NEW Zealand prime minister John Key’s centre-right National Party is on course for a big victory in this month’s general election after he shrugged off a lingering “dirty tricks” scandal.
Three new polls showed only a slight drop in support for Mr Key’s party, despite the scandal that has claimed a senior minister, but it is still well ahead of the main opposition centre-left Labour Party.
A Reuters poll of the five main surveys put National’s support at 48.2 per cent, its lowest level in six months but still above its 2011 election mark.
The Labour Party’s support stands at 26 per cent while the Greens are hovering in third place at about 13 per cent.
New Zealand First, a populist party of pro-welfare and hardline anti-immigration policies, is in fourth at about 5 per cent.
The Maori Party and the pro-business ACT Party attract about 1 per cent each but often hold the balance of power because of the voting system.
New Zealand goes to the polls on 20 September. The National Party is campaigning on its record of strong economic growth, a return to budget surpluses and paying back debt, while it promises modest new social spending, as well as the prospect of future tax cuts.
The surveys came as Mr Key set up an inquiry into allegations that a senior minister was involved in a campaign to undermine a senior law official.
Justice minister Judith Collins resigned last weekend amid a controversy linking her and officials in Mr Key’s office with right-wing commentator Cameron Slater, who was given personal and secret government information to use against government critics and opponents. Ms Collins denies the claims.
The inquiry, likely to be headed by a retired judge, is not expected to report back until after polling day.
Mr Key said: “The matters to be investigated are serious, and I believe it is important that the inquiry has sufficient time to conduct a thorough review before reporting back.”
The personal popularity of former financier Mr Key, 53, and that of his party have often been above 50 per cent as the economy has emerged strongly from recession and the aftermath of two devastating earthquakes.
One analyst said it was a surprise that Key and his party had not suffered more in the polls.
“Key has had a strong strategy of stonewalling on the issue and it looks like it’s worked. He’s convincing people that there’s not a lot to see here,” said Otago University political scientist Bryce Edwards.
Under New Zealand’s proportional voting system no party has ever gained an outright majority, with the biggest needing minor parties to govern.
The National Party has been supported over the past six years by the ACT Party, the indigenous Maori Party, and the tiny centrist United Party.
The final shape of the government might be determined by New Zealand First, led by the veteran politician Winston Peters, who in the past has variously supported National and Labour.
Mr Key has not ruled out working with Mr Peters, but said he would wait for the election result.