The three par­ties in govern­ment are bound to­gether by the threat of mu­tu­ally as­sured de­struc­tion.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - JANE CLIFTON

Jane Clifton

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.


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.

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