As the sounds of battle fade, there are some obvious injuries, including to democracy itself.
Papal conclaves emit smoke signals at each stage of their deliberations. Messages from the hothouse of New Zealand’s coalition negotiations are conveyed in steam, and our kingmaker has been building up a head of it for a long, long time.
Winston Peters is at the apex of a 24-year mission to punish and reform his party of origin, National, for what he sees as having betrayed its principles. His campaign rhetoric was at times like a butterscotch-lit Mainland Cheese ad about the years when National governments actively stopped things getting too expensive, did anything necessary to preserve provincial NZ and we didn’t have foreigners muscling in on everything we did.
Peters espoused such a comprehensive array of causes, from rebuilding ChristChurch Cathedral to reimbursing Mangawhai ratepayers for their wastewater scheme, that it’s been easy to forget the belief that lies at his molten core: economic nationalism.
The clearest steam-signal to come out of this week’s Beehive talks concerned foreign investment and currency controls and, by a mordant irony, it was nearly enough to pitch capital and currency markets into free fall. These two matters are at the extreme retro end of the party’s policy suite and, curiously, Peters never sought to pursue them before when he had coalition leverage – and a bigger caucus than he has today.
The technical and practical difficulties of his proposals to devalue – and even if it can be done, it could be hectically inflationary – and of turning the foreign-capital valve to low will keep politicians, officials, business and possibly also voters anxiously busy for the foreseeable future.
Now the battle’s over, it’s time, as the old saying goes, for the analysts to come down from the mountains and bayonet the wounded. The trouble is that it’s not yet entirely clear who they are. There are some obvious injuries, including to democracy itself: despite the most intense publicity campaign ever to encourage it, the youth vote appears to have gone down, and there’s renewed teeth-gnashing about the peculiarities of MMP. But the present casualty list may not be final: some MPs disgruntled with the coalition outcome may yet bail. So far, four party leaders and two whole parties have perished, and the much-mooted
National-Green Teal Deal turned out more of an Aqua Fatwa.
By now, readers will probably know who got to form the Government – the Listener went to print before the decision – but other important questions remain to be answered by post-poll research, not least whether there was a mandate for a change of government, or for the status quo. National emerged well ahead of the field but unable to govern without another bloc, which at the least suggests a mood for change.
A vote for Labour or the Greens also suggests a vote for change, but what of NZ First supporters’ intentions? Until a couple of months ago, that party was the only viable change agent our politics had produced in almost a decade. Neither Labour nor the Labour-Green bloc ever looked like gaining a majority over National and friends in three terms, so the only chance of change was with NZ First holding the bal
ance of power and
Peters’ campaign rhetoric was at times like a butterscotch-lit Mainland Cheese ad.
either acting as a handbrake on the National-led Government or giving a majority to a LabourGreen pairing.
In view of the stream of anti-Government rhetoric from Peters these past nine years, it’s tempting to assume NZ First voters were endorsing big-C change. But that theory probably became rubble after the Jacinda bomb exploded. Labour’s August leadership change overnight made it the biggest change agent, drawing support away from NZ First.
Logically, voters who stuck with Peters through that were of the baked-on variety, more likely to hanker after the Winstonian idyll of “National the way it used to be”.
Post-election academic research will tell us more about the underlying sentiment among NZ First voters. But it would be just as useful to know whether Steven Joyce’s budget rabbit hole and the “Let’s Tax This” campaign against Labour were decisive. At a cursory glance, my oath they were. Polls showed Labour snapping at National’s heels and even nudging ahead, until Joyce’s narrative of Labour’s fiscal flakiness took hold.
In fairness, Labour did much of the heavy lifting itself, with its delay-button tax position and an ill-targeted water tax. Inevitably, Ardern was challenged every day to rule out some form of new tax, and it became policy death by a thousand cuts. But did Joyce’s tactic, which made him look a chump to almost anyone who knew anything about government accounting, scare off a decisive number of voters and make the difference between Labour or National having a majority?
A further question – and one vital to the future design of MMP – is the Catch-22 for minor-party supporters, of which the Opportunities Party (TOP) may have been a casualty. Thousands either read their detailed policies, attended their nightly rallies, or both, and many earnt the unusual bonus of being called ”morons”, “thickos” or “mad cat ladies” by leader Gareth Morgan if they dared query any policy. TOP replicated the new-broom excitement around Bob Jones’s New Zealand Party, which attracted 12% of the vote in 1984.
But its inability to poll much more than 2% in the campaign would have deterred some pro-TOP voters who feared that their vote would be wasted, because the party looked unlikely to make the 5% threshold – thus ensuring it didn’t.
Of those who wanted to vote TOP at some stage but didn’t, how many were deterred by that risk? (And how many backed off because they were thin-skinned morons, thickos and mad cat ladies?)
This wastage fear may also have kept the Green and NZ First vote artificially low, as at times both parties looked like sinking below 5%. Doubtless a further steam signal from the Beehive will be a proposal to dust off the shelved 2012 MMP review, which advised that the threshold be lowered. Despite the wounded feelings from the week’s teampicking, we can count on a grand coalition when it comes to parties’ self-preservation.
Logically, voters who stuck with Peters after the Jacinda bomb exploded were of the baked-on variety.
Head of steam: NZ First MP Tracey Martin, adviser Paul Carrad, leader Winston Peters and deputy Ron Mark.