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We're heading for an early election

12:22 Fri Feb 28 2014

All the signs are there that Prime Minister John Key will call an election in late September or October, and he has good reasons for going to the country early, writes NZ Newswire political columnist Peter Wilson.

Key says he hasn't picked a date, but he's given some clear indications of the way he's thinking.

He has said a factor in the timing is the G20 summit in Brisbane on November 15 and 16.

This is a big deal, because Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has invited New Zealand to take part as an unofficial member of the club.

And Key has invited US President Barack Obama, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and the prime ministers of Britain, Canada and France to visit New Zealand before or after the summit.

Key says it's important New Zealand is represented at the summit by its prime minister, and to make sure of that a new government must be in place and a cabinet sworn in by November 15.

He's pointed out he could achieve the same result by calling an election after the summit, but that can't be taken seriously.

The first opportunity would be November 22, with the process of forming a government taking place in the run-up to Christmas.

Parliament must sit within six weeks of the final results being announced, which would mean a state opening in January when New Zealand goes on holiday.

It just wouldn't make sense, which Key surely knows.

He just has to decide how early to go, which hinges on how long he thinks he'll need to form a government after the election, assuming National wins a third term.

If it doesn't then it's not going to be his problem.

Key, stating the obvious, says it could be easy or it could be difficult.

If National manages to win as many seats as it did last time, 59, and its partner parties ACT and United Future come back with one each, no problem.

If it doesn't win 59 seats or its partner parties come to grief, there's a problem.

And if Winston Peters holds the balance of power in parliament, there's a serious problem.

Around parliament the popular election date picks are September 27 or October 18.

A few weeks ago the smart money was on October 18 but there's a realisation that might cut it too fine.

While the G20 presents a reason for going early, and Key is likely to use it as a reason when he announces the date, there's something more important in the mix.

Governments call elections to suit their own best chances of winning.

Helen Clark did it in 2002 when she called an election on July 27.

Her excuse was the strife within her partner party the Alliance, which she said was wasting parliament's time.

Clark tried to pretend her early call had nothing to do with Labour's huge lead in the polls over a dysfunctional National Party, which no one believed.

No matter, it worked. Labour roared back in, National was cut to pieces and reduced to 27 MPs in parliament.

Key is in a similar position. Labour isn't the basket case National was in 2002 but the government's ratings are phenomenally high for a second term administration in an election year.

The latest poll gave it 51 per cent, enough to hold a comfortable majority without needing any partners.

The economy is looking good, the May budget will deliver a surplus for the first time in five years, farmers have just been told they're going to get the highest milk payout in history and Key's remarkable popularity continues to eclipse Labour's David Cunliffe.

Key must go early, he'd be crazy not to.