THE PROBLEM FACING EVERY LEFTIST on 14 October is whether any vote they cast will bring anything resembling progressive change. Gaming it out, the radical voter always loses. There is no combination, short of an absolute majority for either the Greens or Te Pāti Māori (TPM) that holds out the slightest hope of delivering genuine transformational change. And, let’s be honest, the chances of either the Greens or TPM claiming an absolute majority of the Party Vote are as close to zero as makes no difference.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s embrace the most wildly optimistic scenario. Labour, after a surprisingly effective campaign, takes 35 percent of the Party Vote. Somehow, the Greens do enough to hold on to their 2020 Party Vote of around 8 percent. TPM, to the shock and surprise of the pundits, proves the Roy Morgan pollsters right by winning 7 percent of the Party Vote.
On paper, that’s a pretty creditable victory for the Left. Labour with 45 seats, the Greens with 10 seats, TPM with 9 seats: together they command 64 seats – more than enough for an effective coalition to govern. But, honestly, what are the chances of cobbling together a radical programme out of the policies of these three very different political parties? The truthful answer is: Not Good.
With more than twice the number of seats than the Greens and TPM combined, Labour will see no reason why it should not call the shots on all serious policy issues. Having ruled out a whole swag of radical Green and TPM policies in the run-up to the election, Labour’s negotiators would present their plurality of the Party Vote as a clear endorsement of the Government’s moderation. Wealth and windfall taxes would be off the table. GST would remain on food. There would be no state-owned supermarket chain supplied by iwi growers.
In staking out this ground, Labour would receive the near unanimous backing of the business community, the mainstream news media, and (from behind the scenes) the public service. After all, the defenders of the status quo would argue, the combined Party Votes for Labour and National account for more than two-thirds of the electorate. Moderation, they would say, won the election – not radicalism. The radical parties of the Left must, therefore, accept that on all important matters the will of the Labour Party must prevail. Had National and Act secured the majority, Act’s radicalism would have had to be similarly curtailed.
Okay, okay, we know: there is no way the Greens and TPM are about to let themselves be thrust back in their boxes – not this time. This time they’re going to play hard ball: no substantive concessions – no votes. This time, from the cross-benches, the Greens and TPM fully intend to control the flow of events. After all, Labour cannot govern without them. So, this time, it’s Labour that will have to bend.
But taihoa, comrades, you’re not thinking this through! There are no cross-benches for you to sit on – not yet. The summoning of Parliament is one of the very few powers reserved to King Charles III, or his representative (in this case the Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro) and constitutional convention requires that the Crown be satisfied that one or more of the parties elected is in a position to govern the Realm. And, when the Crown says “govern” it means run the country effectively, efficiently, and reliably for three years. Not precariously, from vote to vote, at the whim of one or more of the minor parties.
And, don’t forget, the person advising the Governor-General through this fraught process will be Chris Hipkins. Sure, he will only be a “caretaker” prime minister, but constitutionally he remains the politician Dame Cindy must turn to first. It will be Chippy who keeps her up-to-speed, vis-à-vis the Greens and TPM, right up to the moment he and his colleagues decide it is time to inform the Governor-General that Labour’s negotiations with the Greens and TPM have reached an impasse.
At that point, Dame Cindy will pick up the phone and direct a few well-chosen questions to James Shaw and Marama Davidson. Will their party allow Chris Hipkins to form a strong and stable administration? Will he be able to rely upon the Greens to refrain from turning every important policy decision into a battle of political wills?
What are the chances, really, of James and Marama saying anything other than “Yes”? And then, what are the chances of the designated representatives of the Green membership tipping New Zealand into a constitutional crisis by refusing to back their leaders?
Not that such a refusal would stop the step-by-step Vice-Regal advance towards a resolution of the developing crisis. Dame Cindy’s next move would be to pick up the phone and direct the same questions to Rawiri Waititi and Debbie Ngarewa Packer. And their response, almost certainly, would be to put off answering Dame Cindy until the TPM President, John Tamihere, had had a brass-knuckle discussion with Chris Hipkins and Willie Jackson about what Labour needed to do to secure TPM’s unswerving backing.
Were Chippy and Willie to promise moving the constitutional/Te Tiriti debate to the next level, while pouring a truly outrageous amount of money into Whanau Ora, would John, Rawiri and Debbie say “Yes”? Almost certainly, they would. The TPM call to Government House would be made.
All eyes would now be on the Greens – assuming they hadn’t already caved. Once again the phone would ring. This time Dame Cindy would let them know that if they continued to withhold the votes Mr Hipkins needs, then her next call will be to Mr Luxon.
And if that call was made, to whom would Christopher Luxon speak next? Chris Hipkins? Definitely. John Tamihere? Possibly. David Seymour? Not if he’s got any sense. You see where this is going, don’t you?
Certainly, both James Shaw and Marama Davidson are quite intelligent enough to know who will end up getting blamed if New Zealand, driven by their intransigence, moves inexorably towards a Grand Coalition. That’s why, after securing Chippy’s promise of four Green seats at the Cabinet Table, the reply to the Governor-General will be “Yes.”
Because, it is utterly unrealistic to believe that the National Party will keep baling a left-wing government out of its multiplying parliamentary difficulties by ponying-up with the needed votes whenever the PM calls. If that’s the way of things, then why not demand the Deputy-Prime Ministership for Luxon? Why not secure multiple National Party seats at the Cabinet Table? In other words: why not go all-in for a Grand Coalition? Either that, or force a new election.
It just isn’t that easy to hold a whole country to ransom – especially when your party, or parties, emerged from the election with 15 percent of the Party Vote. In the end, a democratically-governed state simply will not attempt to rule in defiance of public opinion. If a clear majority of the electorate declines to vote for the revolutionary option, then – one way or the other – the policies of sweet moderation will prevail.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 21 July 2023.