The decision to rule out working with NZ First was a demonstration of more than just cold hard electoral calculus from Simon Bridges, writes former National party activist and commentator Liam Hehir.
As we all know, Simon Bridges has vowed not to work with Winston Peters after the 2020 election. This means that New Zealanders are faced with a clean option between a National/ACT government or continuing with the existing triumvirate of Labour, NZ First and the Greens. The declaration deprives Winston Peters of his decisive role in government formation but commits National to a narrower path to any victory.
Was it a good idea for Bridges to do this? I think so. Here are six reasons why.
One: Voters deserve a clear choice
MMP is a system with many attractive features. One of those is that small parties can gain a foothold in Parliament if they can convince just one in twenty voters to back them. There is real fairness in that.
However, the fractured parliaments that result sometimes rob voters of the power to effectively choose one government over another. When parties refuse to announce coalition preferences in advance, the decision as to who governs must be made in the formerly smoke-filled rooms. Parties supported by very small minorities often end up gaining disproportionate influence in those scenarios.
When parties transparently announce their intentions at the outset, it brings balance to the system. Because of Bridges’ announcement, voters know that they have choice between a conservative government with a libertarian edge or the social-democratic, nationalist and anti-capitalist status quo.
The agency of voters has been restored.
Two: It’s better to reject than to be rejected
NZ First may have planned on playing up its king-making role, but the chances of the party actually defecting were slim. For months now, NZ First sympaticos have been telling me the party would start the process of breaking with Labour. But it just hasn’t happened. And there are good reasons for that.
In 1996, Winston Peters kept Jim Bolger in office after an election that cemented his image as The Great Decider. However, the reality is that since NZ First teamed up with Labour to take the foreshore and seabed from Iwi in 2004, the parties have remained in a de facto alliance. It’s not the most natural fit, of course, but shared animosity towards National seems to be glue enough for them.
Add to this the fact that changing sides could only be a tacit admission of failure, and Winston Peters’ acerbic statements about Simon Bridges (who crushed him in the Tauranga electorate in 2008) and it’s just too hard to see NZ First delivering National into office. So why dance to its tune?
Three: It deprives Labour of the moral high ground
People wanting to discredit the National Party are apt to compare it to Donald Trump and other vulgar populists. These comparisons are often unfair and self-serving. Since 2017, however, there has been a simple rejoinder: “your deputy prime minister is literally Winston Peters.”
It is not possible to come back from this. Peters is clearly a man who cares deeply about this country, but the history of his outrageous statements is really something. Liberal supporters of this government cannot have their cake and eat it too.
You just don’t get to go on about how you give nothing to racism while rationalising away the strong nationalistic streak at the heart of your progressive government.
And so, from a purely tactical perspective, anything that emphasises the kinship between Labour and NZ First will help to inoculate National against bad faith attacks on its liberal bona fides.
Four: It’s immaterial to National’s big risk
For the past two and something years, polling has shown a a relatively stable balance of power among the parliamentary parties. National has a small relative majority and Labour is second. NZ First and the Greens are somewhere just below and over five percent respectively.
National will win the election if it can stay ahead of Labour and both of the others go under. If both survive, however, National will lose. If one (but not the other) fails to make it then it’s a toss up.
The worst outcome for National could result from the Greens looking likelier to survive than NZ First. If Peters then points to all the times he was a handbrake on the government then there will be a strong temptation for centre-right voters to turn to him for salvation. If National look doomed, that could be a potent argument that decimates the party vote.
But if Bridges had said he would be willing to work with Peters, would any of that change? It didn’t help Bill English in 2002. If anything, an expressed willingness to work with NZ First would only make it look like an even safer insurance policy for anxious voters.
Five: It’s better in the long run
NZ First won’t be around forever. Winston Peters is a uniquely talented and famous political figure. His various disciples, on the other hand, have never made a splash with the electorate. The day will come when the party must choose a new leader and when that happens it will fold like an umbrella on a gusty Wellington day.
The National Party, however, will continue to survive into the foreseeable future. It has a greater legacy of which to be mindful. Three years of being in office but not in power is not a price to be paid lightly. Those who care about the party as an institution must always be mindful of those longer term concerns.
Six: It’s the right thing to do
This might sound quaint, but there is a moral dimension to sidelining NZ First. I am not one of those who holds to the idea Winston Peters is a charlatan. It is quite plain that, by his lights, he wants what he thinks is the best for the common good. And the same surely goes for the 187,000 people who voted for his party in 2017.
But the truth is that NZ First has not been a force for the common good in New Zealand politics. There’s just no way of rationalising away its past and its various outrageous antics over the years. As Helen Clark said in 2002, when she joined ACT in refusing to work with NZ First, the biggest argument against the party has always been its “offensive and daft policies.”
Over the coming years, NZ First didn’t change – but Clark’s fortunes did. The veneer of principle was peeled away. It may have helped Labour stay in power a bit longer, but did our body politic improve as a result? Your mileage may vary, but I certainly don’t think so.
Those who will not learn from history….
Looking back, not ruling out NZ First was the biggest error of the English government. Peters played National like a Stradivarius. Which is easy to say in hindsight, perhaps.
But win or lose this September, Simon Bridges will not have made the same mistake.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.