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John Key's Nationals not the only winners in New Zealand elections

By Jo Coghlan - posted Monday, 28 November 2011

New Zealand voters returned the National Party of John Key to government with 48 per cent of the vote in Saturday's election. This is the highest vote for the National Party in 60 years. The Labour Party, led by Phil Goff, secured only 34 seats in the 121-seat parliament. Polling for Labour early in the campaign reached 34 per cent before settling at around 29 per cent. As the results came in, NZ Labour secured 27 per cent of the national vote. This is Labour's worst election result since 1928. Goff is expected to resign the leadership that he inherited from Helen Clark when Labour was defeated in 2008, after nine years in power. Not unlike what happened to the Australian Labor Party at the 2010 election, NZ Labour had its "nose bloodied" in seats once considered safe. Former Labour Party President Mike Williams said "It's an unmitigated disaster." New Zealand commentator John Armstrong says of the result, "The centre-left has been handed an old-fashioned hiding, one that may take more than one election from which to recover."

Securing 60 seats in the 121 seat parliament, Key fell one seat short of forming government in his own right and will rely on members from at least minor parties to govern, likely to be ACT and United Future, who each hold one seat. As the only ACT representative in the New Zealand parliament and with a Party vote of only 1.1 per cent, ACT leader Don Brash has already resigned. Failing to secure five per cent of the Party vote required under the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system, means that there will be only one ACT representative and the Party will struggle to be meaningful in national politics. United Future leader Peter Dunne is in the same situation. His party won less than one per cent of the party vote and he'll be its sole MP after holding the seat of Ohariu.

The Maori Party, which supported the Key Government in its first term is in line to secure three seats and as coalition partners could give Key a stronger buffer should he again secure its support. Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia said she was not prepared to show her support for the National Party just yet. The New Zealand Greens doubled their vote and secured 13 seats (previously holding nine seats). Greens leader Russell Norman has indicated he will consider negotiating with Key's National Party to form government. Keeping his options open, Key has said he would "sit down and have a talk" with the Green Party.


Of some interest to political watchers was the election of ACT candidate John Banks in the Auckland suburban seat of Epson. Banks was the candidate at the centre of the scandal regarding media reporting and was the candidate Key's supported over his own National Party candidate. It was the media reporting of Key's conversation with Banks that gave media space to Winston Peters who used the event to give his campaign political oxygen. Joe Atkinson, a senior lecturer in Political Studies at the University of Auckland, said the tea-tape episode was "wonderful fodder" for Peters. "It was something that drew attention to John Key's failings, I think, and lack of openness. This is food for a populist conspiracy theorist like Winston."

Winston Peters and his New Zealand First Party, polling at one per cent at the start of the election, secured the 6.8 per cent of votes and have secured eight seats in the national parliament. This result proved the most remarkable of the election campaign. Peters has said he won't form a Coalition government with Key but in the past has joined both the National Party and the Labour Party in forming government.

New Zealanders also voted in a referendum to keep or replace their electoral system, the MMP voting system. With early votes counted, MMP will likely be retained. 'Vote for Change' spokesman Jordan Williams has said he was "disappointed there was no intelligent debate" on the issue from candidates and party leaders. Sandra Grey spokesperson for the campaign to keep MMP argued there was debate but there "wasn't a mood for change." Voter turnout was low at the election, with only 68 per cent of New Zealanders voting, representing 100, 000 less than voted at the 2008 election.

Key's election campaign of selling billions of dollars of government assets to reduce New Zealand debt and promises to pay down foreign debt within three years, resonated with voters. The New Zealand economy has grown by only 1.5 per cent in 2011 and the deficit was sitting at $NZ18.4 billion. This led to New Zealand sovereign ratings downgrades in September. As The Washington Post reported the situation in Europe has shown voters how "debt can quickly become toxic." Key now has a mandate for asset sales as well as promised welfare reform.

The trouncing is a huge personal triumph for Key. His victory, in terms of share of the vote, betters National's landslide wins of 1990 and 1975. The election is also a triumph for Winston Peters, who was written off at the start of the campaign. Goff was considered to have done a reasonably good job during the election campaign however maybe not enough to keep the leadership. Like the Australian Labor Party, it may be a case of who else could lead New Zealand Labour out of the political wilderness?

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About the Author

Jo Coghlan is a lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University.

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