Just over three years ago, on February 2 to be precise, John Key announced that the date of the 2011 election would be November 26, 2011. At the time he said:
“I believe it is in the country’s best interests to know the date of the General Election early in election year … [i]t creates certainty for New Zealanders and allows people to plan accordingly.”
Giving such extended notice was praised by independent commentators such as David Farrar as being principled. Instead of preserving the ability to time the election to give National the biggest strategic advantage Key gave up that advantage. This was in keeping with his carefully constructed persona where he has tried to suggest that he is above playing political games.
At the same time he ruled out Winston Peters being part of his Government. In very clear terms he said the following:
“I don’t see a place for a Winston Peters-led New Zealand First in a government that I lead … [h]istorically, he has always been sacked by prime ministers. It’s a very different style to mine and it’s rearward-looking.
What a difference three years makes. We now have an early election based on political advantage and Key is disparaging of NZ First but is refusing to rule out going into coalition with Peters.
The early election date decision is cynical in the extreme, and is based on political rather than constitutional considerations. The chance for Key to attend the G20 gathering in November as an observer is no justification for mucking around with constitutional norms. Let’s be clear, the only reason for the earlier date is the hope that National can maintain current polling levels and the fear that over time its support will ebb.
Key could not go any earlier as there is no justification. The experience of 2002 where Labour went early and lost significant support during the campaign is something Key would have been conscious of. A September election is as early as he could go without facing significant adverse electoral effect.
Key has attacked Peters saying that he should announce now who NZ First will go into coalition with. Peters has responded by stating “[h]e’s never talked to me on the matter and whatever his planning skills are, mind-reading is not one of them.”
The attack on Peters is at one level understandable. MMP elections often see votes swirl amongst smaller parties as people make decisions on what mix of parties they want to see in Government. If NZ First was seen as a potential coalition partner then soft National votes would flow Peters way. Key cannot rule Peters out for pragmatic rather than principled reasons. But he cannot get too close either.
This election is up to grabs. It is going to be an interesting six months.