Dr Bryce Edwards
Should National circumvent Peters and do a deal with the Greens?
Everyone seems to be preparing for a National-NZ First coalition government. Even many on the left are expecting this will be the outcome, including some in the Labour Party. The reality is Winston Peters could go either way – the left and right blocs have emerged from the election with similar voter support, allowing New Zealand First the ability to choose either option (read NBR's guide to the rules of MMP engagement here).
What’s more, for every argument for why Winston Peters will go with National, there are equally good arguments for him favouring Labour. And the idea that National will get the nod from Mr Peters simply because they have a higher party vote than Labour is largely without merit, and the notion that National has some sort of “moral mandate” or “moral majority” should be challenged.
The mistaken consensus that National is in the box seat
In the media, and throughout the political spectrum, a consensus has emerged that National is most likely to form a government with the help of New Zealand First. This was made most strongly today by left-wing political commentator Chris Trotter, who is reported as arguing “Jacinda Ardern knows she lost and shouldn't keep up the facade of being the prime minister in waiting” – see Newshub’s 'It's not enough': Why Chris Trotter believes Jacinda Ardern won't be the next Prime Minister.
Mr Trotter says there’s a 25% chance of Labour stitching together a coalition. In the same interview right-wing commentator Trish Sherson argues the chances are “next to zero, at this point” as there is “no shadow of a doubt" National won the election. Her justification is a common one: “I just don't think you can go against the will of the people.” For more on Trotter’s view, see his latest column, Bill To Winston – 'Let’s Do This’.
Veteran NZ Herald political columnist John Armstrong is equally strong in his belief that Labour can’t govern: “A Labour-New Zealand First-Greens combo is technically still alive. But only in the way Elvis Presley is still alive. Those on the centre-left clinging to that hope are really clinging to the wreckage of what to be blunt was a hideously disappointing night for that portion of the political spectrum” – see: English keeps National juggernaut rolling.
According to Mr Armstrong, New Zealand First has no mandate to shun National: “The almost palpable mood for change has not turned out to be deep enough or widespread enough to place sufficient obligation on Mr Peters to use his likely grip on the balance of power to install a Labour-led administration.”
Mr Peters going with Labour and the Greens is “extremely unlikely” according to the Sunday Star Times’ Adam Dudding, who says such a prospect is limited to “theory” rather than reality. He reports and seems to agree with Bill English’s claim to have the "moral authority" to have first go at creating a coalition – see: Bill English: I'm ready to talk to Winston. The same report claims Labour has suffered a “defeat.”
Similarly, the Sunday Star Times ran an editorial wishing Bill English well and declaring him victorious. Written by editor Jonathan Milne, the piece says: “Let us be clear: Peters has no choice. The voting public cannot, and will not, tolerate him abusing his kingmaker position by swinging his support behind Ardern, when she is trailing 13 seats behind National” – see: Voters cannot, and will not, tolerate Winston abusing his kingmaker position.
The political right is unsurprisingly pushing the line that a National-led coalition is almost inevitable. National Party blogger David Farrar says “National got an extraordinary result of 57 MPs and is highly likely to form the first fourth term government since 1969” – see: Everyone’s a winner!
Massey University’s Grant Duncan also read the outcome as a defeat for Labour and the Greens. He says a fourth-term National-led coalition is on the cards, and Jacinda Ardern’s “chances of forming a government with the centrist NZ First Party and the Greens are much slimmer” – see: New Zealand votes for conservatism and the status quo. Similarly, see Victoria University of Wellington’s Jack Vowles’ Push-pull government could end in chaos.
National’s mythical “moral majority”
It is a “fundamental core value of democracy” that the party with the most votes should become the government, according to former prime minister John Key. He told the Herald: "Mathematically Winston Peters can put together a government with Labour and the Greens but the reality is, to do that he would have to go against what he has always done [support the winning party] and he would have to step away from the fundamental core value of democracy which is majority rule” – see Audrey Young’s NZ First leader Winston Peters in no hurry to get coalition negotiations underway.
Today’s editorial in the New Zealand Herald pushes a similar argument: “Over 21 years of MMP, a convention has developed that the party with the most votes forms the government. Jacinda Ardern did not quite acknowledge that practice in her speech on Saturday night but it was not a victory speech. It could hardly be one when Labour had finished 10 points behind on the night and Labour and Greens combined were five points behind” – see: Winston Peters should not hold clear winner to ransom.
The Herald emphasises that “the result was not even close”, and that “English deserves to savour this victory”. The editorial urges Winston Peters to recognise this, and also points out: “Having lost the Northland seat and seen his party vote decline, Peters ought to be humbled by the result. He should not hold the winner to ransom.”
Similarly, yesterday’s Herald on Sunday editorial questioned whether a Labour-led government would have “legitimacy” given that National has more votes, and warns that such a government “would need to be sure all New Zealanders could respect its mandate” – see: Peters needs to note National's achievement.
However, the line that National should form a government because it got more votes than Labour is straight out of the first-past-the-post era when the largest political party tended to have a majority of seats in Parliament. Under MMP, a party having the largest share of the vote is almost irrelevant. If they can’t put together a coalition with enough seats, then they normally can’t govern. This point is well put today by Massey University’s Richard Shaw, who is reported as explaining that “when it comes to forming a government coalition, all that matters is that a combination of parties can persuade the Governor-General they can reach 61 seats” – see Newshub’s 'No such thing' as moral majority – politics professor.
Shaw points out “The word 'moral' doesn't appear in our constitution” and there is no “winner” of the recent election: “Nobody's won the election yet. The people who won the election are the people who form the government.”
National has not 'won' the election
There is a strong narrative at the moment that National has received an extraordinary result. But has it really? The vote for centre-right parties has actually declined significantly at this election. At the 2014 election, the aggregate vote for National, Act and the Conservatives was over 52%. This year, the final result for those parties is projected to be little more than 45%. What’s more, the National Party has now lost allies – United Future and the Maori Party are gone from Parliament, and Act’s party vote has halved. Basically, National has cannibalised the vote of other rightwing parties. In devouring its coalition partners, National might now look stronger but in reality fewer voters are actually supporting parties of the right.
But it is the illusion that National has won significantly more votes than the political left that particularly needs addressing. Colin James reminds us that you need to add the Labour and Greens vote together when making any comparison: “The win English has been celebrating is qualified. Think of Labour and the Greens as an informal coalition and National’s lead drops from 10.2% to 4.3%” – see: English on top but facing a stronger Labour.
He then makes the very important point that the final vote tally result is likely to make the difference between the left and right blocs even smaller: “If the 384,000 specials fall as differently from the election night count as in 2014, when National lost 1.1 percentage points between election night and the final count, that lead could drop to 2%-3%. If things go wrong — as they did for the most recent fourth term governments, after the 1946 and 1969 elections — that slim lead could quickly evaporate.”
Graeme Edgeler has made some rough projections of what the final parliamentary seat numbers will be for the parties – assuming the special votes have the same “biases” as at the last election. Based on this, National is likely to lose two seats, and Labour and the Greens are likely to go up. This would produce a final tally of 56 seats for National, and 54 seats for Labour and the Greens – hardly a big difference – see: Election 2017: the Special Votes.
Why Labour might still 'win' the election
One of the biggest concerns Winston Peters is likely to have about entering a coalition with Labour is that its majority in Parliament will be lower than with National. At the moment, the preliminary election results suggest such a government would have the barest of a majority – just 61 seats out of 120. However, if the special votes change the seat numbers along the lines suggested above, then a Labour-led government would have a much more comfortable majority of 63 seats, which might assuage Mr Peters’ concerns.
Some say that there is still bad blood between New Zealand First and National, which might push Winston Peters to “go left.” Radiolive’s Mark Sainsbury says “I don't agree with all those who rule out a coalition with the left. I think it's not only possible but potentially more palatable for Winston – it could be a train wreck, but so could a National deal” – see: Bad blood makes National-NZ First deal unlikely.
Sainsbury elaborates on the bad relations between the parties: “Plus there's another factor – the leaking of his superannuation overpayment. The bureaucrats have been cleared, which means the finger of blame is firmly directed at the National ministers in the loop, and Winston will want vengeance, make no mistake. Plus, there's bad blood between him and some of Bill English's top team. Remember this: Bill was there in 1992 when Peters was expelled from the National caucus, the move that led to NZ First and this whole business. Not only was Bill there, he seconded Jim Bolger's motion to kick him out.”
And Barry Soper’s analysis is also in line with this – see his column, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, don't rule it out. In addition to the “bad blood” argument, Soper says “in this MMP environment anything is possible and in Winston Peters' book nothing is as it seems and that's the way it's always been with him. Forget morality and expectation, that's a book written by others. Of course he will talk first to Bill English, he's always said he'd do that to the party with the highest vote count. But talking is far short of walking up the aisle.”
According to Jane Clifton, New Zealand First will demand a huge change of direction from National, and one it might simply be unable to oblige: “The big story of this election is bigger than National, and much bigger than ‘whither Winston?’ It’s that there was an undeniable and growing appetite for change. So, while English is right that National has the moral authority to form the next government, there is a countervailing moral authority that it cannot do so on the basis of ‘business as usual’. New Zealand First, notwithstanding its modest nine-seat heft, has the moral authority either to negotiate some meaningful concessions from National as the price for its indispensable coalition support, or, if unsuccessful, to shop elsewhere” – see: This post-election business is anything but usual.
NZ First sources point to Labour|
A number of New Zealand First insiders appear to be talking to journalists at the moment, and they are all emphasising that Mr Peters is more likely to go with Labour. The most interesting example is MP Richard Prosser who has failed to make it back in on the party list. He makes a similar argument to Ms Clifton, saying Mr Peters is determined to govern in a way that reflects what the party sees as a “mood for change,” which National is unlikely to be able to deliver: “The difficulty is that they've had three terms, looking at a fourth, they are now quite deeply entrenched in their ways. How much of a directional shift could you ween out of them?” – see Henry Cooke’s Outgoing NZ First MP Richard Prosser says Winston Peters will go left.
Prosser added: “My gut feeling says he will probably go left if he can.” See also more revealing comments in Nicholas Jones’ Outgoing MP criticises Winston Peters: He has always been Machiavellian.
Tracy Watkins also reports the views of a New Zealand First insider. She says: “people should not assume a deal with National just because it was the largest party on the night, says a former NZ First MP. There has been a lot of speculation about Mr Peters ruling out any deal with the Greens, but people should not assume that either” – see: Bill and Jacinda on call waiting.
NZ First people are also talking to Politik’s Richard Harman: “NZ First sources say leader Winston Peters remains convinced National Party politicians leaked details of his superannuation payments and orchestrated a campaign to drive him out of politics that resulted in him losing his seat. As a consequence, Politik understands NZ First will not take part in any government formation negotiations involving Finance Minister and National campaign manager Steven Joyce” – see: English faces uphill battle.
Similarly, Branko Marcetic reports today that “One former NZ First MP who served in the unstable coalition [of 1996] told me Peters will probably choose Labour this time around” – see: What will Winston do? The lessons of ’96 tell us he might go with Ardern. According to the source, “he’s more likely, with a young, inexperienced leader such as Jacinda, to have greater influence there as opposed to going with his old buddies who shafted him last time around.”
The same article gave further reason to suggest the party is more in tune with Labour than National: “Among the party’s rank-and-file, there is a visceral dislike for and mistrust of the party of John Key and Bill English. A number of his party’s policies, such as writing off student loans for graduates who remain in New Zealand a certain number of years, would be non-starters under a National government. There is also the fact that, as with previous elections, Peters has spent this year savaging the ‘neoliberal experiment’ of 1984, the foremost proponents of which today are National. And at this year’s New Zealand First party conference, he used his speech to rail about how National’s policies had left the poor and middle class behind, and proceeded to personally insult virtually every National MP in cabinet by name.”
Finally, for a lighter view of Winston Peters’ kingmaker role, see my blog post of Cartoons and images about negotiating the new government.
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