The three parties in government are bound together by the threat of mutually assured destruction.
So, it turns out we have a Pantene democracy: it doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen. And when it does happen, it delivers a L’Oréal Government for the lucky minor parties: jobs and policy trophies, because they’re worth it.
For Labour, the challenge now is to move quickly past the Red Shed danger zone. This is the phase of coalition-building the public generally distrusts, because “everyone gets a bargain!” One can portray this until the cows come home as sophisticated, Euro-Scandi-style multi-party consensus-building, but with Winston Peters clutching a goodie bag bulging with everything from the Foreign Affairs portfolio to a new museum and a guaranteed invite to every VIP tent at the races for the next three years, “Angela Merkel” is less likely to come to mind than “Boxing Day rummage”.
Still, the three-dimensional policy jigsaw has fitted together remarkably smoothly, and with a low dead-rat-ingestion rate. Potential deal-breakers, such as Labour’s desire to proceed with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and refusal to consider GST-free food, have melted into consensus. The Greens have agreed to hold their power outside the tent, at a politically useful and symbolic distance from New Zealand First. Tactful accommodations, such as Labour’s Trade Minister David Parker being positioned to do the heavy lifting for Peters on Foreign Affairs, and Associate Finance roles for Greens leader James Shaw and NZ First’s Shane Jones, should keep the ship of state from yawing for now.
Seldom has a government had so much to prove as this one does. Its very structure is almost unique in the world, and will remain iniquitous in some voters’ eyes even if its ministers cure cancer and bring peace to the Middle East. The arrangement also has the quaint unworldliness of that old TV ad where the cat, dog and mouse sit peaceably in front of the telly as though the laws of predation were able to be suspended.
Yet they have to be. Binding these three parties is the threat of what was known in nuclear-era diplomacy as mutually assured destruction. They must keep a balance between Stepford-Wife-level submissiveness and natural antipathy, highlighting their brand differences enough to keep their supporters happy, but sharing the limelight – and the responsibility when things go wrong. Even the perception of instability risks making them unre-electable.
Only by succeeding, and being seen to succeed, can these viscerally competing parties survive their liaison. That really will require Euro-Scandi sophistication – and for Winston to refrain from calling the Greens “fart blossoms” ever again.
Wisely, the machinery of government had been cranked up before the move to the Beehive. The momentum of change should ease the focus on the MMP-phobics’ mathematical grievances. Teams of law draftspeople are already beavering over the “First 100 Days” agenda, and a brisk six weeks of legislating has been scheduled before Christmas.
Behind the headline policy changes, however, is a stack of Pandora’s boxes – otherwise known as reviews – yet to be opened, not least that by the now-famous Tax Working Group. These reviews are IOUs for policies too complex, tedious or vote-loosening to be tackled quickly. They also double as a calming dose of apiarist’s smoke for some of the bees in the junior parties’ bonnets.
The Reserve Bank review is a means of exorcising Peters’ eternal and almost fetishistic opposition to monetarism; the benefits review will doubtless reset Work and Income
NZ’s penalties system among other iniquities but is highly unlikely to replicate the Greens’ preferred unconditional-benefits-for-all policy. Still, both could bring significant change, and so could the tax review: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is already foreshadowing a graduated corporate
tax that would favour small and medium-sized businesses this term. NZ First has also scored an inquiry into retail electricity prices – which cannot help but take us all the way to Tiwai Point and a newly framed debate on corporate welfare.
The new Government has a companion gift in the work former Energy Minister Judith Collins started on petrol-price margins. Handled shrewdly, that issue could form the basis of a populist attack on the cost of living. It could also antagonise big business, which will take some winning over, so it’s handy that Finance Minister Grant Robertson used to be a diplomat. Business was already reeling from Labour’s industrial relations policy and near-catatonic after Peters’ (mercifully unfulfilled) talk of currency controls.
LAMBTON QUAY LAMENTATIONS
But the underacknowledged feature of any changeof-government phase is grief. Wellington is a town heaving with secret mourners struggling to put a brave face on things. Obviously, National MPs feel the loss most keenly; with their theoretically commanding 44% share of the vote, they expected to form a fourth-term government. For former ministers, the suddenly empty diary can seem a terrifying abyss. Having to call one’s own taxi – taxi, mind, not Crown limo – is humiliating.
Scores of staff are now redundant; favoured consultants uncertain about future work; lobbyists having to junk whole chunks of their contact books; and political appointees wondering whether to slink away of their own volition or stoically await the “thank you and goodbye” letter.
The whole public service faces upheaval. The hipster deconstruction trend now goes way beyond coffee in the capital: the Ministry for Primary Industries is to be broken up into three separate ministries responsible for farm, fish and forest management. Could Steven Joyce’s magnum opus, the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), be next? The only public servants not hyperventilating into their DIY jars of coffee, froth and stevia will be those who spy new opportunities in being restructuring consultants.
The new Opposition is in the denial stage. There’s always a bittersweet Cinderella feel to the first days of Beehive banishment. This time it’s especially intense. The ugly sisters have gone to the ball, because MMP murdered the fairy godmother.
For now, it’s therapeutic for the Nats to bask in the waves of anti-Peters sentiment and anticipate embarrassment and disaster for their successors. But new administrations always get a honeymoon, and Ardern will initially probably enhance her already-substantial popularity.
Barring mishaps, National’s prince is three years away. It should be planning the long game, and developing its own skills at building cross-party consensus. Perversely, that may mean tempering its rhetoric against NZ First and the Greens. Meanwhile, Cinders’ housework beckons. Those cardboard boxes won’t unpack themselves.
For former ministers, the empty diary can seem terrifying and having to call one’s own taxi humiliating.
Winston Peters and Jacinda Ardern sign their coalition deal.