Conservatively Radical: The leaders of the Labour-Greens-NZ First combo have just 11 days to campaign for a Government possessing the collective wisdom to distinguish necessary from unnecessary change, and the political courage to make it happen.
WITH LESS THAN A FORTNIGHT to go until Election Day, the broad outlines of the voters’ choice are becoming clear. Labour has refined its position to one of anticipating a tripartite arrangement with the Greens and NZ First. The National Party, unmoved by recent polls, is hoping the voters allow them to begin their third term with the same support partners as their first and second: Act, United Future and the Maori Party. John Key cannot, however, discount the possibility of having to enlarge his support combination by including Colin Craig’s Conservative Party.
Both of these configurations reflect the central political reality of this election campaign: that New Zealanders have become considerably more cautious and (small-c) conservative than they have been for many decades. If, for whatever reason, voters desert National in sufficient numbers to allow Labour, the Greens and NZ First to make a centre-left government, it is clear that it will be a coalition shorn of radical policy.
David Cunliffe is sending three important messages to the electorate. 1) That he considers NZ First indispensable to effecting a change of government. 2) By very publicly ruling out any kind of accommodation with either Internet-Mana or the Maori Party he is signalling that he understands “Middle New Zealand’s” current distaste for radical ideas. 3) He is inviting them to interpret his reaching-out to NZ First as proof of his moderate bona fides.
John Key faces a very different set of problems. On the right of New Zealand politics there is a growing impatience with what it scorns as “Labour-Lite” policies. In this context, Nicky Hager’s revelations concerning Judith Collins will have come as a Godsend to the Prime Minister. They have allowed him to temporarily spike the guns of Ms Collin’s and her Far-Right faction of the National Party caucus and reassured nervous National supporters that the Government is not about to embark on any Tea Party-like excursions into ideological extremism.
The downside of Hager’s disruption of the election campaign is the bleeding away of votes it has occasioned to National’s right-wing rivals. Both NZ First and the Conservatives have benefited from these defections (the former more considerably than the latter) and this raises the very real possibility that Key, in order to remain in office, will be forced to make the sort of political concessions that could seriously destabilise his government.
If he opts for NZ First, he will be obliged to anchor his government very firmly in the harbour of Mr Peter’s caring, paternalistic and overtly interventionist “one nation” conservatism. This will outrage his own neoliberal colleagues, strengthen the hand of Collins’s supporters, alienate Act and empower those Conservative MPs (we are assuming here that the Conservative Party crosses the 5 percent MMP threshold) excluded from Key’s political solar system.
On the other hand, if he throws in his lot with Colin Craig’s Conservatives he will have hitched his wagon to a new and untested band of political eccentrics and Tea Party-type “ultras” with the capacity to drag his hitherto unthreatening and predictable centre-right government into the ideological badlands. In the finely balanced Parliament both sides are expecting post-20 September, the Conservatives could very easily prove to be much more trouble than they’re worth. And, if they were seduced into making common-cause with the equally eccentric Ms Collins, the Conservatives could conceivably end up threatening the Prime Minister himself. Craig’s messiah complex is unmistakeable – and there can be only one!
Clearly, the potential for instability and ideological confusion is considerably greater on the right of New Zealand politics than it is on the left. Once Internet-Mana are excluded from the constellation of acceptable Opposition stars, what the electorate is presented with in a Labour-Greens-NZ First combination is a coalition government erected on two extremely solid foundation-stones: economic nationalism and environmentalism.
Popular antipathy to land sales to foreigners (almost certainly intensified by Act leader Jamie Whyte’s ill-considered intervention over the weekend) is reflected in the manifestoes of all three parties. Combine Labour, Green and NZ First pledges to put the heft of the state behind a major effort to improve the productivity of New Zealand Incorporated with the growing public concern about the health of New Zealand’s waterways because of “dirty dairying”, and the populist potential of the Labour-Green-NZ First policy agenda is readily apparent. All three parties will find themselves free to manoeuvre on extensive common ground.
David Cunliffe, Russel Norman, Metiria Turei and Winston Peters have just 11 days to convince a confused and jittery electorate that although a Labour-Greens-Internet-Mana combination may have represented an unmistakeable and unwarranted lurch to the Left, a Labour-Greens-NZ First combo could turn out to be something much more palatable.
All three parties must campaign hard for a Government possessing the collective wisdom to distinguish necessary from unnecessary change, and the political courage to make it happen.
This essay was posted on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog blogsites on Monday, 8 September 2014.