Tuesday 18 August 2020

Strange Case Of Winston Peters And Mr Hyde.

The Side To Hide: For the Prime Minister and her Labour colleagues, Winston Peters’ Mr Hyde-act may have finally worn out its welcome. In the guise of Dr Jekyll, the NZ First leader is everything a party could wish for in a coalition partner. As Mr Hyde, however, he is a frightful companion. Those who have read Robert Louis Stevenson’s cautionary novella already know how the story ends. 

 IT IS DIFFICULT to know whether Winston Peters’ constitutional brinkmanship will harm or hurt his NZ First Party. If nothing else, it proves he still has the ability to put himself in the centre of the political frame – if only for a single news cycle. And that, in a nutshell, is his and NZ First’s problem. Like Dr Jekyll’s restorative potion, the efficacy of Peters’ political medicine declines with overuse. Every time he takes on the character of Mr Hyde it grows harder to break free of his clutches. Looking into the ugly face of Peters’ destructive alter-ego, as Jacinda Ardern was forced to do only yesterday (16/8/20) afternoon, is not an experience she will be in a hurry to repeat.

 Would he really have pulled the pin on the coalition which he, more than anyone, had pulled together? Would he really have informed the Governor-General that he and his party had lost confidence in the Prime Minister, and that, consequently, she no longer commanded a majority in the House of Representatives? And, if so, to what end? Because, as the PM reminded the journalists gathered in the Beehive Theatrette this morning – with just the faintest hint of a grin – that would have precipitated a … general election! And isn’t that where we all came in?

 The ultimate futility of Peters’ gesture’s notwithstanding, it would certainly have placed the Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy, in a pretty pickle. Her pickle jar would be nothing like as uncomfortable, however, as Peters’. If the G-G bowed to his demand for Jacinda’s majority to be tested in the House, then he would have convince both Judith Collins and David Seymour to back his No-Confidence motion. And, if she didn’t, then he would look like a fool – and a treacherous fool at that!

 Not that either National or Act would have had anything at all to gain by unseating New Zealand’s enormously popular prime minister. At best, they would gain themselves a few more weeks before New Zealand’s electoral law put an end to their fun. And then? Oh dear! The voters’ retribution would be swift and terrible. Bill English’s 20.9 percent would look like the good old days! Act’s hard-won fight to breach the 5 percent threshold would have all been for nothing.

 Obviously, they wouldn’t have agreed to participate in Peters’ political suicide pact. Which the NZ First leader must have known even as he made public his thinly-veiled threatening letter to the PM. So, if his threat was never credible, why make it? Why remind both Labour and the general public of just what a volatile, irresponsible and generally unreliable political force NZ First always ends up becoming? Why reduce his party’s already negligible chances of re-election to the vanishing point? What was the man thinking?

 Perhaps there was never any real intent to pull the pin. Perhaps he was actually relying upon the PM to do exactly what she did. Why else include the date of 17 October in his letter, if only the 21 November date would do? Peters certainly lost little time in “welcoming” the PM’s decision:

 “New Zealand First is pleased that common sense has prevailed. We were concerned that the Covid outbreak had the effect of limiting campaigns to an unacceptably short period until overseas and advance voting begin if the General Election was held on September 19.”

 Ah, yes, “common sense”. How could we have forgotten Winston “Handbrake” Peters and his inexhaustible supply of common sense?

 Except that there was nothing even vaguely resembling common sense attached to Peters actions over the past 48 hours. What was on display, for all those with the wit to interpret it, was a stunt.

 The NZ First leader understood his coalition partner well enough to know that she was bound to meet the electorate half-way between 19 September and 21 November. There was simply no way Jacinda was going to be seen giving in to the demands of either himself or Judith Collins – so it had to be 17 October. Not that the near-certainty of the PM announcing a one month extension was going to keep Peters quiet. Not when there was an opportunity to whip-up a full-blown constitutional brouhaha; a media-titillating bagatelle; out of which he could step triumphantly as the stern guardian of New Zealand’s democratic traditions. Or, something like that.

 From the perspective of the PM and the Labour Party, however, Peters’ stunt must have looked like the act of an ageing and increasingly reckless circus sharpshooter. A complicated trick, undertaken in front of a live audience, and featuring a loaded gun with an unreliable safety-catch. The bemused audience may never have realised the danger it was in, but the sharpshooter’s fellow performers did. They’ve all seen how badly things can go wrong, and who always ends up paying the price.

 For the Prime Minister and her Labour colleagues, Peters’ Mr Hyde-act may have finally worn out its welcome. In the guise of Dr Jekyll, the NZ First leader is everything a party could wish for in a coalition partner. As Mr Hyde, however, he is a frightful companion. Those who have read Robert Louis Stevenson’s cautionary novella already know how the story ends. If Peters’ fellow performers decide not to wait around for his battered old rifle’s safety-catch to fail – who could blame them?

 More bluntly: if Peters’ cynical display of faux constitutional outrage isn’t enough to persuade Jacinda Ardern to dispense with NZ First’s services as a coalition partner, post 17 October, then she is not the shrewd judge of the electorate’s wishes that everything she has accomplished to date proclaims her to be.

A Labour-Green government, without encumbrances. Now, that would be the very best kind of October surprise!

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 18 August 2020.


Trev1 said...

Peters was right to advocate for an extension. You cannot have a free and fair election when a large part of the population is in lockdown. As the truth about the government's failings born of incompetence mixed with arrogance and a dash of negligence seeps out, despite the best efforts of State media, people will be far better placed to exercise their judgement. What are you afraid of Chris?

Philip said...

A Labour-Green government would certainly be a surprise but I hardly think a "lovely one". The current levels of incompetence in governance shown by the coalition would, in my opinion, be seen as competence in hindsight should the idealogues of the two parties be given free reign. I think NZ would end up in a very sad space in a very short time both economically and socially should such an event occur. The "surprise" would be for all those who believe throwing money at a problem without the ability to ensure that it is used wisely is going to make a positive difference to the many ills in our society. The surprise would be growing government debt, a shrinking economy, poorer outcomes in child poverty, fewer people working and ever greater division in society - just like Venezuela!

Andrew Nichols said...

The surprise would be growing government debt, a shrinking economy, poorer outcomes in child poverty, fewer people working and ever greater division in society - just like Venezuela!

Venezuela? I know Trump mentioned us but are the Yanks going to sanction us to buggery and try a regime change?

You really do have some touching faith that Collins lot would do better.

greywarbler said...

Two comments on incompetence from the government. Oh how lovely to be a NZr with no commitment to the country and people, and full of judgments largely based on being able to twist events to suit oneself or one's job. When other people and wider matters are to be considered, then sink into economic thinking where a scenario is constructed with figures and letters and images and then is presented as a reality if only these matters occurring in reality are removed, some people, some trees, they restrict efficient outcomes. Gone by lunchtime, that's the expectation.

I always look askance at people using the shoddy phrase, 'throwing money at a problem'. It's sad that such people continue throwing words at problems; we suffer from an inflation of words until one hardly bothers reading and looking for real value. But ignorance of others bliss is unwise; you have to know to assess the ingrown strength revealed in the words of the ignorant.

Anonymous said...

Left NZ just over 30 years ago. Shame to see Winston Peters still being a nuisance. Some of us marched against the Tour and haven't forgotten all the struggles around the Gay Reform Law.

Assuming an outright majority, why this caution?

Across the anglosphere, including the U.S., conservative parties – even with tiny majorities or not even with the majority of popular vote in FPTP or federal systems – have absolutely no hesitation in claiming a mandate, shaping public discourse, unravelling the lefts' achievements, structuring and entrenching policy to support their aims, donors and supporters. They also waste no time in declaring their political opponents as radically beyond the pale, disingenuously laying claim to the centre and shifting the Overton Window.

Ardern has done the difficult part in earning people's trust. Now the potential opportunity arises to declare, like Margaret Thatcher, that there is no alternative. That's what an earned outright majority and political capital is for. The time isn't for timidity.

Geoff Fischer said...

New Zealand voters are being offered an invidious choice.
The current government has acted unlawfully in imposing the lockdown, claiming justification by necessity. Its supporters offer the classic Ciceronean (and fascist) defence "The safety of the people is the highest law".
So be it, but it is a clear step away from both the practice and the principle of "rule of law".
The government now proposes recruiting its own security force to manage isolation facilities, in the name of efficiency and effectiveness. That means a parallel police force which will take orders from the government of the day, rather than independently enforcing the law as the colonial constitution requires of the regular police force.
That is all very well while New Zealanders continue to live under a reasonably benevolent dictatorship.
But there is another government faction, headed by Winston Peters, which wishes to militarize the response to the Covid-19 pandemic and thereby make the armed forces an active player and power within civil society, a move that has already been presaged by the appointment of Air Marshal Digby Webb to control quarantine facilities and which may well be for the long term if the nation faces a continuing public health, economic and political crisis.
In other words, if New Zealand emerges from the forthcoming election with the same parties in power, they will be laying the foundations for a neo-fascist takeover of the colonial state.
On the other hand, a National/ACT coalition would most probably privatize the functions which Labour and New Zealand First wish to militarize, a move which would carry with it a different but no less serious set of dangers.
People should take note of the direction in which the colonial regime is heading. When a state willfully departs from the rule of law, and recruits police auxiliaries who are responsible only to the government of the day, then we need to take appropriate steps to defend our people from all possible consequences.
As a people we need to respond to these pending threats from the colonial regime by providing for our own public health and law and order initiatives, while operating under and enforcing strict rule of law principles.

Nick J said...

I will echo Greywarbler on the term "incompetence ". When I hear it I think define. Define competence.
Then define what the supposedly incompetent party did as incompetence.

Let's have a look at Labour faced with a crisis with lots of unknown factors. Did they react to the threat without delay?
Did they stop to learn whilst the crisis deepened
or did they decide that they didn't have that luxury and it was do right in the public interest as you go?

I'd say that the answers to the above showed that Labour were surprisingly competent. By contrast National proved through their contrary calls to be the polar opposite.

Nick J said...

Geoff, would you rather that the government had awaited legal niceties to be sorted out by lawyers and judges whilst the government risked people dying? That puts a whole new spin on "legally dead".

Also, this call for a strict rule of law. Which legal system? The British "colonial" one? Are you saying that you want law but not "colonial" law? It's sounds to me that you wish both to have your cake and to eat it.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I don't mind the government being called out for incompetence, if that's what you can call it given the singular nature of the crisis, and the fact that we haven't had one like this for about 100 years. What I find mildly annoying is the blithe assumption that National would have done better. It's like being in opposition – you can pretty much say anything you like but you won't be held to account for it unless you gain the government benches.

Geoff Fischer said...

Nick J:
The government was able to act both swiftly and legally.
"Rule of law" can apply within any legal system. Roman law, British common law, statute law, or tikanga Maori. It doesn't matter. A colonial government should act in accordance with its own law. Nationalists should follow the tikanga.
What I ask is very basic. That those who hold to colonial law abide by colonial law, and that those who hold to tikanga Maori abide by tikanga Maori. That way we all know where we stand.
I can't see an excuse for the government violating the laws which it has effectively made for itself. It had many other options. I suspect the reason it took the "unlawful" route was because it was trying to ride two horses. On the one hand, to garner voluntary support from the team of 5 million, and on the other to threaten those who did not cooperate with the full force of law. So it failed to ensure and make obvious that it was on well prepared legal ground. I would have done it differently in their position.
While we can excuse one or two abuses of power on grounds of "necessity", if it becomes a habit, freedom and democracy will surely suffer.