Winston in box seat as 'youthquake' fails to fire

3:17 pm on 24 September 2017

By David Slack

Analysis - If you want to have a good election night, book a fancy room at Sky City. Four times now, it's worked for the National Party.

Bill English

Bill English Photo: AFP

They gather there to celebrate, and four times now they have had good news. At Sky City the wealth glistens in the grand rooms above ground.

Down below, on the gaming machine floor, sit the joyless, and desperate, pumping the slot machines, hoping that life will get better on the turn of a button.

Honest Bill English arrived looking chuffed, buoyed by an election night vote share of 46 percent.

He wasted no time in giving the least inspiring speech of the night, much in the style of a rugby club captain: full credit to Jacinda, she played a good game etc, then on to interpret the results in terms most flattering to the home side.

He exulted in a share 10 percent larger than his nearest rival. He made it clear, in first past the post terms, that his was the team that had its hands on the trophy this season.

Perhaps he reached farthest when he claimed rousing endorsement for the great work the government had done; endorsement given by less than half the country.

But no one was daring to claim victory: not Bill English, not James Shaw, not Jacinda Ardern. No one dared claim it because no one's going anywhere without Winston.

By the end of the campaign, no one was disputing the country has a two-track economy: splendid for some, wretched for many. After nine years of rejecting any suggestion of poverty, the government was belatedly acknowledging the extent of the problem. Perhaps this means better days for our poorest are here at last.

And perhaps the Prime Minister was correct to promise that incomes will lift, house prices will plateau and somehow housing affordability will be restored somewhere around the point the millennials reach middle age.

But what if the economists are right? What if the economy is about to do something a lot less terrific, as immigration-fuelled growth withers away, and the housing market casino stops paying out, and people start to realise they're on a hamster wheel paying a $600,000 mortgage with no tax-free gain in sight, and meanwhile the poorest of us struggle on and on at $16 an hour?

What does Winston want to do? Does he want to join with National just in time to preside over a downturn? Might they be compelled to work to a new agenda set by a resurgent left, given the promises they made in the last couple of months?

So many questions...

Was the youthquake real, or not?

Special votes may yet show something big, but the arithmetic says at most the parties can move only a few percentage points. Some young people, perhaps many, may feel a new voice speaks for them, but it's also possible some young people weren't looking for a voice so much as a fresh celebrity.

Have we seen the arrival of post-truth politics?

Without question. Bill English and Steven Joyce happily repeated baseless assertions long after they had been disproved because they had discovered what politicians across the world have been discovering: if people want to it to be true and you act as though it is, that's all they need from you, even if it's bullshit.

Who won?

At this point: only Winston Peters, and possibly MMP. We could yet see an arrangement between three parties to form a government that excludes the party with the single biggest share. This has been possible, and contemplated, from the outset, but we have clung to a first past the post mentality for the longest time.

That has arguably impeded us from discovering whether it might be possible to yield something different and better by drawing together disparate parties and policies.

Perhaps a deal brokered between Jacinda Ardern and James Shaw and wily old operator Winston might produce something smart, and better, and new.

Or perhaps once again we will witness the political truth that you only ever get to last one term if you do a deal with Winston.

David Slack is an author, columnist and speechwriter. He was speechwriter for prime ministers Geoffrey Palmer and Jim Bolger.

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