(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz. September 20.)
I have a shameful confession to make.
On a gorgeous spring afternoon in 2017, I drove to Fernridge School, just west of Masterton, and cast my vote in the general election.
Virtually until the moment I entered the polling booth, I remained an undecided voter.
My electorate vote was straightforward enough. It went to Labour’s Wairarapa candidate Kieran McAnulty – mainly because I thought Alastair Scott, the sitting National MP, had done bugger-all in his first term other than turn up for photo opportunities, and therefore didn’t deserve to be re-elected.
In the event, Scott was returned, albeit with a reduced margin, and has been noticeably more active than when his party was in government. Perhaps the fright did him good.
But that’s not the shameful bit. For the crucial party vote, I ended up holding my nose and placing a tick beside New Zealand First.
I apologise now for this act of political vandalism. It was a moment of madness in an otherwise unblemished life and I will suck up whatever opprobrium comes my way.
Voting for Winston Peters went against all my instincts, but I was able to rationalise an otherwise irrational act on the basis that I was voting for purely tactical reasons.
The polls indicated the result could be close. I reasoned that whichever major party formed a government, it might be useful to encumber it with a coalition partner that could serve as a check on its power. Tragically, the only party likely to fulfil that purpose was New Zealand First.
If Labour got in, and especially if it had Green support, Peters and his MPs might be in a position to curb any wild ideological excesses of the type centre-left parties are prone to after long periods in opposition.
If a National-led government was returned, I foresaw a different problem. I didn’t fancy the thought of a smugly triumphalist National Party. The born-to-rule syndrome is not a pretty sight. Being in coalition with New Zealand First, I reasoned, might take some of the wind out of National’s sails.
Well, we all know the outcome. As the old saying goes, we should be careful what we wish for.
Some readers may recall a great deal of huffing and puffing in this column over the way Peters subsequently gamed the system to secure maximum advantage for himself and New Zealand First, leveraging his party’s piffling 7 per cent share of the vote into a commanding position from which he was able to dictate the shape of the government.
I was too ashamed at the time to admit my partial responsibility for this state of affairs. Only a trusted few knew my guilty secret.
No doubt I’ll be accused of hypocrisy for giving my vote to Peters and then professing to be appalled by what transpired.
Well, fair enough. But I would argue that it was possible to vote for Peters and still be outraged by the way he took control of the coalition negotiations. I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the ease with which he was able to manipulate the other players - helped, of course, by Labour’s desperation to regain power after three terms in opposition.
And in mitigation I would point out that in voting for New Zealand First I was doing exactly what the MMP system was intended to do, which is to ensure as far as possible that no one party ends up wielding total power. The architects of MMP would be proud of me.
From a strictly pragmatic standpoint, I have to admit that things panned out pretty much as I envisaged. My tactical vote had the desired effect, which was to moderate the behaviour of whichever party formed the government.
New Zealand First has now jammed several sticks into the spokes of Labour and the Greens, to the teeth-grinding frustration of the Left. The government is looking shambolic and there must be doubts about its ability to run a full term.
No one should be surprised at this turn of events. Peters is a team player only if he’s in charge of the team. He might behave himself for a while, but in time his natural belligerence and contrarianism will assert itself.
The irony is that the Left now has to endure the agony of seeing their agenda frustrated because of an electoral system that the Left championed. But this was always on the cards, given the fundamental incompatibility between two socially “progressive” parties and one that draws inspiration from Muldoon-era conservatism.
It’s kind of perversely satisfying in an “I told you so” way, so why am I not celebrating? Probably because I don’t think this is how democracy is supposed to work.