The contestants are feeling the pressure as the kitchen heats up.
This might be our country’s leastfavourite part of the election cycle: My Kitchen Cabinet Rules, the elimination heats. All we can do in this coalitionbuilding interregnum is endlessly mull over the ingredients list and speculate about what the contestant parties are cooking up. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the media positively surges to provide some – any – matter to fill the void between governments. Hell, we’d even volunteer to be food tasters.
It felt like the last straw on Wednesday, when the new MPs held a pretend Question Time, division bells and all, but forbade the media to cover it so that the tender petals could “practise freely”. Honestly. QT without the media is as pointless as poker without the ante. As for practising freely, what do they think we’ve been doing since their leaders went into negotiation no-speakies mode?
Realistically, though, anything our contacts from the various party machines tell us just now is by definition unreliable, as no one can possibly yet know the precise outcome. Saturday’s final count could reallocate seats to the point of changing all the parties’ bargaining power. As kingmakerin-chief Winston Peters says, there are nine possible permutations, including the dreaded impasse and fresh election. Factor in the endless potential policy combinations, and we’re trying to second-guess a cosmic Rubik’s cube.
There is what the US media brilliantly dubbed “truthiness” to most of the vacuumperiod reportage and conjecture. It’s also, to use a favourite Winstonism, mostly bulldust.
Safe in the knowledge that when the Government is finally installed, all our bovine vacuum-packing matter will be forgotten, let’s tackle a few of the popular factoids of the moment.
That Winston wants to be Prime Minister.
Well, who doesn’t? But all the signals he’s emitted since election night have been restrained. It’s significant that he’s talking about “doing what’s in the best interests of the country”, not “my party”. Ignore the hyperbolic anti-media ranting (which Winstonologists know is just designed as therapy for both parties). Peters knows his hand isn’t strong. New Zealand First got a provisional 7.5% of the vote. That’s a bitter disappointment, and he knows the public would barely accept that this entitles him to be deputy let alone PM. He also knows he cannot, with nine MPs, demand the Earth. His most coveted legacy is an enduring political party, not this or that job. If NZ First overplays its hand, it won’t survive voters’ wrath. This also tackles another popular factoid.
That MMP gives minor parties too much power.
Small parties who exercise power, even reasonably proportionate power, seldom get to do it for long, because their very effectiveness also makes them seem too cosy with the
Wag the dog for the good of your party’s supporters and you risk getting docked.
Government for their supporters’ comfort. The Maori Party, which arguably extracted more policy wins from a government than NZ First ever has, at least on a spending basis, has been wiped out this election. It can console itself that no good deed ever goes unpunished. Wag the dog for the good of your supporters and you risk getting docked.
That National is trying to destroy the Greens.
Repeated overtures from National to the Greens are both sincere – it really would prefer to deal with James Shaw than Peters – and disingenuous – it knows the Greens will not, and under their own rules cannot, coalesce with it. But
it’s a worth-a-try political
stunt. It might, but probably hasn’t, put Peters’s weights up. It has drawn a lot of voter endorsement and put pressure on the Greens’ membership to reconsider their opposition to deals with National in the future. It also puts the Greens on the spot with the implication that they want to save the planet, but only on their terms, and that a planet ruled by Tories can perish.
But it has also looked cynical of National to suddenly make nice, having spent nine years ridiculing the Greens as anti-business and antigrowth, and running the stringent benefit system that occasioned the accidental martyrdom of Metiria Turei.
As someone succinctly summed it up on Twitter, there’s a perverse mood of “how dare NZ First hold the Government to ransom and how dare the Greens refuse to hold the Government to ransom”.
Bluntly, the one-sided courtship has also looked rather creepy, like that bloke who embarked on a piano-playing marathon to try to pressure his girlfriend to change her mind about breaking up with him. Bill: James is just not that into you. Stop calling.
That this three-week wait is barbaric and utterly intolerable.
Europeans and Scandinavians, who admittedly have had decades longer than us to get used to it, regard this coalition period as a perfectly civilised and sophisticated way to honour democracy, and a process not to be rushed. Theirs can take months. To them, we must seem to have a bad case of the sort of FOMO (fear of missing out) normally found only in five-year-old boys. But equally, there’s the haughty injunction from constitutional buffs …
That New Zealanders simply don’t understand how MMP is supposed to work.
This is our MMP, and our voters will decide how it works, thanks. To harp on about the Euro-Scandi ethos of proportional voting risks patronising voters who find themselves livid that a minor party again holds the balance of power. Voters are perfectly entitled to question such things. We’re a Westminster, first-past-thepost electoral culture, with MMP only recently grafted on. Why can’t we evolve our own hybrid rather than a pure MMP system? New Zealanders may never develop a German or Danish sensibility about minority parties’ participation, and maybe that’s okay. We may always deem the single party with the most votes the “winner”, and expect it to form a government irrespective of other coalition possibilities.
As for minority governments – hold our beer! Public tolerance of new ideas has its limits. Experts and boffins cannot browbeat voters into conforming to a voting culture to fit the official received wisdom. The way we do MMP may not work in theory, but somehow, we seem to have made it work in practice for 21 years.
Even so, as Tom Petty sang, the waiting is the hardest part.
Experts cannot browbeat voters into conforming to a voting culture to fit the official received wisdom.
Winston Peters, left, and James Shaw: too much power?