Barring highly-unlikely results from the special votes, New Zealand has re-elected a right-of-centre government. Labour and the Greens are kept from the Treasury benches at what would have to be one of the worst possible times to have them there.
So much for the good news.
The bad news starts with the fact that, to all intents and purposes, New Zealand is now bereft of a classically liberal party. ACT survived the election in the same way that Christopher Reeves survived his riding accident. But there’ll not be anything inspiring or ennobling about the crippled half life of the ACT party.
With just one more seat, Don Brash would have made it into Parliament and then resigned, vacating his seat for Catherine Isaac who could have become leader. Instead, the arch-conservative John Banks will be leader and sole MP.
Catherine Isaac could have revitalised ACT in a way that Don Brash probably never really stood any chance of doing, and John Banks will have no interest in doing. Banks’ response to Brash’s comments on marijuana law reform made it clear that he simply doesn’t agree with the party’s stated principle that “individuals are the rightful owners of their own lives” (although nor did the party executive). Unless he decides to borrow some of Rodney Hide’s suits, there’ll be no telling Banks from a deep-blue Nat MP.
Classical liberals in National, ACT and Libertarianz will need to regroup and think about how to capture the public’s imagination. I cannot believe that 10 times as many New Zealanders seriously support the massive increase in state control advocated by the Greens as support ACT’s small government platform. The Greens did as well as they did because they were able to exploit warm fuzzy feelings associated with “equality, rivers and kids”. ACT were destroyed at least in part because no-one knew if their vote would be wasted on ACT or not.
Somehow, liberals need to get people to engage at an emotional level with individual freedom, personal responsibility and economic growth. The notion that income inequality is a social evil needs to be seriously challenged, without recourse to graphs and charts. The politics of envy needs to be confronted by the politics of aspiration.
A new vehicle will need to be created to carry that message to Parliament. I seriously doubt that the ACT party has any ongoing value in that regard. This time around, classical liberals should present themselves as being willing to work with Labour on socially liberal issues, or with National on economically liberal ones. This ought to win them more votes, and, more importantly, give them more influence on whichever of the major parties they work with.
Winston Peters’ return to Parliament is certainly no cause for celebration. Peters’ utter cynicism has a corrupting effect on New Zealand politics. His political resurrection is a reward for his total disregard for the truth and for his unfailing eye for a political opportunity. 2014 is a long way off yet, but Peters looks well positioned to reprise his role as kingmaker. John Key is right to see that as a destabilising influence.
There are at least two countervailing forces that could yet prevent this, however. The first is Peters himself. Three years could be enough time to remind voters why they got rid of him. The second is that 2014 is likely to be a closer fight between Labour and National. Labour voters who voted tactically to get Peters over the line this time may well not do so next time.
On the other hand, it is likely that the threshold required to get MPs in on the list without an electorate seat is likely to be lowered when MMP is reviewed. This will work in Peters’ favour, as will the fact that he’s not in government.
A lower threshold would also make it more likely that new minor parties will emerge as potential coalition partners for National. I would not be surprised to see Colin Craig’s Conservative Party make it in next time if the threshold is, say, 3%.
Hopefully a lower threshold will also allow for a new liberal party to rise from the ashes of ACT’s demise.