Sunday, January 14, 2018

The real winner in 2017: Winston Peters, the Great Tuatara of New Zealand politics

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 12.)

Almost without exception, political commentators declared Jacinda Ardern their politician of 2017, and you could see why.

Thrust into the leadership of a floundering and demoralised Labour Party six weeks out from a general election, she re-energised the party and ran an assured, upbeat campaign that saw Labour bounce back from woeful poll ratings to win 37 per cent of the vote and 14 new seats.

History will record that she failed on election day. The gap between Labour and National remained too wide. Yet contrary to expectations, probably including her own, Ardern ended up as prime minister.

For the first time since New Zealand adopted the MMP system in 1993, the party that won the biggest share of the vote didn’t form the government. How we arrived at this outcome was down to one man: Winston Raymond Peters.

The Peters party, a.k.a. New Zealand First, won 7 per cent of the vote. It lost three of its electorate seats in Parliament, including Peters’ own. Despite this less than resounding endorsement by the people of New Zealand, Peters ended up determining the makeup of the new government.

Many insist, bizarrely, that this is an example of MMP working exactly as intended, but I would argue that it points to a gaping void in our constitutional arrangements – one that allows a politician whose party commanded an almost negligible share of the vote to decide who will govern us.

For his willingness to exploit this wonky system to his advantage, and for the sheer audacity of the way he went about it, Peters is a hands-down winner of my award for Politician of the Year in 2017.

The Great Tuatara of New Zealand politics brazenly played the system to ensure he became not only deputy prime minister but Minister of Foreign Affairs as well.

Foreign Affairs seemed an odd portfolio choice, given that his political preoccupations have always been domestic. But it’s tailor-made for him, involving maximum prestige in return for minimal effort. The ink was barely dry on the coalition agreement before he was jetting to Vietnam to hob-nob with world leaders at an Apec summit.

Peters played everyone for suckers in the post-election coalition game. He was allowed to orchestrate the entire coalition-forming process.

Just to make sure no one was in any doubt about who was in charge, he announced the formation of the new government live on television without even bothering to first inform the party leaders he had been negotiating with.

In a proper rules-based democracy, this whole process would surely have been controlled by the head of state – or in our case, her representative, the Governor-General. But Dame Patsy Reddy was just another impotent observer on the sidelines.

The coalition negotiations took place in an environment of almost paranoid secrecy. We now know there’s a document covering what was discussed and agreed but we’re not allowed to see it.

The political establishment insists this is the way it must be done. Voters are not to be trusted with information about how decisions are made on who will govern us.

But there are some things we do know. One is that National and Labour believed they were negotiating with Peters in good faith. Both thought they were in with a more or less equal chance of becoming the government.

We now know, of course, that on the day before the election, Peters had quietly commenced legal proceedings against four National cabinet ministers, including then prime minister Bill English. This made it extremely improbable that he would seal a deal with National, but it wasn’t divulged at the time.

Peters must have known all along who he would go with, but it suited him to allow both parties to think they were competing on a level playing field. 

It was especially to his advantage to play Labour along. Left-wing commentator Chris Trotter reckons the party fell into line with Peters’ agenda because it never expected to be in government.

It’s also now clear what some of Peters’ demands were. Apart from four cabinet seats – which is more than twice what New Zealand First would have been entitled to if appointments were proportionate with its poll result – he also insisted on a waka-jumping bill to ensure no MPs went rogue on him.

You could call this his utu bill. Peters has a long memory and is clearly still smarting over the eight MPs who deserted him in 1997.

The bill smacks of vindictiveness and runs counter to democratic principles because it shifts control over MPs from voters (where it rightly belongs) to party bosses, but Labour and even the supposedly principled Greens were happy to humour him.

How long can a government formed in such shonky circumstances last? Good question. But there can be no doubt who the real winner was in 2017.

Footnote: Sharp-eyed readers will have detected an error in this column where I referred to New Zealand First losing three  electorate seats. Of course only Peters held an electorate seat; the others were list seats. Ironically, my original version of the column was correct. But in the process of hastily correcting a relatively minor error in that particular sentence, I inadvertently created a greater one. There was a time when such a mistake would very likely have been picked up by a beady-eyed subeditor, but those days are gone.

1 comment:

Max Shierlaw said...

Are there any countries where an unelected head of state sets the agenda for the formation of a new Government? Or even an elected head of state? And I'm not sure what difference it would have made anyway. Even if National were given first shot at forming a new Government, if NZ First didn't want to join them in a coaltion it wouldn't have happened. Recall the 1974 & 2010 British elections where the encumbent Prime Minister sought to form a Government but couldn't because he didn't have the numbers.