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Chris Ford: 2013 - What the political year has in store for us!

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

 Happy New Year to all readers! What will 2013 be like politically?

In New Zealand, I predict the year is going to be pretty hard for National. It's support is still holding steady in the polls but, as recent polls have also indicated, it may have no allies in 2014. This is the case as Act is all but dead and buried, the Conservatives have (so far) failed to fire in the polls, United Future's Peter Dunne is likely to remain his party's only MP and the Maori Party could only return a single MP (if that) after the retirment of Tariana Turia.

And the political mess that ended 2012 looks set to continue into 2013.  One of these messes, Kim Dotcom continues to lurk as an ongoing threat to the Government merely by his continuing presence here. Last year Dotcom's presence spawned a GCSB spying fiasco, an electoral donations scandal involving John Banks and let's not forget red faces all round with the Police's over-the-top execution of the initial raid on his mansion. Dotcom's extradition proceedings look set to drag on into this year with the Government quietly hoping that the Americans will win their case against him in order to get him out of Aotearoa. 

Even if Dotcom gets whisked off to an American jail in 2013, the Government still has a multitude of other issues to contend with. These will have an deeper impact on voters than the various Dotcom shenanigans. 

These include education issues like the ongoing Novopay saga. This issue isn't going to go away until the Government and its Ministry of Education cancel the Novopay contract and go with a more proven payroll provider. Also, besieged Education Minister Hekia Parata (who will likely lose her portfolio in the upcoming reshuffle) still faces numerous challenges to her unjust decision to restructure Christchurch schools in the way she's proposing. While no Cantabrian stands opposed to change per se, the way that the Government is imposing its will on the Christchurch education community has been viewed as another example of its top-down approach to rebuilding issues. Even Christchurch teachers have become more militant in their determination to stage a one-day illegal strike to protest the Government's announcement of its final proposals on February 19. Usually teacher strikes are unpopular with both parents and the public alike but it seems there could be widespread public support for this planned action.

And then there's ongoing economic uncertainty. Before Christmas, Statistics New Zealand's Household Labour Force Survey revealed that 7.3 percent of working age New Zealanders were unemployed. This marked the highest unemployment figures since 1999. On top of this, statistics show that nearly 54,000 New Zealanders joined the immigration queue to Australia in the past year alone. I don't think this emigration number is going to let up given that I know of some people personally who are planning to make the big move this year. National will undoubtedly retort that major economic indicators are beginning to show some optimism and that this will eventually flow into improved employment figures. However, these factors could be counterbalanced by the uncertain global economic outlook influenced as it has been by the Eurozone crisis and the U.S. putting off a decision about its fiscal issues until late February/early March. Ongoing economic turmoil overseas could also see further quantitative easing measures introduced in the U.S. and Japan which could send the Kiwi dollar further skywards. That's why I believe that the high Kiwi dollar could (along with public sector cuts) act as a drag on economic activity and employment, providing further political problems for National. It could also see Finance Minister Bill English having to scrap his 2014/15 budget surplus target in the same way that his Australian and British counterparts have recently done with theirs.

The asset sales programme will prove another stumbling block for National this year. Meridian Energy and Genesis Energy look likely to be the first partially-privatised entities on the block this year unless the Maori Council succeeds in their brave move to get the sale stalled by the Supreme Court. Voters could also have their say on the programme before year's end in the form of a Citizen's Initiated Referendum. It looks as if the Grey Power-spearheaded campaign has the signatures needed to get a referendum on the issue which will likely go against the Government. Even though any referendum will come too little, too late to stop any asset sales, the Government could be sternly rebuked by about 60 percent of New Zealanders on this issue. And if that's the case, not before time.

Lest we forget, it's also local body election year. In October, New Zealanders (or those who can be bothered doing so) will vote in hundreds of councillors. At this early stage, I don't think there will be any serious mayoral contests in the main centres aside from Christchurch where Sideshow Bob Parker and councillors will face the wrath of electors for post-earthquake shenanigans. Auckland voters could be set to return the supposedly centre-left Mayor Len Brown to office but watch out for a spirited challenge from any Maritime Union-backed candidate which could see Brown having to appeal to moderately right-wing voters in order to return him as mayor.

The Opposition parties are also in for an interesting year. 

Labour and its new leader David Shearer came out of 2012 turning what could have been a dire situation (in the form of David Cunliffe's leadership challenge) into something of a mini-triumph. Labour and its leader slightly increased their support in year end polls helping give the centre-left a narrow edge. The one big problem for Labour, though, is that it can't put its fingers in its ears and its hands over its eyes and pretend that Cunliffe doesn't exist anymore. Problem is he still does. Cunliffe has support within the wider party, Shearer not as much. And that's the problem. Even if Shearer gets a unaminous caucus endorsement in February, don't rule out a Cunliffe challenge later on in the year especially if he doesn't get re-promoted to the front bench. That's because I expect that Cunliffe will sit quietly on the back bench but will move if Shearer has any more media meltdowns. If Shearer does stay as leader, though, he will have to think about making Cunliffe finance spokesperson again as part of any brokered deal to ensure both his leadership and party unity going into the election. If not, then Shearer should beware that there are plenty of precedents from both here and overseas of spurned leadership challengers coming back for another go - and being successful. Just think of Paul Keating and his rolling of Bob Hawke within the Australian Labor Party during the 1980's for example.

The Greens, despite their misunderstanding about the role of quantative easing last year, still ended 2012 on a relative high. Their poll support is still holding at around the 11 to 12 percent they polled at the last election. Russel Norman, undoubtedly, earned the title of unofficial opposition leader last year after the real one (Shearer) failed to fire and almost got rolled for it. But the problem for Norman is that he is overshadowing his other very able co-leader Metiria Turei. I am wondering as to whether this might be causing some tension between the two and as to whether this tension might surface into the public domain in 2013? Interesting. Otherwise, the Greens look set to spearhead the opposition to National's welfare and other reforms this year in order to appeal to some of Labour's core base vote of poor beneficiaries and middle class social liberals.

For Mana, they still have Hone Harawira - and little else. While they proudly proclaim a strongly left-wing programme, they have failed to win over the good number of Pakeha poor and educated progressives who once formed the core of the Alliance Party's electoral base. Hone got some kudos from me last year for sticking his neck out in defending state house tenants who were being forcibly evicted by Housing New Zealand Corporation to make way for new high end property developments in Grey Lynn. I have long said that Hone is Maoridom's Jim Anderton given that, like Anderton, he sprouts socially progressive statements but yet has held socially conservative views on issues such as marriage equality. However, I was even surprised last year by Hone's conversion to the cause of marriage equality after hard lobbying by good progressive leftists like Mike Treen, John Minto and Sue Bradford. Hone and Mana now have to think seriously about outreach to other members of the left progressive community if they are to have any chance of getting an additional one or two list seats at the next election. Otherwise, if they don't, Hone will remain (like Anderton eventually became for his Progressives) Mana's sole MP after the next election.

And lastly, New Zealand First. They could be National's ticket back to power in 2014. Although they now tout their opposition credentials loudly, their past record speaks differently. Next year, National will put itself up for a third term. History tells us that third term elections are tricky for any incumbent government as, inevitably, their vote shrinks to the point that their position becomes endangered. That's why I believe that in 2014, New Zealand First will play the same role it did in the third term elections for National (1996) and Labour (2005) by choosing to again partner with the incumbent governing party. That's why, in 2013, NZ First will position itself more to the centre by supporting the more interventionist economic policies of the Labour-Green opposition while, at the same time, voting for parts of National's welfare reform package, thereby, keeping both main groupings in thrall to Winston and his merry band.

All in all, we're in for an interesting 2013. And any bets on John Key still being PM by year's end? Hmmm, things could only get more interesting if Key pulls the corporate retirement option out of the hat. Don't rule it out!



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