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How Winston Peters might play his hand

1 Sep 2023

| Author: Chris Trotter

Seven seats. That’s the least NZ First will claim if it crests the 5% MMP threshold. In a close election, seven seats could spell the difference between political stability and a nerve-racking period of political uncertainty. With Prime Minister Chris Hipkins ruling out any kind of coalition or confidence-and-supply deal with NZ First, and ACT leader David Seymour refusing to join any Cabinet of which NZ First is a part, the smart money would appear to be moving towards uncertainty.

If NZ First re-enters Parliament, its leader Winston Peters will have to come up with a plan that puts an end to that uncertainty while, somehow, preventing his own party’s eviction from the House. For more than a century, New Zealand has avoided follow-on elections – ie, the calling of an election within three to six months of an inconclusive electoral contest. New Zealand’s first-past-the-post voting system more-or-less guaranteed decisive electoral victories.

Not even the introduction of mixed-member-proportional voting in 1996 could upset the tradition of New Zealanders voting for – and getting – a good government. The country’s two most famous “snap” elections – 1951 and 1984 – both occurred well into the governing party’s three-year term and do not meet the follow-on election test.


Voters’ revenge

That New Zealand has not experienced a follow-on election in more than 100 years has not prevented political scientists and commentators from pronouncing upon its likely outcome. Conventional wisdom insists that whichever politician and/ or party is held responsible for sending the nation back to the ballot-box prematurely risks being voted out of Parliament altogether.

This threat of voter “punishment” has been hung, like the Sword of Damocles, over the heads of New Zealand’s political parties – especially its minor parties. Although it has never been tested, New Zealanders’ alleged aversion to tails wagging dogs has served its disciplinary purpose admirably. No small party has ever been bold enough to call National or Labour’s bluff and force a new election.

That may be about to change. Before examining what that change might entail, it is necessary to acknowledge that the looming election’s most likely outcome continues to be a solid and stable coalition government. The most recent polls indicate that voters will elect a NationalACT coalition with a small, but workable, parliamentary majority. The next most likely outcome is a Labour-Green-Te Pāti Māori combination, with Labour and the Greens forming a minority government, and Te Pāti Māori guaranteeing it confidence and supply from the cross-benches.

It is only in the event that NZ First crosses the 5% threshold, with enough seats to place either the centre-right or the centreleft in office, that consideration will need to be given to the decidedly unlikely. Many voters have forgotten that in 1999 Helen Clark became the Prime Minister of a minority, Labour-Alliance, government. She was able to govern the country only because the Green Party, then co-led by the saintly Jeanette Fitzsimons and the cuddly Rod Donald, happily assured them of its support on all matters of confidence and supply.

To discover that David Seymour has made a close study of the Clark-Anderton relationship would be entirely consistent with the ACT leader’s acknowledged political acuity. Certainly, the fate of the radical Alliance offers a cautionary tale about the fate of little parties with big ideas. Duly cautioned, it is easy to understand why Seymour has become so agitated about NZ First’s steady rise in the polls.

The ACT leader is only too aware that Peters and his party are a very different proposition to the blithely accommodating Greens. Only occasionally was Helen Clark required to look over her shoulder to see what the Greens were up to. In the case of NZ First, Seymour will soon be wishing he has eyes in the back of his head, because Winston and NZ First would always be up to something.

Even assuming that Peters, having read the election results and true to his belief that what New Zealanders most want and deserve from an election is a good government, was willing to lead his party onto the cross-benches – thereby allowing National and ACT to form a minority coalition government – that would not be the end of it. Peters has never offered something for nothing.


The trap

What would that “something” be – apart, of course, from supplying the votes needed to confirm that the National-ACT coalition enjoyed the confidence of the House of Representatives? At least initially, Peters’ “something” would include NZ First support for every piece of legislation that in whole or in part fulfilled those policies which National, ACT and NZ First have in common: the abolition of the Māori Health Authority, the repeal of the three waters legislation, curtailing co-governance, protecting free speech, getting rid of fair pay agreements. After six years, the Centre-Right’s to-do list is long.

The apprehension of National and ACT at Peters’ benevolent co-operation is easily imagined. “Why is he being so helpful!” It is only as the need for NZ First votes to secure the passage of the new government’s first budget grows urgent that National and ACT will begin to grasp the precariousness of their position. While NZ First’s support for measures giving effect to what was also NZ First policy was a given, the same cannot be said for the hard-line neoliberal measures at the heart of the National-ACT minority government’s economic program.

“NZ First neither campaigned on, nor will it now support, policies that cast the reforms of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson into their shade. While the government’s Budget contains such vicious and damaging policies, this party cannot, and will not, vote for it.” That may be the trap that Peters springs upon Christopher Luxon and David Seymour. Without NZ First’s votes, the Budget, as written, cannot be passed – but neither can it be defeated.

Either National and ACT will have to draft a compromise Budget or they will be obliged to inform the Governor-General that they cannot secure supply. At this point, Chris Hipkins (assuming he is still Labour’s leader) may regret ruling out Peters so contemptuously as any sort of partner in, or supporter of, a Labour-Green-Te Pāti Māori government. Not that Peters would risk the voters’ wrath by accepting such an offer so soon after telling them that Labour cannot be trusted.

The moment would thus have arrived for Peters and NZ First to determine whether that Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads was made of steel or plastic. An electorate fearful and resentful of the (now delayed) austerity Budget which National and ACT had been ready to impose upon them might not be so punishing of a party which had contrived to give them another crack at getting it right. Especially a party inviting the voters to give the National Party a more responsible and compassionate coalition partner than ACT – now revealed in all the dismal economic finery of its true neoliberal colours.

Wise old political scientists used to tell their first-year classes that “three years is too short for a good government and too long for a bad one”. New Zealand’s political history has yet to throw up a government bad enough to be tossed out after just three months. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

These past six years have been strange and perilous for an unprecedented number of New Zealanders and they have exacted a terrible toll in terms of the public’s loss of trust and confidence in the nation’s key institutions. Winston Peters is almost certainly correct when he says the object of a general election is to leave the voters with a good government.

Certainly, it will take a more-than-usually-artful politician to convince them that, in these dangerous times, getting a good government may take two goes at the ballot box. But, if anyone can convince them to do exactly that, it’s Winston Peters. ■


Chris Trotter is a political writer and commentator of more than 30 years’ experience and author of the Bowalley Rd blog

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