|The Man With His Hand On The Handbrake: NZ First’s participation in government is defined not so much by what it does, but by what it prevents its coalition partners from doing. Photo by Richard Harman.|
IN THE NORMAL COURSE OF EVENTS New Zealand general elections are won and lost in the centre-ground. Even under MMP, the multiplicity of parties is more apparent than real. For the most part, the minor parties are ideological outriders, positioned to the left or right of the more moderate political sentiment pursued by the majors. When National showed signs of losing its taste for economic reform, Act stepped forward to keep it honest. When Labour embraced neoliberalism in the 1980s, it spawned a succession of protest parties: NewLabour, the Alliance, the Greens; to keep the progressive flag flying. It is, therefore, a pretty straightforward exercise to work out who will go with whom after the votes have been counted. Everyone knows that the outriders have only one credible choice of coalition partner.
What makes the NZ First Party such a difficult political proposition is that it is the only party which claims the centre – not the centre-right or the centre-left – as its natural home. Since its foundation in July 1993, NZ First’s consistent pitch to voters has been that National and Labour are fraudulent centrists: pretending to moderation while secretly embracing extremism. Coming from the National Party, the founder and leader of NZ First, Winston Peters, has witnessed at close hand the enormous political effort required to prevent New Zealand’s business and farming interests from bending successive governments’ economic and social policies to their will. Peters knows what a radical undertaking the defence of moderation has always been.
Radicalism of any sort is disruptive, and the sort of radical populist interventions required to thwart the predatory intentions of the Australian banks, big business, the agricultural sector, large public sector unions and iwi-based corporates must entail major disruptions. This explains the unabashed hostility towards NZ First which has become the default position of virtually all the other political parties. They know that any coalition relationship with Peters and NZ First is bound to involve the frequent use of the party’s infamous “handbrake”. NZ First’s participation in government is defined not so much by what it does, but by what it prevents its coalition partners from doing.
The first coalition government of which NZ First was a part illustrates the political dilemma created by the mere presence of a genuinely centrist party. The changes demanded by NZ First were small-scale, but very popular: free doctor’s visits for children under six years old; generous concessions for superannuitants. They were bearable. But, NZ First’s refusal to support any further privatisations of municipally- and/or state-owned enterprises most certainly was not. National’s “dries” could not countenance such a direct challenge to the core tenets of neoliberalism. The successful plot, first to oust Jim Bolger (the coalition’s enabler) and then to dismiss Peters and his party, gave the lie to National’s pretentions to moderation. It also illustrated in the most vivid terms the radically disruptive effect of, in effect, doing nothing.
NZ First’s coalition with Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party also illustrates the disruptive effect of centrist aspirations, this time from the point of view of a populist party which had quickly become profoundly alarmed at both the inexperience of its senior coalition partner’s ministers, and what its leader and his colleagues were persuaded was the extremism of some of those ministers’ ambitions. It was not long before NZ First was reaching for the handbrake – most notably in relation to Labour’s preference for a Capital Gains Tax. Here, again, we see NZ First’s strong reluctance to disturb the status quo. Tax-free capital gain constitutes a vital part of New Zealand’s small enterprises’ business model. Peters was unconvinced that his Labour colleagues fully grasped the likely consequences – economic and cultural – of introducing a CGT.
Peters’ apprehension concerning the extremism permeating Labour’s parliamentary ranks was subsequently borne out by the eventual release of the He Puapua Report. The fact that the far-reaching recommendations of this guide to New Zealand becoming fully compliant, by 2040, with the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples had been kept from them was bitterly resented by NZ First and its leader.
Had it known about He Puapua, it is likely that NZ First, by campaigning strongly against it, would have remained above the 5 percent MMP threshold. While it is probable that the 2020 general election would have freed Labour from the need for NZ First’s support, Peters’ mere presence in the House would have strengthened the opposition to Labour’s decolonisation and indigenisation efforts significantly. In these circumstances, Act’s opinion poll support may not have surged so dramatically, and the 2023 electoral battlefield would look quite different.
Certainly, Act’s implacable opposition to serving alongside Peters and his colleagues in a National-Act-NZ First coalition government lends strength to the argument that political parties determined to keep the actions of a multi-party government within the parameters of public tolerance cannot avoid having a decisive impact on its conduct.
A National-led government committed to a purely ameliorative programme vis-à-vis infrastructure, housing, health and education would, surely, welcome the support of a similarly inclined NZ First? That the National leader, Christopher Luxon, has, to date, had so little to say on whether he would, or would not, welcome Peters’ participation in a coalition government, suggests strongly that his party’s ambitions fall well short of the grandiose. Unfortunately for Luxon, the same cannot be said for the ambitions of David Seymour and Act.
Act’s radicalism may yet prove its undoing. Were Peters and NZ First to retire to the cross-benches, promising their support for any confidence motion in a National-Act minority government (in much the same way as the Greens promised their support for a Labour-Alliance minority government back in 1999) Luxon would become New Zealand’s next prime minister. The downside of this arrangement would be that he and his party would be governing as hostages to Act’s extreme policy agenda.
While NZ First could vote for those items on National-Act’s agenda enjoying majority support, and for which it had also campaigned, this would not be the case when it came to Act’s hardline economic and social policies. As the time for National-Act to present their first Budget drew near, the question of whether Peters’ promise of confidence also included “supply” would become increasingly acute.
Were NZ First to say “This far – but no further!” and join with Labour, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori in voting down a cruel austerity Budget, a new election would have to be called. With Act having demonstrated what it is made of, Peters and NZ First might humbly invite the electorate to provide National with a less extreme coalition partner. One not so determined to force unkind and unwanted policies down the electorate’s throat.
Of course, all the pundits will opine that any party forcing a snap election so soon after a general election will be punished mercilessly by the voters. It is possible, too, that if given the option of a second crack at getting the country back on the right track, the electors might opt for Labour-Green-Te Pāti Māori. Then again, a great many of those same electors, marvelling at the political magic of the Great Centrist Showman, might give him exactly what he asks for – thereby confirming the radical consequences of doing as little as possible and as much as necessary.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website of Monday, 14 August 2023.