Te­flon Na­tional in the box seat


Po­lit­i­cal his­to­ri­ans will look back on Elec­tion 2017 in some in­credulity at how – for a gov­ern­ment near­ing the end of its third term – Na­tional still man­aged to keep the cam­paign spot­light al­most en­tirely on the Op­po­si­tion’s short­com­ings.

Its own per­for­mance, or plans for the fu­ture barely fig­ured in the cam­paign rhetoric. In fact, most vot­ers would prob­a­bly be hard pressed to name a sin­gle item on the agenda Na­tional plans to pur­sue dur­ing its fourth term in of­fice, be­yond a gen­eral sense of more of the same.

In essence, Na­tional now has a vir­tual clean slate when it comes to how it might gov­ern for the rest of the decade. Un­der MMP, coali­tions are vir­tu­ally es­sen­tial to the for­ma­tion of gov­ern­ments. Yet clearly, Na­tional’s ten-point mar­gin over Labour on elec­tion night has given it a moral edge in its ne­go­ti­a­tions with New Zealand First’s peren­nial king­maker, Win­ston Peters.

Ul­ti­mately, Na­tional will need to con­cede some of the baubles of of­fice and will have to make ges­tures on NZ First’s key is­sues – im­mi­gra­tion, pen­sions and re­gional devel­op­ment – but it has room to move in all three ar­eas. Even Peters’ de­sire for a ref­er­en­dum on the Maori seats would be rel­a­tively eas­ier to de­liver, now that the Maori Party have been elim­i­nated from the par­lia­men­tary equa­tion. The dif­fi­culty will be in pre­vent­ing such a bal­lot from be­com­ing a free-for-all spree of racial di­vi­sive­ness.

Dur­ing the in­terim pe­riod, Peters will be seek­ing to cre­ate drama and un­cer­tainty about his op­tions, mainly to max­imise his lever­age at the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble.

Yet not only does Na­tional hold the moral edge in form­ing a gov­ern­ment, it has less po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal to lose by mak­ing con­ces­sions to Peters on Cab­i­net ap­point­ments and pol­icy di­rec­tion. By con­trast, Jacinda Ardern’s brand could suf­fer per­ma­nent dam­age if she was seen to be con­ced­ing too much ground to Peters’ de­mands, in or­der to gain power.

An English/Peters gov­ern­ment looks like be­ing a far more con­ser­va­tive one than any we’ve seen dur­ing the Key years, par­tic­u­larly on so­cial is­sues. Older vot­ers would seem more likely to ben­e­fit from a English/ Peters com­bi­na­tion in of­fice, at the ex­pense of the young.

Still, Ardern can take some per­sonal con­so­la­tion from her ef­forts. Like Jeremy Cor­byn in Bri­tain, she led a party 20 points be­hind the gov­ern­ment only eight weeks ago, to within sight of power. She’s also brought sev­eral high cal­i­bre can­di­dates into Par­lia­ment, many of them women.

Bill English can feel even more sat­is­fied. This elec­tion saw him emerge from the twin shad­ows of John Key and his own elec­toral hu­mil­i­a­tion in 2002. True, Na­tional did run a cam­paign that sys­tem­at­i­cally dis­torted Labour’s pol­icy on taxes, in­clud­ing the in­fa­mous non-ex­is­tent ‘‘hole’’ in the Op­po­si­tion fi­nances. Yet as men­tioned, such tac­tics en­abled Na­tional to di­vert pub­lic and media at­ten­tion away from its fund­ing of pub­lic health, men­tal health and ed­u­ca­tion, and/or how it in­tends lift­ing wages and labour pro­duc­tiv­ity.

Those chal­lenges will resur­face, soon enough. Trea­sury fore­casts in­di­cate the econ­omy may have peaked. As­sum­ing Peters does lift Na­tional back into gov­ern­ment, there will be plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to test Na­tional’s claim to be­ing a su­pe­rior man­ager of the econ­omy.

‘‘Peters will be seek­ing to cre­ate drama and un­cer­tainty about his op­tions, mainly to max­imise his lever­age.’’

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