John Key ran a campaign predicated on a call for change and a forward look, and won a commanding 46% of the vote.

Helen Clark responded with a campaign predicated on fear and the past, and fell off seven points from 2005 to 34%. Her message: “you just can’t trust those guys … look what they did before.”

And exactly as in 2005, about one-in-five Kiwi voters found their preferred message elsewhere, supporting minority parties.

I see National’s election win as chiefly a victory of pragmatism over ideology. John Key has been criticised for not having — or at least not revealing — an internal compass … some deterministic worldview that could be expected to drive his every act. But everyone, including Key, has some lens through which they frame the world they see and confront its challenges. The trick is to not allow that lens let in only one color and filter out all the rest.

Personally, I’d rather have a PM lead with a vision, than follow a dogma or wear an ideological straightjacket that begins to exclude or preempt a wider range options and choices. This kind of ideological paralysis seems to me a main reason for the downfall of Labour.

I believe that John Key is a pragmatist, whose essential values happen to fall well within the range most Kiwis find acceptable. Viewed that way, he and his Government can be expected to address unprecedented economic and social challenges with more intellectual freedom and policy creativity … with the flexibility that today’s pace of change and unique circumstances require.

So I don’t think voters were simply demanding “change” as in “nine years of Helen/Labour is enough” (though surely there was plenty of that), but also “change” in the sense of an entirely different approach — pragmatic, I’d say — to making decisions and setting policies.

But the proof of this will be in the type of leadership John Key actually delivers … both within his own caucus and as he throws some obligatory bones to his ACT partners.

There’s no doubt that there are ideologues in National’s camp. And surely in ACT’s. John Key’s governing task is to marginalise them and keep his mind and options open. If he doesn’t, he’s gone in three years.
Where I worry most about Key is the environment. There he still seems to frame the issue as the economy versus the environment … a trade-off that has been proven false time and again. It reflects the mind-set of an ideological George Bush, as opposed to a pragmatic Arnold Schwarzenegger, a pro-growth and pro-environment centrist whose California state government fosters one of the world’s largest and dynamic economies while adopting remarkably stringent environmental policies.

The false trade-off between environment and economy is even more outmoded and dysfunctional in the face of huge business opportunities and benefits to be realised from committing ourselves to a sustainable, carbon-minimising economy.

It’s not just “the economy, stupid” anymore. It’s the “green economy, stupid!”

Given the paramount importance of this relationship, I also hope the Greens will trim their sails and concentrate on this priority, as opposed to their social agenda, in the coming term. The challenges ahead require discipline (i.e., focused agendas) from every party and politician. The Green Party can make its greatest contribution over the next three years by helping National — and the public — understand how the economy and the environment can co-prosper.

Its substantive merit aside, this focus is in the Green Party’s long term political interest. I believe most Kiwis are still trapped in the “economy versus environment” mind-set. Until the Green Party liberates them from this perception, most Kiwis will continue to see the Greens as “nice to have around” but not to be trusted with “important” stuff. And if that’s the perception, whenever economic times are tough, the Green vote will be suppressed, as it was last Saturday.

Yes, the Greens will have more MPs in the next Parliament. But given the underlying trends that should favor a stronger and growing environmental constituency, I would argue that the Greens are nowhere near achieving their political potential. Until the Greens are perceived as at least informed, if not enlightened, on economic matters, their growth will be stunted.

And whither Labour? We’ll comment on that after the party’s new leader is selected.


P.S. And good riddance to Winston!

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