Winston’s choice can’t heal divide
Afew days ago, the country counted the special votes, and learned the final election tally. As everyone knew beforehand, the numbers didn’t really change the essentials. Yes, the centre-right bloc has finished only a couple of seats ahead of the centre-left. On the crucial matter of being able to pass legislation, a Jacinda Ardern–led government with New Zealand First on board would enjoy a parliamentary majority of three seats, while a similar NZ First arrangement led by Bill English would enjoy a majority of five.
In other words, the mechanics of government would be able to function comfortably under either option. Was it really worth losing two weeks of bargaining time on policy compromises in order to clarify this fact? In all likelihood, Winston Peters reached his decision on election night – and now that the special votes are in, the only remaining question is whether it will now be easier or harder for him to rationalise his choice to the public. Apparently, we’ll all know his decision, come October 12.
Unless someone egregiously insults Peters (which an overconfident Labour allegedly did in 1996) the negotiations look like window dressing. There simply isn’t enough time for much in the way of meaningful horse-trading on policy, and nor will Peters be able to safeguard his policy gains within a highly detailed, prescriptive coalition document, as happened in 1996.
Historically, Peters has ample reason to feel wary about going into a coalition with either major party, red or blue. Both times he did so beforehand, it ended in disaster. In 1999, NZ First got hammered by voters and painfully rebuilt itself – only to be punished again in 2008 to the point where Peters and his party vanished from Parliament altogether. NZ First then rebuilt again, and returned three years later.
This tumultuous history still doesn’t shed much light on Peters’ likely direction this time, although it could be taken as a rationale for not going into any coalition at all. Arguably, either a confidence and supply (or abstention) arrangement with a minority government might make NZ First’s own survival more likely.
That possibility aside, you can make a plausible case for either an exhausted National administration or a novice Labour/Greens one being more ripe with opportunities for the wily old operator. Arguably, the centre-left could be a wiser, long term investment for NZ First, given that a National-led administration would be unlikely to win a fifth term in 2020. Yet competing arguments can be mounted on the short term wisdom of Peters going with National which – however narrowly – can argue it has a mandate based on selectively chosen permutations of the popular vote, the seats won, and its electorate victories (National won 41 electorates to Labour’s 29) etc etc.
Whatever decision Peters finally makes, his choice will not be a healing and unifying one. Half of the electorate will feel elated, while the other half will be left feeling deeply aggrieved. New Zealand has become a divided country: rural vs urban, farmers vs environmentalists, rich vs poor, young vs old, social conservatives vs social liberals… and so on. None of these far more fundamental divisions can be blamed on Winston Peters.