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Beyond the bottom lines

21 Jul 2023

| Author: Chris Trotter

They may have first-rate pollsters and the funds to pay them, but Labour and National are both flying blind. Deaf, too, if the lofty rejections of their respective coalition partners’ key policies provide any guide.

Neither of the major parties appears to have noticed the multiplying signs that the forthcoming election is less likely to deliver a clear result than a political impasse – if not a hung Parliament, then an intractable assembly of irresolvable differences.

Introducing his party list candidates to the news media only last weekend, ACT leader David Seymour reiterated his party’s hard-line stance on the treaty. Once again, he affirmed that he and his colleagues were quite happy to take up a position on the cross-benches rather than surrender what they regard as vital policy objectives that must be implemented.

James Shaw, the Greens co-leader, has issued a similar threat to Labour. If it persists in ruling out both a wealth tax and a capital gains tax, then the Green Party membership may instruct its MPs to join ACT’s representatives on the cross-benches. There was a time when ‘James Shaw’ and ‘credible threat’ were not words to be used in the same sentence. But, in the aftermath of his re-election humiliation by the Greens’ radical wing in 2022, Shaw has learned to do as he’s told.

That both ACT and the Greens are issuing these threats is evidence that the minor parties are finally learning the lessons of New Zealand’s MMP history. Like Alice in Wonderland, they have discovered that one side of the political mushroom makes you larger and the other side makes you smaller.

Eager acquiescence to the senior coalition partner’s demands is the fastest track to political irrelevance for smaller parties. Bitter denunciation of the larger party’s ideological spinelessness pays much healthier dividends, “always taking care,” Winston Peters would doubtlessly add, “to keep ‘em guessing!”


Politics of addition

And then, there’s Te Pāti Māori (TPM) – potentially the biggest disrupter of the 2023 general election. Having spent the past three years “kicking the crackers”, TPM is now pivoting away from its hard-line ethno-nationalism, extending its pitch to include not just marginalised urban Māori, but also poor Pakeha – the voters in whom National, Labour and the Greens no longer appear to take much interest.

At its own “meet the candidates” event, cleverly integrated into a free Matariki musical event, TPM’s co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer reached out beyond the Māori roll. Her call was for an “Aotearoa hou”, a New Zealand re-made: “It is a tiriti-centric Aotearoa, like coming on to a marae, where everybody is loved, everyone is fed, everyone is welcome, equally made to feel like we belong.”

TPM is important, quite possibly vital, to the outcome of this year’s election because it is practising the politics of addition. For the most part, New Zealand electoral politics is about the politics of subtraction, luring voters from one political party to another. What TPM appears to be doing is luring voters – especially young Māori voters – from non-voting to voting. If it can effect a similar transition among young, disaffected Pakeha voters, then the overall size of the electorate will increase and the volatility of 2023’s electoral politics will intensify.


Destabilising scenarios

Confronted with this rolling electoral maul, who would want to be New Zealand’s Governor-General? Already burdened with that role, Dame Cindy Kiro may find herself negotiating a range of potentially destabilising political scenarios, none of which has previously tested the constitutional mettle of the vice-regal office. The reserve powers of the Crown may be called to the aid of the realm in ways New Zealanders have never before witnessed.

Imagine, if you will, a scenario in which National and Labour are evenly splitting roughly 60% of the votes cast, with the remaining 40% divided between ACT, the Greens and TPM. Since ACT has fallen several percentage points short of its 20% target, the Right bloc, to be in a position to reassure the Governor-General that it commands a parliamentary majority, needs the support of a third guarantor of confidence and supply. Since there is little to no prospect of National/ACT finding such support, Dame Cindy turns to the Labour leader Chris Hipkins for advice.


Hipkins’ dilemma

This is where things get messy. Hipkins, acting as “caretaker” Prime Minister since his command of a parliamentary majority has yet to be confirmed, informs the Governor-General that while Labour, the Greens and TPM between them command a majority of seats in the House, he has yet to persuade either party to give him a guarantee of confidence and supply.

When Dame Cindy asks him why, he tells her the Greens will not negotiate with Labour until it agrees to introduce a wealth tax, while TPM’s chief negotiator, John Tamihere, insists TPM will not negotiate with Labour until it sees the shape of any LabourGreens ‘deal’.

Dame Cindy has to be very careful at this point not to become engaged in the negotiation process herself. As the then Governor-General, Sir Michael Hardie Boys, observed in his address The Role of the Governor-General under MMP, delivered to the Institute of International Affairs on Friday 24 May 1996: “[B]ecause the head of state must be, and must be seen to be, politically neutral, removed, aloof from politics, it is the responsibility of politicians to protect her and her representative from the need to make what is, or may be seen to be, a political decision.”

All well and good, Sir Michael, and so say all of us. But what if the politicians are too bound up in defending their bottom lines from the predations of their potential coalition partners to spare a thought for Dame Cindy and her vice-regal responsibilities? Unsurprisingly, Governors-General take care to keep themselves well-informed about the machinations of the realm’s principal political actors. We must presume Dame Cindy is no exception to this rule.

That being the case, she would (under the above scenario) be well acquainted with the fact that National and ACT are locked in a bitter struggle about the latter’s policy on the treaty. No more than Hipkins could the National leader, Christopher Luxon, form a government even if, on paper, he had the numbers.


Grand coalition 

Impasse? Not necessarily. The formation of a government does not take place in splendid isolation from the rest of society. Confronted with such a political log-jam, the other powers in the land – the business community, the news media, academia and the trade unions – would all have their own suggestions to put to the leaders of the parties, especially the two largest parties. By far the most forceful suggestion, and likely the most widely supported, would be for National and Labour to break the impasse by agreeing to form a “grand coalition”

Not only would this force the minor parties into a fractious Opposition, ideologically divided and incapable of concerted action, but a grand coalition would also restore stability to the no doubt agitated financial markets and quieten a population grown uncharacteristically restive as the negotiations dragged on without the anxiously anticipated (and wildly divergent) outcomes.

So heavy would be the moral pressure applied to Hipkins and Luxon, and so great their fear of the concessions which the Greens and TPM would likely extract from a Labour Party determined to remain “true”, that the odium a grand coalition was bound to attract from their respective party memberships would be deemed a price worth paying. Thus would Sir Michael Hardie Boys’ 27-year-old expectations in this matter be vindicated by events.

The politicians, in extremis, would have found a way to keep both the Head of State and the ordinary people of New Zealand safely aloof from the exercise of real political power. In the end, even a sulky and shaky political compromise is preferable to vice-regal dictatorship, social revolution and/or a race-based civil war. ■


Chris Trotter has been a political writer and commentator for more than 30 years. He is the author of the Bowalley Rd blog.

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