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.

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