A few random thoughts on the election outcome:
● In yesterday’s Dominion Post, Tracy Watkins wrote that Jacinda Ardern had won the election. In fact she didn’t; her party was well beaten. What Ardern won was the round of secret horse-trading that followed the election. All elaborate, self-serving rationalisations aside, this inconvenient but incontrovertible truth will continue to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Ardern’s government. When it came to the crunch, Labour was more desperate than National to secure power and thus more willing to defer to New Zealand First. That’s how we ended up with a government in which a party that won only 7.2% of the popular vote, and couldn’t even retain its only electorate seat, is perversely rewarded with four seats at the cabinet table and the second-most powerful job in politics.
● In the rapture over the left’s putative victory, there’s a lot of denial and wishful thinking going on. No one wants to confront the possibility that it could all go pear-shaped. Perhaps the most notable example is James Shaw’s less than convincing insistence that having the climate change ministerial portfolio outside cabinet doesn’t mean the issue has been downgraded in terms of importance. He has to say that, of course. But a lot of voters on the left will be wondering how climate change – a priority issue for both the Greens and Labour – ended up being pushed off to one side. They will see this as a weakening of core commitments. It’s an early sign of the uncomfortable compromises that are required to make coalitions work, and which can gradually turn septic.
● Similarly, reported differences over the proposed Kermadec Sanctuary are being played down, but these point to the fundamental incompatibilities built into this three-way coalition – most notably between NZ First, which is big on economic development, and the Greens with their priority on sustainability, low growth and a pristine environment. Scuppering the Kermadecs deal at the behest of NZ First would inevitably be seen as a betrayal of the Greens, who initiated the sanctuary proposal. If it was agreed behind the Greens’ backs, as reported, so much the worse. And if NZ First was acting to protect the interests of friends and donors in the fishing industry, as implied by news reports, even worse again.
● And this is just the start. The potential for tension between the three coalition partners, but especially between NZ First and the Greens, is enormous. As Lisa Owen noted on The Nation, Winston Peters pointedly didn’t mention the Greens in his speech announcing the formation of the new government (an announcement that should properly have been made by the Governor-General, but that’s another matter). A politician of Peters’ cleverness and experience doesn’t make such an omission by accident. It unmistakably implies an intention to treat the Greens as if they don’t exist. But of course he can’t ignore them – and at some point, Peters’ Muldoonist enthusiasm for government stimulation of industry and employment, especially in the regions, is bound to clash head-on with the Greens’ concern for the environment. I wonder, for example, how the two parties might reconcile differences on issues such as offshore drilling and mining – a potential creator of jobs in some struggling regions (South Taranaki, for example), but an absolute no-no for the Greens.
● On social issues, the gaps are potentially even wider. A socially conservative party will have to co-exist with Labour and Green MPs who pride themselves on their “progressive” politics. How’s that going to play out when it comes to liberalisation of the drug laws, to give just one example? New Zealand First voters will expect their party to hold the line against a tide of liberalism on issues such as race-based preference and gender politics. Even with the Greens shut out of the cabinet room, it’s hard to envisage a meeting of minds.
● Not much was said during the election campaign about industrial relations, but with every Labour-led government there’s an expectation of a dividend for the unions. An increase in the minimum wage will be just the first and most obvious step. Expect a partial reversion, at the very least, to the old national awards system under the more friendly label of “fair pay” agreements. The unions have been chafing under nine years of National government and will want some of their old power back.
● Expect lots of talk about investment in innovation, education and upskilling. This is the stock-in-trade of modern Labour governments. It typically involves empowering the education sector (Labour governments are a godsend for teachers and academics) and spending enormous sums of taxpayers’ money for results that will be conveniently hard to measure.
● According to James Shaw, this will be a government of consensus. But in truth, there are only two obvious broad areas of consensus across the three parties. One is belief in the need for a more interventionist, hands-on government and in the power of regulation to create a better and fairer society. But the more pressing consensus binding them – at least for now – is their common desire to be in power. Having achieved that, all three are trying hard to ignore the obvious disparities that point to the possibility that this coalition will be fractious and short-lived. Perhaps the sheer relief and delight at being in government is blinding the left to the huge difficulty of maintaining unity.
● Jacinda Ardern hasn’t put a foot wrong so far. Her relaxed and assured performance, for such a relatively inexperienced leader, has been remarkable. Shaw, too, is a personable and seemingly capable politician who did well to haul the Greens out of the deep hole that Metiria Turei dug for them. But the real test is yet to come. A prime minister with no experience in government will have to manage a large number of similarly inexperienced ministers, while also managing potentially very awkward relationships between two smaller coalition partners with very different agendas. It’s going to be interesting.● One final thought. It’s been a cruel outcome for Bill English, but he hasn’t shown a trace of bitterness. For her part, Ardern made a point of generously paying tribute to English in her opening remarks on the night she became prime minister-elect. Whatever else may be wrong with our politics, we should be proud that the two leaders behaved with such civility after the white-hot tension, drama and uncertainty of the election. Perhaps it’s because we’re a small, intimate country and we need to get along with each other. Your political opponent might have kids at the same school as yours, or end up sitting next to you on the plane, or bump into you at the meat counter in the supermarket. Whatever the explanation, perhaps other countries should send their politicians here to see how it can be done.