Waking up on Sunday morning was different to most post-election days after a change in government. Usually the euphoria of the winners is greater and the depths of despair of the losers is deeper. Not so this time when an eerie feeling of sameness seems to hang in the air.
In part this is because while National and Act will form a government their win has not been the landslide it would have been under first past the post. In fact had New Zealand first gained just an extra 0.7% of the party vote then the Maori Party would be the kingmakers and we would probably be looking at a coalition government run again by Helen Clark.
The more important reason for the ho-hum post election mood is that there are no longer the sharp differences in policy which have often characterised Labour/ National politics. Labour has moved so far to the right it has on many issues passed John Key while he has been moving National’s policies closer to the centre.
John Key can run a right-wing government comfortably just by following Labour’s key economic policies.
In post election interviews Key has restated for the umpteenth time he wants to form a compassionate, inclusive government. He says he has rejected hard-right politics and there is no place in his cabinet for Labour’s hard-right Finance Minister from the 1980s, Roger Douglas.
John Key has reinforced this message with his intention to develop a relationship with the Maori Party as part of his government in some way or other.
But is this more centrist position credible? The answer is almost certainly no. John Key will be under heavy pressure to adopt more hard-right policies.
Consider the makeup of his cabinet. National has been careful to keep its front bench off the TV screens during the election campaign for good reason. Figures like Maurice Williamson, Lockwood Smith, Murray McCully, Tony Ryall and Nick Smith and are all associated with the darker days of the 1990s. They grew up in politics selling state assets, cutting benefits, slashing government spending, increasing student fees, contracting out government services and rewarding the rich.
Have any of these leopards changes their spots? Not as far as Lockwood Smith is concerned. He’s told us they have simply swallowed some dead fish to get elected. Also in cabinet will be Rodney Hide whose behaviour post-election has been typically aggressive. He is confident not just because he brings five MPs to support National but because he knows he will have a lot of John Key’s cabinet backing him up. There are plenty of National MPs looking for a decent feed after a diet of dead fish. Hide will have plenty of support as the pugnacious tail determined to wag the National dog.
In his cabinet John Key could well be the sole moderate voice.
Also to be factored in is the approaching economic storm which has only yet been glimpsed in the distance. The economic forecasts for the incoming government are likely to be far worse than we have seen predicted so far.
In times of turmoil such as this politicians seize opportunities to push hard line policies.
The political right has well-rehearsed and practised approach. Firstly keep on with tax cuts and even extend them while maintaining government expenditure in the short term. When government income drops, borrow and then when the spending becomes unsustainable deep cuts in big spending areas such as health, education and social welfare become inevitable. In the last couple of weeks in Ireland, once a poster-child for the Business Roundtable and now an economic mess, there have been large marches by pensioners and students protesting against government moves to cut spending and reduce standards of living.
Nothing is surer than most in National will try to push the same kind of medicine onto working New Zealanders while insulating bankers and the wealthy from the effects of their stupidity and greed.
In this context National’s olive branch to the Maori party is smart politics. John Key knows economic catastrophe is around the corner and having the Maori Party on board will help provide political cover for very unpopular policies. We all know that those who suffer the economic crisis will be working New Zealanders and their families and disproportionately they will be Maori.
There is no need to doubt John Key’s honesty in trying to put together an inclusive government but this political novice will likely be the most centrist person in his cabinet and when the economic crisis bites hard he will be the most isolated.
The real question is the extent to which he will remain more than a figurehead.