Let me count the ways; three potential governments in 2017

Come September 24, there are really only three likely scenarios as to who could form a government, and odds-on Winston Peters will face two difficult choices

A month ago I wrote that I would be looking at the possible perumtations of likely coalitions that may appear after this year's election. Although the right direction/wrong direction poll clearly favours the incumbent government, I thought it best to wait for the first opinion polls to see how the Bill English premiership has taken with the New Zealand public.

Sunday's TV One poll indicated a softening of National's support by four percent, which was, roughly, redistributed with two percent going to Labour and one percent each going to New Zealand First and ACT. On this basis New Zealand First would hold the balance of power. Labour gets to a critical threshold of 30%.

So what does this portend?

Prior to the poll, I had been telling work colleagues that there were three possible scenarios. The first, essentially the status quo, is with National holding a slim majority with its existing coalition parties. The second, with New Zealand First (actually Winston Peters) holding the balance of power. The third, much less likely than the first two, National getting more than 48% and being able to form a majority government, though in practice they would still retain the existing coalition. The poll has confirmed this is highly unlikely.

The Colmar Brunton poll confirms that the most likely election outcome will be New Zealand First holding the balance of power. In fact, this was almost the result in 2014. If National had got just one seat less, they would have needed New Zealand First's support to remain in power.

But last night's poll paints a more dramatic picture. It will require a lot more than one vote from New Zealand First for National to remain in power. In 2014, National benefitted from the failure of the Conservatives to the extent of two extra MPs, being the allocation to National of nearly half the “wasted” Conservative vote total of 3.97%. This year the wasted vote is almost certainly going to be a lot less than in 2014.

Given that polls consistently under measure the actual support for New Zealand First, it would not be surprising if New Zealand First gets at least 15%.

Winston has two basic choices. There surely can be no doubt that this decision will primarily rest with the leader.

Winston either allows a National-led coalition to govern, almost certainly with New Zealand First being a substantial part of the coalition, perhaps in fact as much as 30%. That is a lot of policies and a lot of ministries.

Alternatively Winston allows a Labour-led coalition to take power. The Green parliamentary vote will be essential for such a coalition to govern, but it is unlikely that Winston would allow very many Green policies. Too many of his supporters come from rural New Zealand, dependent on farming, fishing and forestry and all their supporting industries for their jobs to be put at risk by the hard core of Green policy. The Greens will have to work out which of their policies are doable in such a circumstance. Maybe we will all be incentivized to buy electric cars.

Which option will Winston choose?

The political gossip says Winston wants to be Prime Minister. That is likely to be easier under a Labour-led coalition, even though Andrew Little has ruled it out.  If New Zealand First is at 15% and Labour is at 30%, it would be a proportional result for Winston to have the premiership for one third of the time, most likely the first year. Such a calculation is more difficult with National, and Bill English too has ruled it out. But it may all depend on the actual voting percentage gained by the parties.

There is no doubt a National/New Zealand First coalition makes for a simple package, at least on the face of it. The suspicion, actually downright distrust, that was all too evident in the 1996 coalition should not be present. Both leaders and a number of other senor MPs have direct experience of those times and would not wish to repeat them. They will have learnt from the last twenty years how successful coalitions operate. So they know where the likely areas of co-operation exist, and also have some sense of which portfolios are tradable. While in such a coalition it is likely that Winston could only aspire to be Deputy Prime Minister, he can present the prospect of a solid stable government to the New Zealand public. In these uncertain times, that will have appeal. Winston will also have a unique insight into the pulse of populism as currently being practiced in the United States.

The Labour/Green option is undoubtedly more challenging. There is a very big gulf between New Zealand First’s views on the New Zealand economy and society and the Green vision. One represents New Zealand as it was, the other a utopian view of how it should be. In such a coalition one of these views is likely to lose out. Most likely it would be the Green vision. Yet the Greens have nowhere else to go other than to support Labour. It would surely be unthinkable that the Greens would allow National to form a minority government by abstaining on confidence votes. 

A Labor/New Zealand First/Green government has all the hallmarks of being a difficult government. Policy debates would be fierce and protracted. The public could quickly tire of such fractiousness.

No doubt all this will feature more strongly in voters minds as we get closer to the election.  While Sunday’s poll may be a pointer to the outcome of the election, there is sufficient fluidity that it is still not certain that New Zealand First will actually hold the balance of power.