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Early election pushed closer by resignation

For just the third time in 63 years New Zealand faces an early election, further heightened today by Revenue Minister Peter Dunne's shock announcement he will quit as a minister.

Mr Dunne is also associate minister of conservation and health.

He holds the Ohariu seat with 14,357 votes, only 1392 ahead of Labour's Charles Chauvel.

Prime Minister John Key announced Mr Dunne's ministerial stepdown at the public release of David Henry’s report into the leaking of Rebecca Kitteridge’s compliance review of the GCSB.

Mr Dunne says he will remain as an MP and support the government in supply.

It is now much more likely that in order to fend off further divisive attacks on his support partners, and take advantage of good economic news, rising popularity in the polls and the need to steer through more asset sales, Mr Key will go to the country.

Snap elections a mixed bag

Going to the polls early is a risky gamble but one that can pay off, the relatively brief history of snap elections in New Zealand suggests.

New Zealand has had three snap elections since 1950 and in two cases the government managed to return to office with a bigger majority.  Here’s what happened in each:

1951 - National Prime Minister Sidney Holland called a snap election after wharfies conceded defeat in the infamous waterfront dispute in July 1951.
The election, held on September 1 that year, saw National increase its majority in Parliament with a 20-seat margin over Labour (50-30), compared to a 12-seat margin previously.  

National benefited from the unpopular actions of the militant wharfies, who weren’t even supported by other unions.  Labour, led by Walter Nash, refused to take sides in the dispute.

1984 - Arguably the most significant election in New Zealand’s history, the 1984 snap election called by a seemingly drunk Prime Minister Robert Muldoon led not only to a change of government but radical changes to New Zealand’s society and economy.

National had a two-seat majority with 47 seats but dissent by some MPs was causing problems and the snap election was called after MP Marilyn Waring crossed the floor on an opposition-sponsored anti-nuclear bill. 

The election, held on July 14, threw out the interventionist Muldoon regime and ushered in “Rogernomics”, a policy platform named after then-Finance Minister Sir Roger Douglas which liberalised New Zealand’s economy, made big cuts to income tax and introduced GST. 

That Labour government was also known for making New Zealand nuclear-free, a policy made famous by Prime Minister David Lange’s speech at an international debate.

2002 - Prime Minister Helen Clark’s decision to call a snap election in 2002 not only returned Labour to power but also resulted in the worst election performance of all time by the National Party. 

The election was held in July, three months earlier than required. Ms Clark said an early election was necessary because of the collapse of the Alliance Party, which had been Labour’s coalition partner (critics disputed whether it was really necessary). 

In an eventful campaign, left-wing activist Nicky Hager dropped a bomb on Labour with the release of his book Seeds of Distrust, which related to a shipment of allegedly GM-contaminated corn, only days before the election. 

Labour’s support dropped from 50% in pre-election polls to just over 41% but National didn’t benefit, current Finance Minister Bill English taking the blame for its dismal result of just under 21%. 

The 2002 election was also notable for the sudden rise of Peter Dunne’s United Future Party, which jumped from one to eight MPs after Mr Dunne resonated with the audience rating “worm” in a televised election debate. 

Winston Peters’ NZ First Party also bounced back with 13 MPs, after its coalition debacle with National cut its support to only five MPs in 1999.

additional reporting by Niko Kloeten

More by Jock Anderson

Comments and questions

Smart move by Winston - has placed him in the box seat.

Perhaps the next Kingmaker again...pretty much on the ball.

"National benefited from the unpopular actions of the militant wharfies, who weren’t even supported by other unions. Labour, led by Walter Nash, refused to take sides in the dispute."

The wharfies were supported by other unions actually, the miners, seamen, drivers and freezing workers being the most prominent.

"For just the third time in 63 years New Zealand faces an early election"

Does it? Who has called an early election?

If Winston was that clever he would have been prime minister. Trouble is, he is lazy and it is all about him. Apart from "one spray and walk away", who are the other NZ First MPs? They get no look with Winnie there. Now Winnie has probably stuffed NZ with the Dunne affair.

Seems to me this makes an early election less likely until Peters' grandstanding wears out its welcome.

I'd like to see Key call a snap election, but so far there's no reason so probably not permitted to. He'd bury the Labour-Green mob at the moment, but that could change when Labour finds a leader.

How can you say the 2002 election result was the worst of ALL TIME? Do you know what will happen in the future? I think you mean the worst result so far.

John Key needs to think about getting more gays into National quickly and broaden its voter base. Labour can't be left to get all the pink vote now that National's majority in the house is marginal. Helen Clarke was a genius at this using her insider knowledge.

It's not just the gay vote he needs though, is it? You show your bigotry forgetting the transgender and transvestite voters who are equally important. NZ is about equal opportunity and Helen Clarke gave all comers opportunity whether they were man, woman, homosexual or otherwise.