This week we have seen the first wobbles in the National-led government’s stability. They are not big wobbles, but they are wobbles. And like all wobbles – they can go only one of two ways – grow into bigger wobbles until something falls off, or subside away.
The issue causing the wobbles is whether or not to have Maori seats on the new Auckland Council. The royal commission said yes. The government initially said no. The Maori Party said it wanted them. The PM said he was open minded. Act said it was strongly against.
National is the decision maker here. It could vote with Act to not have Maori seats or it could vote with the Maori Party to have Maori seats. Either way it has a majority in the House.
The problem is that National itself is divided on the issue. Its traditional stance has been to oppose Maori seats. Its initial response was to say no. But a leaked e-mail from Tau Henare to his caucus colleagues makes clear there are some National MPs who do want Maori seats. The great concern for the National leadership will not be so much that there is a disagreement in caucus. With 58 MPs, they probably don’t unanimously agree on whether the sky is blue, let alone most political issues.
The concern is that an e-mail that was between MPs only was leaked to the media. That is a sign of a lack of discipline, and the public (and the polls) have a history of turning on parties than are undisciplined and fight in public.
The leaked e-mail revealed that the Act Leader and local government minister had threatened to resign if National decided to include Maori seats in the Auckland Council Bill.
Now it transpired that Hide had only said that he would resign as local government minister, not from his other portfolios. Hence the threat to government stability is relatively minor. In fact one can have some sympathy for his position that he can’t remain local government minister if he doesn’t support a government bill in his portfolio.
Nevertheless, the fact this position has been publicized, does damage the Government and make John Key’s job harder. If National announces no Maori seats, it will now look like caving in to pressure from Act, rather than merely sticking to its original policy and decision.
Act also suffers from the publicizing of the leaked e-mail. The major parties get very grumpy if their minor partners are seen to have too much power or influence. Now when it happens behind closed doors it is less of an issue, but by playing itself out in public the result maybe that the next time Act wants a “win” for National, it will find it considerably harder.
The bigger damage may be to the relationship between the party leaders. Up until now it had been very warm. This year saw Pita Sharples speak to a National Party conference and Tariana Turia to an Act Party conference, with both receiving much applause.
Now we have Tariana Turia saying that Rodney has resorted to playing the race card. I think that is unfair on Rodney as he was not the one who leaked the National Caucus e-mail – I doubt he is that happy this has been made public. But my view doesn’t matter so much as the view of the Maori Party.
The Maori Party has made it clear this issue is not a deal breaker for them. And Act has also said it will not threaten the confidence and supply agreement. But the possibility of the leader of a confidence and supply partner resigning his major portfolio – or even resigning/losing all portfolios as Radio NZ suggests could happen – is a pretty big dent in the stability of a government.
It is clear from the leaked e-mail from Tau Henare that the majority of the National caucus were not favouring Maori seats – because if you had the numbers you don’t need to send such e-mails to your colleagues.
The leaking of the e-mail is not going to change the decision to not have Maori seats. Its only effect will be to damage the government and make it easier for Labour to attack the decision as forced on the government by a party polling 1%, rather than merely a continuation of current National Party and government policy.
A serious own goal that could have ramifications well into the future.
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