Clowns To The Left Of Me, Jokers To The Right: Winston Peters with his crucial nine NZ First seats can make or break the fortunes of both major parties. Jacinda Ardern, on the other hand, cannot lose Winston's support without losing office. It would, therefore, be prudent for Labour to honour the promises that secured them the Treasury Benches.
JACINDA ARDERN needs to get a whole lot smarter – and quickly. Or Bill English might stop behaving like the dimmer half of Dumb and Dumber and start thinking strategically. The object of all this clever, strategic thinking? Winston Peters.
The Prime Minister’s frantic attempts to keep the “annex” to the Labour-NZ First coalition agreement secret, suggests strongly that the rumours about the post-election negotiations are true. Labour, it is said, could not believe the radicalism of the changes Winston Peters and his fellow negotiators were seeking. Unwilling to jeopardise their chances of ultimate victory, Labour’s negotiating team were, accordingly, careful to shunt NZ First’s most radical policy propositions into the now notorious annex.
Describing these as mere “notes”, the Prime Minister is flatly refusing to acknowledge the annex as official information. The moment NZ First’s nice-to-haves become official government policy, she reassures us, they will be made public. Until then, however, the sheer scale of NZ First’s policy ambitions will remain under wraps.
What must Peters be making of all this fancy prime-ministerial footwork?
It’s hard to see him being anything other than aggrieved and alarmed. Is this how Capitalism is to be given a human face? By falling back on the secrecy and manipulation of the Clark years? God knows, there are enough of Helen’s old comrades cluttering-up the Beehive lift-wells as it is! Do they really expect him to abandon his stated preference for “change” over “a modified status quo” before he’s even had time to hang up so much as a single Christmas stocking?
Peters is by no means the first political observer to note just how completely the “Jacinda-Train” has been stripped of its radical political signage. What had looked to many like a replica of Trotsky’s legendary armoured train; a vehicle for carrying the revolution forward against all enemies; has taken on the appearance of a drab KiwiRail locomotive in the process of being rotated 180 degrees on the Wellington turn-table.
This is not what Peters and his party threw in their lot with Labour and the Greens to achieve. Clarks “glacial incrementalism” is not the stuff of which political legacies are made. As he stood beside the young prime minister in the Beehive Theatrette on Monday afternoon, is it possible that Peters was beginning to feel, ever-so-slightly, foolish? Was he wondering whether, somehow, the old grand-master of the political chess-game was being checked?
Had he and his colleagues not been so busy forwarding thousands of written parliamentary questions to the Clerk’s Office, Bill English might have registered just how taut the hawsers holding the Labour and NZ First ships together have become. He might have asked himself what the Prime Minister’s refusal to come clean about all the policy concessions NZ First had demanded, and Labour had nodded through, portended for the Coalition’s long-term prospects. He might have concluded that “a [barely] modified status quo” is the very best NZ First can hope for. He might have thought to himself: “But, National can offer that!”
Indeed, it can. Which is why the Prime Minister needs to rein-in all those lofty Labour condescenders who have plonked themselves down at the coalition table and started explaining the facts of political life to their NZ First and Green Party allies. Most of all, she needs to ban absolutely any further references to Steve Maharey’s infamous quote dismissing political promises as “the sort of thing you say in Opposition, and then forget about in Government”.
Winston Peters had every reason to give the National Party a wide berth in the aftermath of the 2017 general election. Even so, he would never have joined forces with Labour had he not been assured of the policy space necessary to construct an enduring political legacy.
If English senses that Labour is denying the NZ First leader his promised policies of change, then what’s to stop him offering Peters an alternative legacy? By setting-up NZ First as its sister-party in provincial New Zealand, National could avoid becoming “Johnny-No-Mates”: New Zealand’s largest party, but never able to win enough seats to form a government. If English can convince him to become National’s provincial partner, then Peters will be able to bestow upon his beloved NZ First Party the precious legacy of permanence.
Time to smarten-up Jacinda! Give Winston the policies he was promised.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 December 2017.