Herald on Sunday calls for a clear mandate

The Herald on Sunday editorial calls for a clear mandate for a new Government, so they can cope with what might be the worst economic crisis in 70 years.

To have a real shot at cobbling together a majority, Labour would need the support of NZ First, an option unlikely to be available since the polls strongly point to extinction both of the party and its turbulent leader, Winston Peters. He cannot be ruled out entirely; history shows that if anyone can rise from a political deathbed he can. But if that happens, Helen Clark will have to ask herself whether she can – or should – work with him again.

Asked and answered. Yes, yes, and yes. She almost soudns enthusiastic about doing so.

For no matter how much Peters harrumphs and blusters, the donations fiasco has revealed him to be both a hypocrite and a man whose doubletalk has been hard to distinguish from calculated deceit. Clark would need to ask herself whether she should rely, like every administration in the MMP era, on such a perverse dissembler to keep her on the ninth floor of the Beehive. She may believe that she has a political mission to fulfil and that it is fair to resort to any expedient within the rules that allows her to do that. But a real leader knows when the prize is not worth the price.

A perverse dissembler. Now that’s a phrase I like.

It is almost sad to see Clark cling so tightly to Winston, even after the latest revelations.

In the end, Clark may not face that choice, since Peters will probably be consigned to the oblivion he so richly deserves. But she also faces the question of whether a minority Government she leads would have a legitimate claim to power. If Labour were to win significantly fewer party votes than National and yet assemble a ramshackle coalition with the Greens, the Maori Party and the Progressives, Clark could end up with a constitutional hold on power to which it had no moral entitlement. A Government so formed would risk being seen as cynically corrupting the intentions of MMP, which could lead to a regrettable backlash against proportional representation. And a Government whose very existence runs counter to the plainly expressed will of the people is not likely to go down very well in the country that invented the concept of the fair go.

Now there is no doubt that Labour has the legal and constitutional right to form a Government even if it gets less votes than National. I have never argued otherwise. But voter expectations of parties is another matter.

For example in Canada there is a strong convention that the largest party gets the chance to form a Government. This is, like in NZ, not a legal or constitutional requirement – it is a cultural or political expectation. You actually have the main opposition party (the Liberals) voting in favour of supply, to allow the Government to continue. They know they would be punlished by the electorate for causing the Government to dissolve, or not allowing it to form.

So while there is no question about the legal and constitutional position, there are cultural and political issues about how NZ would react to a party that came second, forming the Government. To my mind it depends on the exact situation.

If National beat Labour by only 2%, and Labour and Greens formed a majority Government I don’t think anyone would blink much.

If National beat Labour by say 14%, and Labour, Greens, NZ First and Maori Party and Progressive all combined to form a Government, then I think there would be some significant disgruntlement, regardless of the fact there is no legal barrier at all.

If National actually got over 50% of the vote, and didn’t get to form a Government due to overhang there would be very significant backlash I would say. And if the overhang was as a result of a deliberate strategy, then I would say things could get very messy.

The legal position is quite clear – any MP can be made Prime Minister and lead a Government so long as they can win confidence and supply in the House. But the political and cultural acceptability of those arrangements is not the same thing and will depend (if the biggest party does not form a Government) on how big the gap was.

And so, with a week to go, the polls suggest there is a mood for change. But the incoming Government needs to have a clear and unequivocal mandate. The crisis enveloping global financial systems will call for strong leadership from decision-makers untrammelled by the need to pander to the competing desires of coalition partners. The worst thing that voters could do on Saturday is to try to second-guess the main party leaders with so-called strategic voting.

We need a clear result to strengthen the hand on the tiller in the stormy seas ahead.

A clear result would be great. And it is worth remembering that National has said it will try and strike deals with ACT, United Future and the Maori Party even if it can govern without any or all of them. So you would have a Government able to govern with strong leadership when necessary, but one that voluntarily chooses to bring as many other parties as possible into Government – not to give them a veto and rule by committee, but to recognise talent and good ideas across the board.

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