less fun. (By the way, the Maori Party is therefore in a much stronger bargaining position than it was in the last three years. Watch to see if they realise this.)

The next factor is Winston Peters. I know a surprising number of people who had never voted for New Zealand First before but who did so this time to help curb the National Party's policies. The strangest result on election night was the 6.8% for New Zealand First, that did not vary through the evening as if the computer had frozen.

Voters showed in many ways in this election that they understand MMP and one of these was the determination of a sizable group to have Winston Peters in Parliament as a check on National's more unpopular policies. The only charismatic political leader in New Zealand, Peters is a good choice for this role and looks set to be a thorn in National's side.

There is another very important aspect to New Zealand First's electoral success. In 2008, part of the reason National won was because New Zealand First got under 5% support and therefore no MPs. Not only did this eliminate an effective opponent in Parliament, it gave National two extra seats when New Zealand First's 'wasted' votes were reallocated, making it easier for National to form a majority coalition. What few people seemed to realise was that knocking out Peters was a deliberate component of the National and ACT parties' election strategies.

Remember 2008? Winston was dogged by scandal for months (some deserved, some a beat up) all coming to a crescendo as voting day approached. He eventually got a little over 4% of the vote and therefore no seats in Parliament.

What was actually going on is that those two parties had decided it would be much harder to get the numbers to become government if New Zealand First got over 5% of the vote. There was almost no media comment on the obvious vested interests behind the anti-Winston campaign. More surprising is that various media organisations actively collaborated in the National-ACT campaign. It would have been different if the media had been initiating the investigations themselves (and more so if all parties had received the same scrutiny), but what was going on was a dodgy collaboration between National and ACT and the media organisations, with quite a few of the attacks fed to the media directly by ACT Party leader Rodney Hide.

National's 2008 success was built in part on these unscrutinised activities (I urge some insiders, from media or political parties, to pass on more details of this important story one day).

Exactly the same calculations were at work in the 2011 election, with National again hoping to increase its chances of winning by keeping New Zealand First out of Parliament. Once again quite a few media people joined a private campaign.

For instance, senior journalists in TVNZ talked openly (inside the organisation) about their determination to give Peters no publicity before the election and thereby stop him winning his way back. Various other media organisations seemed to take the same line. This unethical media boycott, as we now know, came unstuck thanks to the machinations of the person who had the most to lose from Winston's return: National leader John Key.

Key's poor judgement during the Epsom tea party saga gave Peters the publicity springboard he needed to return to Parliament with seven other NZ First MPs, which in turn helped National end up with its thin majority.

The Epsom tea party stuff-up is part of the reason John Key and National are feeling uncomfortable about their 'historic' victory. The blaming has already begun within National. Everything was going very smoothly until the tea party, people are saying, and the politicians they blame are Steven Joyce and John Key: they shouldn't have had the tea party at all, Key shouldn't have shot his mouth off with journalists all around and he only made matters worse by calling the Police and his other poor decisions afterwards. This is part of the emerging shift in Key's fortunes. As one insider said, the National Party never forgives failure.

The next issue is the electoral referendum. The win for MMP cements in place a proportional voting system and removes the threat of a return to the First Past the Post (FPP) system. This was by far the most important result on Saturday, enshrining a system where each person’s vote has equal value and groupings of politicians require the support of a majority of the voters to govern.

This, and the problem of National’s shrinking natural  support base, explains why John Key and various other National MPs publicly opposed MMP in the weeks before the referendum. MMP only gave National its fair share of seats in Parliament, not the far greater number it would have got under FPP or the FPP variant SM. (The last time National got 48% of the vote was in the 1990 election, when FPP delivered them 70% of the seats in Parliament, enabling the harsh Ruth Richardson reforms that in turn prompted the public to vote in the proportional MMP system three years later.)

Notice that although Key was by far the most popular politician in the election, most voters did not follow his advice on the MMP referendum. With MMP as with privatisation, Key's personal popularity does not translate into support for his policies.

By the way, election day went especially badly for the political manipulators Jordan Williams and Simon Lusk, spokesperson and campaign manager respectively of the anti-MMP lobby. They had used negative campaigning (scaremongering about Winston Peters and MMP), diversions (the size of Parliament) and misrepresentation (promoting the obscure SM system), and generally sowed confusion to try to swing voters against MMP, knowing all the time that if they succeeded the country would be back to the First Past the Post system. However, not only do they appear to have failed on this, their other recent manipulations also failed on election day. Williams and Lusk are the same two people who orchestrated Don Brash's takeover of the ACT Party leadership earlier this year. This misguided plan has probably helped to destroy the ACT Party.

The next important result of the election is its effect on the ACT Party. ACT has for a long time been made up of very different parts: some cynical remnants of 1980s and 90s free market politics mixed uneasily with idealistic people attracted to the idea of pure liberal policies. The idealists stayed loyal through years of Rodney Hide populism and political game playing and then through the gradual self-destruction of the parliamentary ACT caucus. Perhaps they believed that the Brash leadership coup would repair things and that the expedient of John Banks in Epsom was justifiable, but on election night, when all that was left was Banks, the idealists' view of ACT as a party of principle died. The socially-conservative party that will develop under Banks will be a totally different. 17 years after being established, ACT has died.

By the next election, the Maori Party may be effectively dead too. Most Maori Party supporters are not natural allies of National. In exchange for what ended up being little of substance in the foreshore and seabed legislation, Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia have got too close to National and have been used. This tragedy will also play out over the next three years,

Another element of the election worth mentioning is the careless use by the news media of the National party-linked bloggers David Farrar and Cameron Slater (‘Whale Oil’). Both bloggers affect independence (and, in Farrar’s case, this probably used to be partly true), but nowadays both act as tools of the National Party: spinning, smearing and releasing information in which the party does not want to be directly involved.

Farrar is the National Party’s main pollster and so is intimately tied into party business. Therefore it is surprising (no, thoughtless and stupid) of media organisations to use Slater as a regular source of news and Farrar as a commentator. Fairfax allowed Farrar to be one of its main election bloggers on the Stuff website leading up to the election and other media used him regularly to give comment. He was part of TVNZ’s election-night coverage. Using former politicians and party officers can be informative and useful for readers and viewers, but giving the status of commentator roles to current party officers and activists who are actively campaigning and spinning, especially at election time, is irresponsible and needs to stop.

Finally, before looking at what is coming for National, the last issue that should be mentioned is voter turnout. About a quarter of all registered voters did not vote this election: hundreds of thousands of people. When we include the people who did not even register to vote, the proportion of voting aged people dropping out of political participation is considerably higher. If MMP was the best news of the election, this is the worst. There are of course many contributing factors, some long-term, some particular to this election. The most worrying elements are the large and growing numbers of people put off or marginalised from politics. This needs much more thoughtful attention.

I will mention only one factor now. I believe, after my years studying the National Party and Republican party-style politics during research for my book The Hollow Men, that party strategists (and particularly right-wing party strategists) have been perfecting the arts not only of winning votes, but of discouraging groups of opposition-leaning voters from voting at all. This is may be an effective tactic (including leading people to feel cynical about politicians and politics so that they opt out), but it is immensely dangerous for a democratic country.

The National Party’s campaign had this feel about it: deliberately bland, lacking in policy, politicians refusing to front to other than soft media opportunities and so on. If it hadn’t been for the accident of the Epsom tea party, the whole election campaign risked attracting no attention, raising no passions and being easily forgotten or not bothered with on voting day. This needs much more analysis and thought.

Now, some predictions. For his two years as leader of the opposition and first three years in government, John Key had a dream run. Most journalists gave him an easy time. No problems or criticism seemed to stick to him. The rest of National seemed largely unassailable because of the popularity of their leader. All this carried through to this election. When many people party voted ‘National’, it was clearly Key’s face in their minds.

However, it feels that both National and Key passed the high point of their popularity during this election campaign. Barring major unforeseen events, they will now be on the way down. It is unlikely the news media will give them such an easy ride anymore and, just as the public did not follow Key on voting out MMP, it is unlikely to be persuaded on privatisation and other policies.

Only occasionally to date has the not-relaxed, not-friendly and not-centrist face of Key been seen in public; in other words, the real, ruthless and calculating side. But like nearly every political leader before him, public scepticism and weariness of Key have begun and will grow.

Key never appeared to be in politics for the long haul. When his popularity starts to slide he is unlikely to stick around and face defeat at the next election.

This means there is quite a high chance that National will go into the 2014 election with a new leader, with plenty of turbulence between now and then. Meanwhile we may be watching the last stage of millionaire John Key’s go at being a prime minister.


Comments (39)

by Tim Watkin on November 30, 2011
Tim Watkin

Lots of interesting thoughts Nicky. A few responses:

You seem to be putting Key and Brash in the same political space, and in his heart I don't think Key is as right-wing as Brash. You're point about his positions early in his political life are well made, but they were in the context of a Brash-led (and well right) party. He may well be governing more from the centre than his personal beliefs would dictate, but didn't Clark do the same from the left? Ultimately, don't most major party leaders lead more from the centre than they'd like to?

Yes, National played down policy and tried to sleep walk to victory. But the fact that 'sleep walk to victory' i so often used in political debate suggests that's hardly uncommon. A popular party will naturally look to minimise risks of losing that popularity, but promises were extracted by the media on topics such as asset sales which will make it hard for National to over-reach its mandate. And as you've pointed out, Key has clung more to the centre than he'd probably prefer and English is a committed incrementalist, so a lurch to the right seems unlikely.

ACT. Will Banks really run the party and make it socially conservative? The board has a lot of the say on such things, so I suspect those tensions will rumble on, rather than Banks being able to reform it in his image.

And on Peters and your claim of an "unethical media boycott", I don't buy it. Sure, lots of journos don't like Peters -- they've been personally attacked and had their integrity impugned by him for years, so that's hardly surprising. Lots of people in media and politics would have been happy for him to miss the cut (while others kinda like him) -- he's a polarising figure, so that's to be expected.

But whatever the moans, most put that aside in their reportage; at least, I don't see the evidence to suggest he got less coverage than deserved. There's a big difference between office bitching and actually denying someone news space.

Coverage is finite and as a party outside of parliament which has consistently polled less than 3%, its initial coverage didn't seem unduly harsh to me.

As for TVNZ, it included him in the minor parties debate (before the cuppa) even though he didn't quite reach the threshold established months before. So it actually went out of its way to be inclusive. We had him on the final Q+A before the election (much to the chagrin of the Greens, who thought his TV-time undeserved).

So I don't see any evidence of a boycott.

by Tim Watkin on November 30, 2011
Tim Watkin

Oh, and I hope you'll excuse me for being picky, but National in 1990 got 47.8% of the vote, marginally below the 47.9% it got this year.

Understand that you're just rounding up to 48%, but given I've been calling it the biggest percentage of any party since Norm Kirk in 1972 (48.4%), I thought I should clarify.

by Justin Maloney on November 30, 2011
Justin Maloney

As usual a good analysis Nicky and agree with most of what you say. However, a couple of minor points in addition to what Tim said.

I think its unfair to criticise Fairfax for the use of Farrar unless you also criticise them for the use of Pagini. They also made Farrar's associations with the right abundantly clear on their website (which may or may not change the view of whether he should be commenting or not). It could be argued having a left and right leaning blogger on your list, giving differing opinions, adds to the debate which I think is a good thing, to be fair truly impartial commentators are rare.

Also, although I know its been said by others, but the vote for change crowd should also take some credit for the return of NZF. Plastering him all over billboards around the country was never going to hurt his profile. Is it just me or did the upturn in the polls coincide with the roll out of their 'campaign'.

Finally, I think it might be paying too much credit to National party strategists to correllate low voter turn out with some grand right-wing plan. The reasons are no doubt complex and it is likely not in Nationals interests to encourage people to vote, but maybe this does not mean they had a plan to discouraged people.

by Graeme Edgeler on November 30, 2011
Graeme Edgeler

given I've been calling it the biggest percentage of any party since Norm Kirk in 1972 (48.4%), I thought I should clarify.

For now... still a few votes to count (and a whole bunch of others to recount).

by jack on November 30, 2011

I think TVNZ let Winston Peters debate because of the feedback they were getting was negative towards TVNZ in favour of Winston Peters.  I don't buy they were "nice" to him.  Winston Peters had been campaigning hard for about a year going to "town halls" up and down New Zealand.  He speaks  to the average person well and he was covering as much territory as possible before the elections.  He won the debate and teagate were a big help but the harrasement and scarmongering he received from Farrar and National hurt him. He would have got in on his own. But Nicky Haggard, I do agree with what you say about National.  I am one to watch what they do and so far, National has failed.  Their failings have been kept hush hush by the friendly news media.  I don't read the main news media anymore since the elections but have they mentioned Goldman Sachs is now involved with the asset sales??? Goldman Sachs????? one of the main contributors to the financial crises. Am I suspicious?? Wouldn't you be?

by Dr Jon Johansson on November 30, 2011
Dr Jon Johansson

A couple of random thoughts: 1990 - National 47.8%; 1987 (my analogy for this election); Labour - 48.0%; 1975 - National 47.6%; 1972 - Labour 48.4%; 1960 - (and in nice symmetry between Holyoake and his protege Mulddon) National 47.6%; 1957 - Labour 48.3%; 1951 - National 53.9%; 1949 - National 51.9%; 1946 - both Labour (51.3%) & National (48.4%). One has to accept I think that National's current party vote is the new benchmark for our post-MMP politics but I'm like Graeme, it's a few days early to locate this result in history and my guess is that National will likely fall behind Bolger's 1990 effort if specials conform to past behaviour.


Second random thought: I have a biology metaphor for National's position. The host cell has cannibalized all its available feeding space, so it's a bit rich to then bleat about how weird the position it now finds itself in, as a result of conscious decisions made of its own making and volition. The host has only one direction to move now, leftwards, but the cell is significantly more unstable than it was before the election.

by Raymond A Francis on November 30, 2011
Raymond A Francis

Some good points Nicky

But if the media were so anti Peters why did no one ask him about the money he did not pay back and for details of the charities he claims to have paid it too instead

Instead they hounded the Prime Minister on what he said in a semi private conversation while Winston was hinting at what he knew (leaked to him by whom...the media)

If it is that easy to get a 3-4 % jump why aren't all the pollies doing a Winston

by John Norman on November 30, 2011
John Norman

Interesting, Nicky, thanks.

Can you explain how National had gotten 2 extra seats as a result of NZFirst's 'wasted' votes. Elsewhere I have learned that these are simply wasted without consequences, but this appears to suggest otherwise. How does it work?

by Chris Morris on November 30, 2011
Chris Morris


You say " The win for MMP cements in place a proportional voting system and removes the threat of a return to the First Past the Post (FPP) system. This was by far the most important result on Saturday,"

My understanding is that the only votes counted on the referendum so far is the votes cast in the home electorates before election day, some 290k in all. If this is the case, then the results are only indicative and not a win - at least not yet.

If you can't get simple information like this right, how much credence is there in the rest of your article?

by Paul Comrie-Thomson on November 30, 2011
Paul Comrie-Thomson

@John - I believe that it's because it is assumed that 2 seats worth of those 'wasted' votes would have otherwise gone to parties other than National where they would have actually been effective. The fact that they didn't and instead went to NZ First who didn't reach the 5% threshold thus gives National two extra seats by default. For the same reason, had NZ First fallen just short again this time, this would have meant National could potentially have gained a majority of seats in Parliament, with approximately 48% of the Party Vote.

by Ian MacKay on November 30, 2011
Ian MacKay

Great article thanks Nicky. It seems that the Maori Party will face oblivion if they support National or face oblivion if they don't support National. It will be significant for National's survival over the next year let alone 3 years.

by Andrew R on November 30, 2011
Andrew R

I think it is wrong to look at the results in terms of % of those who voted.  Rather it should be as a percentage of those enrolled, as not voting is important information to record.

The figures are: National 2008 1,053,398 votes; 35.2% of enrolled voters

National 2011 957,769 votes on election night (plus whatever their share of 220,720 special votes are); 31.4% of enrolled voters.  (Incidently Labour got 31.4% of enrolled voters in 2002.)


by Alastair on November 30, 2011


Great piece and thanks to Tim and Jon above for clarifying precisely how historic the mandate is, i.e. not very.

Your analysis on the weakness of the National Majority I agree with however several of my colleagues have argued this point with me. The point to very thin workable MMP majorities in the past. An MOU of substance with the Green Party for example which may include some committee chairs could go a long way towards making house management easier.

It is also argued that a bare majority is enough to effect something like the asset sales. And that  the Maori Party look set to exclude support for that from whatever agreement they come up with - which is certainly what they said going into discussions on Monday.

And with 63 to 58 (if they get the Maori Party on procedural issues) they will have a workable majority.

If they do not get a solid deal with the Maori Party they will be in a very vulnerable position. They will need everybody to turn up to pass an urgency motion - select committe control will be problematic and by-elections will need to be avoided.

I wholeheartedly agree with your analysis of the gloss coming off of Key, his star being on the wane and his personal committment to hanging around - if he becomes unpopular - can be expected to evaporate.

However with regards to turnout I offer a different narrative.

Goff went for the jugular in the first debate he set the scene with his "liar" remark about GST in the first debate.

This was calculated to challenge Key's sense of self. He has for several months shown an inability to face up to being challenged in press conferences (particularly when the entire gallery turned on him over the Standard and Poors dissembling.

Key took the bait and in the second debate sought to put "sonny boy" in his place. However while Goff was certainly weak on the CGT numbers and looked bumbling - in biting back Key made himself look conceited, arrogant, petulant even.

None of this would have mattered if the Tea Party hadn't suddenly made the dullest campaign ever into a rip-snorter. I questioned several random people during the affair and what I found was that people who were supportive of National found the matter completely infuriating - they were infuriated simultaneously with the Media, Key and Goff, probably in that order. Goff was only on the list because he was also associated with criticising the golden boy key.

In the final week the "right track" "wrong track" poll by Roy Morgan fell a spectacular 10 points while Winston rose. In my mind what this shows is that the public were angered by events and by the campaign itself and that this was the reason the turnout was so low. Voters were pissed off. I think it is true that turnout would have been low without the Tea Party for the reasons you give in your column, but the reason it was low in the end were a little different. It will be hard to tell - but once Keith Ng maps the turnout figures we may get a better feel for this.

Finally like TIm I think the media boycott of Peters is largely one of Peters lines. When he relaunched the party everybody turned up - and while he didn't get much coverage neither did Colin Craig. It wasn't till the last two days that he polled over 4%.

That said a number of senior journalists do dislike him fairly intensely - partly for reasons of personal ego - partly because his eventually charm wears thin, he can't control his caucus and he has a tendency to play a bit fast and loose with the facts when it suits him.

But the counter factual of the golden boy treatment he receivd in the final week - post tea-party - was very interesting. The media were smarting, are smarting about the tea pot tapes - and Winston Peters volunteered to be the foil. If Key and Joyce wanted to run a population competition with the media - gloves off - he could hardly expect not to encounter push back. That push back was shown in part in the coverage Peters was given.

As for Goff his campaign was a bit like a Kamikazi pilot - after pushing Key's buttons and getting him riled the tea pot tapes was like the crash into the aircraft carrier.  He did the damage but could not pull out of the dive. As far as the voting public were concerned there shiny trustworthy honest John had been taken from them - and so they lashed out a bit at the person (and party) they held responsible Goff and the Labour Party. Meanwhile the Green Party who successfully stayed almost entirely out of all the shit pie throwing were rewarded for not giving anyone negative associations.

Anyway that is my 10 cents worth.


by Graeme Edgeler on November 30, 2011
Graeme Edgeler

Can you explain how National had gotten 2 extra seats as a result of NZFirst's 'wasted' votes. Elsewhere I have learned that these are simply wasted without consequences, but this appears to suggest otherwise. How does it work?

There are 120 seats to divvy up between the parties that cross the threshold. A 5.01% New Zealand First has enough votes for 6 MPs. A 4.99% New Zealand First also has enough votes, but doesn't get any. But there still have to be 120 MPs. Who gets the seats that New Zealand First had enough votes to claim (but couldn't if they fell below the threshold)? Well, National probably gets at least two, if not three.

by Tim Watkin on December 01, 2011
Tim Watkin

Graeme, "for now" is the only set of facts we can deal with. If the facts change, then the comparisons change.

Jack, you may not be buying, but I was in those discussions at TVNZ and I can assure you Peters' appearance on that debate had nothing to do with public feedback. The 3% threshold was set months in advance and there was no way anyone could have known then that he would get 2.9% that week; if he'd got 2% any negative public feedback wouldn't have made one iota of difference.

And fair point on Peters, Raymond. It's interesting that half the theories have it that the media ignores Peters out of some collective bias or picks on him, while the other half say the media is infatuated with him. And each side conveniently ignores either that he has a record of playing politics and, shall we say, not being entirely straight or that he's one of the most influential politicians of his generation.

by Richard Aston on December 01, 2011
Richard Aston

Personally I am quite happy with the election result (as it stands so far). We went from what looked like a one party absolute majority to a ... complex situation. My hope is that this complexity will force debate on policy and perhaps slow the ideologue machine right down.

Nicky thanks for the reframe on Peters - I don't trust him one bit but he may well make a useful "thorn in National's side" though I am not entirely convinced he particularly cares who side his thorn scratches, he doesn’t like the Greens much and seems antagonistic to Maori.

If National declines as you predict which party will pick up these votes next time? Labour is itself declining and is showing no signs of reinvigorating itself – I wonder if they may well end up as a minor part next time. Which begs the question where will those lapsed Nat central voters turn to ?

by on December 01, 2011

Excellent analysis of our local situation. I'm Dutch and my country has had MMP for over 360 years and I was one of those voting strategically for Winston Peters.

What is also interesting is how much of the international finance crisis will be connected to John Key's policies and if NZ's woefully uner informed population will wake up to this international finance cabal currently taking over much of Europe.

by jack on December 01, 2011

I voted for Winston strategically as well because  Key's deceptions.  It'll be very interesting to see Winston and Key debating in Parliament.  This is something I have been waiting for a long time. Also, I have grown to like Winston this last year or so.  I have watched him as the underdog working hard campaigning since middle of 2010 with no media coverage.  Like him or loath him, you have to respect him beating all odds. I think the media trivialize his strengths which is why they are "shocked" to see him back.

by John Norman on December 01, 2011
John Norman

Graeme @ 30 November 2011

Thanks for this, (also Paul for his try). Looks a case of a Party well-in increases the win.

Something about the way Nicky wrote this that had me thinking political power players could game the 5% threshold margin. With such an end in sight. Indeed stump a construct party or 'poodle' to same end.

Do I take it correctly that the workout you describe gains effect from Law? Or by convention, or by political expedience?

by on December 01, 2011

As soon as it looked like National may have the numbers to Govern alone, a lot of us ( from the left) jumped in to promote NZ First (Peters). Was quite amazed at how easy it was to get voters to agree. It's pretty much checkmate for National in 2014 and don't they know it! In saying that Labour & Greens have to use MMP properly as neither will have the numbers and only cut each others throats aka 'Auckland Central'. So put Shearer in the hot seat, form closer ties with the Greens, carve up Cabernet positions well in advance, and I'd map out some electorate seats to win ( coluding with Labour to use MMP properly) if I was in the Greens camp. Lastly the Labour list moderatoring committee, clean it out before you reinvigorate list, as soon as I saw the list last time I was out!

by Richard Mayson on December 02, 2011
Richard Mayson

Helen Clark postulated to a mutual acquaintance encounter in New York, that Key would get bored with the public demands of his Prime Ministerial office in his second term.

It is claimed, she further eleborated that once the novelty of the poltical game has lost it sheen, he would resort to form. Making money his way. This would require his reasonable notice of resignation before the current 2014 term expired.

As Nicky has lucidly pointed out in his article, Key has a facade and on several occasions, some Nicky mentioned and others, this facade dropped and the body language said it all. Not a happy chappie.

I guess Key's next call, if not already made, is to Textor Crosby for communications instructions on how to reinstate the joyful, smile and wave facade, to last at least 30 months.

by Ben Wilson on December 02, 2011
Ben Wilson

Very interesting, Nicky. I look forward to more of your insider discoveries. The Hollow Men formed my first impressions of Key, and I can't forget them. I've spent too long in the company of such people.

Your analysis of the prospects is on the money. Literally. iPredict thinks it's going that way too, and that's probably mostly Nat insiders doing all the trading.

by Tim on December 02, 2011

Agreed re: National and ACT waging a campaign against Peters in the 2008 election. Of course some of the protagonists have had a bit of an upset in their own lives since then. Admittedly I did feel sorry for one of them because a) they misread the risk of upsetting Peters and really copped it and b) at one time they did contribute a lot to NZ.

But that is politics: make the wrong turn in the bearpit and you get eaten. It was only recently that I discovered Peters was offered his diplomatic post to 'wander off quietly into the night', and as we now know, he did not do what was expected because he elected to refuse the offer with the intention of getting back into the ball-game.

by Tim on December 02, 2011

Forgot to mention that I believe National's and ACT's campaign against Peters was politics and not anti-Peters per se and that all parties engage in beating another down if they think it can improve their own position. It is a tough field to be in and they all know it.

by felix marwick on December 02, 2011
felix marwick

I have to disagree on the claim there was an unethical media boycott of Winston Peters over the election campaign.

My rule of thumb for  interviewing him was how did the issue relate to NZF as it's previous policies? If there was an issue on the table that related to matters NZF had previously had a hand in, or had developed (eg compulsory savings, ETS etc) then the party got coverage.  I can conclusively say there was never any decision on the part of my news room to deliberately exclude Mr Peters and his party.

Oh, and BTW, we did do stories about the $  Peters and NZF paid to charity. About 2 months before the election I wrote a piece about the Susan Couch Victims of Crime Charitable Trust and what its books showed had happened to the $78K it received in 2008. I also believe the NBR also  did a story slightly closer to the election.

Sometimes  we have to make hard and fast decisions about the level of coverage political parties outside of Parliament should get. On balance I think NZF was treated pretty fairly reagrding the exposure it got.

by Frank Macskasy on December 02, 2011
Frank Macskasy

Nicky Hager's piece sounds chillingly plausible. All the right elements were in place, and observations of recent events corroborate the insights he's offered.

It's fairly obvious to all but the most naive, that Jordan Williams' so-called "Vote for Change" was a National Party satrap.It's role-call of members were all conservatives and businessmen and women - people to whom MMP was anathema - whilst  FPP (and it's clone, SM) was their means of regaining control of the political system.

Luckily for us, Williams' campaign was probably the most amateurish and ineffective since the Year Dot. He was left whinging on one of the TV election panels that "the debate on MMP vs an alternative had not been had". Oh, yeah, right, Jordan - all your radio and public appearances were just phantom events, right?

If, as Nicky Hager sez, Jordan Williams was one of the plotters and instigators of the Brash coup - which in itself is a startling revelation (to me, anyway) - then the failure to destroy MMP is Williams' Strike Two. (Do the Nats allow for Strike 3?)

Tim: "Oh, and I hope you'll excuse me for being picky, but National in 1990 got 47.8% of the vote, marginally below the 47.9% it got this year.

Understand that you're just rounding up to 48%, but given I've been calling it the biggest percentage of any party since Norm Kirk in 1972 (48.4%), I thought I should clarify."

That may be true, Tim, but those elections were FPP, where voters made their decisions under a two-party system. Unless you lived in Bruce Beetham's Rangitikei (or Gary Knapp's East Coast Bays), you basically wasted your vote with any other Party. So voters were presented with a two-party paradigm and voted accordingly.

MMP allows voters to think beyond a duopolistic scenario and their voting pattern changes accordingly.

Justin Maloney:  "...I think it might be paying too much credit to National party strategists to correllate low voter turn out with some grand right-wing plan. "

You should read "Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult", by ex-Republican staffer, Mike Lofgren. (
It's not so much a "grand plan" - but a clever strategy.

Nicky Hager: "However, it feels that both National and Key passed the high point of their popularity during this election campaign. Barring major unforeseen events, they will now be on the way down. It is unlikely the news media will give them such an easy ride anymore..."

Indeed. I've written something similar on this very premise - Key's "honeymoon" with the media ended with the fake "Standard & Poors" email, and the Teapot Saga reinforced perceptions that Key had fallen from his pedestal. Plus, it's never a good idea to make an enemy of the press by siccing the state security apparatus (aka, the Police) onto them. Human nature being what it is, the media don't take too kindly to being threatened and intimidated.

If Key sticks it out, he'll be in for one helluva rough ride. And this time, National will not be re-elected - so even the rough ride will be over.


by Frank Macskasy on December 02, 2011
Frank Macskasy


Oh, forgot to add,

Tim, re; Winston Peters. Much as I dislike the guy, I think TVNZ did the right thing in including him in the minor parties Leaders Debate. Though NZ First did not reach the 5% party threshold to win seats in Parliament - his 4.07% vote still made him a worthy contender. Electoral rules aren't necessarily the same as media rules, and after all, NZF did win more votes than ACT in 2008.


by Michael Morris on December 03, 2011
Michael Morris

I have nothing to add to the topic, but as a new subscriber just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading the post and the comments.  All were well written, thoughtful and coherent, and, most importantly, managed to disagree with each other without even the hint of a personal attack.  I look forward to reading more, and making a contribution when I am ready.

by Judy on December 03, 2011

Hager: "For instance, senior journalists in TVNZ talked openly (inside the organisation) about their determination to give Peters no publicity before the election and thereby stop him winning his way back. Various other media organisations seemed to take the same line."

I trust Hager on this.

Whereas, Tim Watkin, since you produce the Q and A programme which in my opinion is a sop to National in that it uses panellists that are favouring National e.g. Michelle Boag, rabid National supporter and insider, and maybe a Green supporter which will critique both National and Labour equally (which is correct) but is not a rabid Labour supporter.  Get my drift, Tim?

This inequality also played out on Radio New Zealand with the equally rabid National/Act supporter Matthew Hooten against the ex-Alliance person, Laila Harre, who also critiqued both National and Labour, thereby once again creating an unequal bias in National's favour.

Perhaps you can tidy up that problem this year Mr Watkin...  I have watched the panellist setups on both Agenda and Q and A.  I think Agenda was slightly more objective, which certainly arouses my suspicions on media objectivity even further!

Alastair: "he (Peters) has a tendency to play a bit fast and loose with the facts when it suits him"

Better than being an outright liar, Alastair, like Key and English, as reported on Helen Clark's speech in 2000 by John Armstrong (Clark: "Next time you hear a Tory talk about personal income tax cuts: ask the question, how can our nation go ahead without the public resources to make huge investments in our future potential?  Tax cuts are a path to inequality and underdevelopment in today's circumstances.  They are the promises of vision-less and intellectually bankrupt people."

First Key and then English one week before the 2008 election altered the words to read:

'Next time you hear a Tory talk about personal income tax cuts: ask the question, how can our nation go ahead without the public resources to make huge investments in our future potential?  Tax cuts are a path to inequality and underdevelopment.  They are the promises of A vision-less and intellectually bankrupt people.'

Their spin doctors helped them to lie in 2008; they are lying now about their agenda for us on the extent of New Zealand asset sales, in my personal opinion.



by Tim Watkin on December 03, 2011
Tim Watkin

Michael, welcome on board. Thanks for the kind words.

Frank me ol' china, understand the electoral systems. I'm simply clarifying a statement of fact. As for the two-party duopoly, clearly the 10-25% of voters who gave their vote to the likes of SC, Values and the New Zealand Party under FPP missed your memo!

And I'm not sure what youre talking about re NZF not making 5%, but getting 4.07% etc. To clarify, TVNZ some months ago set a threshold for minor parties of either a seat in parliament or 3% in one of the two Colmar-Brunton polls immediately prior to the debate (and we used that same line for Q+A debates). NZF had been over 2% all year, but the week before the minor parties' debate hit 2.9%. TVNZ opted to include, despite the slight fail.

It's useful to remember such things the next time Peters moans about media bias.

by Tim Watkin on December 03, 2011
Tim Watkin

J... sigh. Where to start? I'm a working journalist, not anyone's sop. I was also involved in the sorts of discussions Nicky refers to. So with respect to Nicky, you can either trust his second-hand version or my first-hand version. As I tried to explain, we may both be right. Journalists may have made general anti-Peters comments that got passed onto Nicky, but that's not the same thing as actually boycotting him. And if you look at the actual coverage received – eg the debate, Q+A interview, 6pm stories – you'll see that Peters did get coverage. It's all on public record.

I'm not going to get into Agenda – a programme that hasn't existed for three years, or the entire Key PM-ship. And RNZ's policy is up to them, although I'd note that Laila Harre hasn't been on for years as well.

I'd simply ask why your concern for balance only extends as far as Labour. Do the Greens or Alliance not deserve a voice?

Beyond that you're simply factually wrong. I don't have my panel lists in front of me at home, but we've matched voices from all sorts of parties with all sorts of others. If you're worried about major parties only getting to debate people associated with minor parties, presumably you don't like it when we've had Mike Williams and Deborah Coddington on together? I'm sure we've had Labour loyalists such as John Pagani or Helen Kelly or Steve Maharey on with non-National folk – is that wrong?

And you'll be horrified by this week's programme, with both Kelly and John Tamihere on together. What a sop to National!

I'm not perfect and so am happy to be critiqued, but please get your facts straight before you insult me.

by Judy on December 04, 2011

Dear Tim 'sigh' Watkin,

The two major parties determine the outcome of a government and the essence of the type of governance, i.e. left centre or right centre if the vote is strong enough.  If people are continually favoured with one of those parties and not the other in panel discussions of course it affects the strength of the message to the viewer.  Why should Greens or any other small party panellist support a Labour or National party when they are there to verbally support their own party.

As for Paul Holmes, frontman for a political programme, but also the man with the column that all but said vote for John Key every week (or did I miss that one?).  Please don't tell me Holmes is unbiased, Mr Watkin or you will be insulting me.

I'm still not sure why I would be horrified by Helen Kelly and John Tamihere being on together when she is a representative for a Union and he was once a Labour mp until he personally attacked the whole Labour Party on (another) biased media outlet Investigate magazine, and continues to vilify them alongside Willy on t'radio.  I'd say you have two opposites - well done Tim (sigh) Watkin.

Actually, I'd like your opinion on a view I have of the so-called left and right sides.  I always think the left critique themselves as much as they critique the right.  The right is so sure of their 'right to rule' that they never critique themselves.  What do you think?

I shall watch with glee and give you feedback on your next year's Q and A lineup.

However, at least there is some political footage on the telly.  I thank ee for that.

As for the once respected practice of journalism when the opinion stayed with the Editor's opinion column and the facts really were facts and not a dumbed down faction for the masses who buy it; I have been very disappointed, Tim, in the art of journalism ever since I took an interest in the media treatment of the first elected woman prime minister and the intervening years since.

The profit margin rules journalism now, Tim, although I will continue to watch with interest to see whether the integrity you say you have put into your journalism will filter down to the people I have far less faith in, when keeping New Zealanders fully informed about what our politicians are 'up to' and that watching brief should also include the current prime minister Mr Key.




by Tim Watkin on December 05, 2011
Tim Watkin

So J, are you accepting that you were wrong about the National sop line? And that there are examples of Labour people with minor party voices (ie the opposite of what you found so biased)? And that there is all sorts of balance on our panels?

I sigh when people ignore the evidence and just assume partisan positions (and lazily insult people in the process), so it'll be interesting if you have anything other than 'attack mode'. And it'll be much more interesting if you have an open mind.

I'm hardly encouraged by your view on JT. I'm assuming you don't like easy labels and pigeon-holing, so why jump right into Tamihere? Because he's on the right of Labour, that doesn't make him Labour enough for you? Or do you just assume you know everything about him because of one [admittedly revealing] interview? (BTW, what did he say to attack 'the whole party'?)

Do you know what Waipareira does? Did you listen to him yesterday? He's undoubtedly on the right of the party in terms of privatisation and the like, sure, but could hardly be anything other than Labour. If you think he's opposite to Kelly, let me introduce you to Stephen Franks some time!

What I'm getting at J is that you arrive with pre-conceived opinions, so I suspect whatever I say you'll just dismiss as some corporate media sell-out. But here goes...

Left and right is a very blunt, imperfect term. And it's only one part of balance. With Q+A's format you have two people to offer balance. But you have to think about balancing by experience, gender, ethnicity, even age.(And no Paul's not unbiased – but he's smart and a superb broadcaster).

The left are more self-critical? Nope. You just can't generalise like that. The left can be just as rabid. Indeed, the argument's usualy made that there's nothing more bitter and blind than a left-wing feud, but I'm not sure if that's a generalisation that works either.

I'd argue such a view hints at exactly why left-wing governments haven't had more success in NZ – that sense of intellectual superiority. 'It's only the left who can step back and critique themselves, only the left who have that proper academic detachment, etc'. (I'm not having a go at you, but pointing to a wider observation). That comes across as cocky and pisses people off no end. But that's by-and-by.

As for journalism, it's not in good health. We don't have proper public broadcasting in NZ any more, newsrooms are younger and smaller than they've been for a long time, and budgets are very tight.

But I fear you're nostalgic for an era that never was – or maybe for just a decade or two in just a few places. If you've only looked at journalism in the past 12 years, try looking further back. Newspapers were born as opinion sheets. Look at the Hearst empire and yellow journalism. Look at the rise of the UK red-top. And don't forget that these expressions of journalism have all worked because people bought them.

Watergate (sadly) was the exception, not the rule. And facts are never just facts, but part of a package in which they're presented. (I don't use that as an excuse to not to try to be detached, but it is what it is).

And Key has been investigated and watched as much as any PM.

by Nicky Hager on December 05, 2011
Nicky Hager

Thanks to all for your discussion, additions etc. My piece isn't the last word on the issues. Graeme: thanks for explaining the effect of wasted votes on successful parties. Felix: I agree, I wasn't talking about Newstalk ZB. Tim: I certainly wasn't equating you and TVNZ! I wouldn't have written about the anti-Peters campaign without good sources. I think various journalists unethically participated in the 2008 campaign which led to them not wanting him to bob up again in 2011. Chris: I was making a judgement that MMP has won; I know the results aren't out yet.

by Judy on December 05, 2011

Tim, I think Nicky is calling 'time'.  I'm just pleased to have a reply from a journalist of a reputable blog who cared enough to give me another viewpoint.  Whether I agree or not...

by Tim Watkin on December 05, 2011
Tim Watkin

Nicky, I didn't take it personally and I'm sure you wouldn't have written it without some specific information. I simply point out that I work closely with the people who make the decisions on politics at TVNZ and who determine coverage... and I haven't heard those conversations. What I hear a lot are people sighing and moaning about Peters, his slippery style (both clever and cocky), his record, and the way he treats people. But that's a long way from denying him coverage.

I'm just wondering whether it was more the former that you heard, rather than the latter.

Because, if you look at the actual campaign coverage, Peters got a fair whack of time for a party that was polling below 3% for almost all of the past three years.

Heck, it was the Greens who were furious to be left off the final Q+A before the election when he had Peters on instead. If anyone has a right to be miffed, it's Peter Dunne (who while insignificant on the party vote, is a crucial vote in the government) and most of all Colin Craig, who got almost 3% with hardly a word spoken by any media.

by Tim Watkin on December 05, 2011
Tim Watkin

J, absolutely. Sorry if I was a bit snippy. I've had a lot of similar complaints this year (sometimes a National sop, sometimes a raging lefty, sometimes anti-Winston or anti-Green, or whatever), almost all from people who don't know me, the people I work with, the business, and the imperfect decisions anyone makes in their workplace week-in, week-out (it's interesting that you call journalism "an art"; sometimes it is that).

It's been a long year, and I think I need to chill and play with my boy more often!

by Michael on December 10, 2011

Nicky, having little idea how the lobbying situation in NZ compares with the USA, can you enlighten me. My deeper concern is based on James Hansen's book whih tells of the deep investment that the oil/coal industry makes in lobbying and political donations. I am new to this channel of communication but appreciated your obs on the national Party position after 26th Nov. It is now 10th Dec. and the new reduced majority will amplify the instability surely?


by Nicky Hager on December 20, 2011
Nicky Hager

Gidday Michael. Industry lobbying (and associated PR activities) is a very large part of New Zealand poltiics but very poorly covered in the news. In my view, it would be just as important for news organisations to have specialist lobbying and PR reporters as parliamentary reporters. Obviously this does not happen now. The influence of industry lobbies is not as dominant in New Zealand politics as in the US, but many of the same companies, tactics and problems are seen here. There are many important stories needing to be investigated and analysed.

On National, it ended up with the one-seat coalition majority, which means it can win votes but governing is tricky. I predict that community organisations, opposition political parties and others who bother to speak up and push for what they believe in will have much more effect on policy than they did in the previous three years. There will be a lot more democracy going on. There will also, of course, be the industry lobbies you talked about, but they are always there. This is a political environment that favours democratic politics (meaning politics where ideas that are openly debated and the strength of numbers of citizens can make a difference).

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