(First published in The Dominion Post, November 3.
“We won, you lost – eat that!”
Remember? That was the reported taunt to National MPs by deputy prime minister Michael Cullen in Parliament not long after National was banished to the opposition benches in 1999.
Actually, Cullen didn’t use the words in that sequence. Hansard quoted him as saying “Eat that! You lost, we won”, which conveys a subtly different nuance.
Although it’s commonly assumed that he was gloating over National’s election defeat, he was celebrating the fact that Labour had just consigned National’s Employment Contracts Act to the scrapheap.
But the triumphalist sentiment was unmistakeable, and since the paraphrased version has entered New Zealand political mythology, we’ll go with that.
Cullen’s comment is worth recalling because there has been a chorus of “We won, you lost – eat that!” since the formation of the new centre-Left government.
None of the crowing, I hasten to add, has come from Jacinda Ardern or her partners in government. They are wisely concentrating on the work ahead rather than wasting energy on nyah-nyah point-scoring. Rather, it’s the Left-leaning political commentariat that has been relishing its WWYLET moment.
Another crucial difference from 2000 is that this time, the taunt isn’t directed at the National Party. It’s aimed at Right-leaning commentators – including me, probably – who questioned the process by which the new government was formed.
Anyone who expresses any such misgivings is derided as a sore loser or caricatured as a dinosaur, still pining for the days of the first-past-the-post electoral system. The assumption is that they must be disgruntled National supporters.
The Left is keen to stifle any discussion about the questionable circumstances of the Labour-led government’s birth. Get over it, they say; move on.
Well, just for the record, I don’t advocate a return to FPP and I don’t support the National Party. I didn’t vote for it and would have been happy to see it beaten fair and square.
Neither do I believe that National was automatically entitled to form a new government just because it won more votes than any other party.
I would argue, however, that it had a powerful moral claim to be first cab off the rank in coalition negotiations. But in the constitutional vacuum that followed the election, it was left to Winston Peters, Mr Seven Per Cent, to orchestrate the coalition-forming process. And it suited him to play the two major parties off against each other in order to secure maximum advantage for himself and New Zealand First.
Ultimately, Labour got Peters’ blessing because it was more willing to accede to his demands. To put it more bluntly, Labour was more desperate than National to win power.
Peters then added insult to injury by taking his media label of kingmaker rather too literally, magisterially announcing the formation of the new government as if delivering the speech from the throne, and not even having the courtesy to inform Ardern or Bill English beforehand. I suppose it was his unsubtle way of reminding everyone who was in charge.
You have to hand it to him. It was a breathtakingly audacious hijacking of the post-election process, and we let him get away with it.
The Left-leaning commentariat insist this was a glowing example of MMP working exactly as it’s supposed to.
They would say that, of course, because it delivered the result they hoped for. But can anyone deny that democracy is debased when a party with 7 per cent of the vote effectively dictates the rules of play?
We’re now expected to accept the fiction that Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First are soulmates, joined at the hip. But in reality, all that united them was a hunger for power. It’s a coalition of convenience. Peters couldn’t even bring himself to mention the Greens in his kingmaker speech.
The inherent tensions between those parties – socially conservative and populist on one hand, “progressive” and highly idealistic on the other – could easily cause this coalition to implode. That’s not wishful thinking; it’s just being realistic.
However it’s not the outcome of the election that grates so much as the process by which we got there.
Those who insist that the vote for change was bigger than that for the status quo have an arguable case. Many New Zealanders were tired of National’s laissez-faire approach to pressing issues, and even some on the Right accused the party of appearing arrogant and complacent. It will do National’s MPs no harm to suck it up on the opposition benches.
We now have a new government that’s fresh, ambitious and full of energy. It’s doing what Labour governments have traditionally done – coming in with a hiss and a roar after a long period under National and hitting the “reset” button.
But it’s unfortunate that our likeable new prime minister’s moment of glory is tarnished by doubt about the legitimacy of the process by which her government was formed. There has to be a better way.