Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer Winston Peters leaves the New Zealand First Caucus following the announcement that Jenny Shipley is to take over from Jim Bolger as Prime Minister. (Photo by Barry Durrant/Getty Images)
Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer Winston Peters leaves the New Zealand First Caucus following the announcement that Jenny Shipley is to take over from Jim Bolger as Prime Minister. (Photo by Barry Durrant/Getty Images)

PoliticsOctober 9, 2017

How coalitions are made (and destroyed)

Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer Winston Peters leaves the New Zealand First Caucus following the announcement that Jenny Shipley is to take over from Jim Bolger as Prime Minister. (Photo by Barry Durrant/Getty Images)
Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer Winston Peters leaves the New Zealand First Caucus following the announcement that Jenny Shipley is to take over from Jim Bolger as Prime Minister. (Photo by Barry Durrant/Getty Images)

Wayne Mapp was there at the first MMP coalition negotiations in 1996, and watched from both government and opposition as subsequent deals were assembled. The former National cabinet minister writes about those years, and what the key dynamics will be in the coming days.

In business and politics relationships are built on trust, just as in life generally. Obviously policies are part of that. You can’t really build trust by saying; “I respect you but I don’t agree with any of your policies.” For most people being respected for what we believe is part of the trust relationship.

What guide will this be for the current coalition negotiations, and also for the government that emerges?

My direct experience with New Zealand First and National agreeing on government is from the 1996 negotiations, but I was in parliament long enough to see how various coalitions were formed, and what made them successful.

The experience from 1996 is primarily a guide of what not to do. In those negotiations there was an absence of trust, in part because the rift between National and Winston Peters was altogether too fresh, having occurred just four years earlier. In addition it was the first MMP negotiation being done by people who were more comfortable with FPP. It is to the enduring credit of Jim Bolger that he put his best will into the negotiations and the subsequent coalition government. Unfortunately that commitment was not shared by all of his colleagues.

Winston Peters and Jim Bolger at the 1996 coalition agreement signing. Grab: TVNZ

Some readers may recall the phase from 1996 of ‘eating dead rats’ as a metaphor for accepting a coalition partner’s policies. It was principally used by National MPs in respect to New Zealand First policies.

If that phrase arises in the current negotiations in respect of any party, whether National, Labour or the Greens, they can probably look forward to a time in opposition. Such an expression will be intolerable to New Zealand First as a stark indication of disrespect.

Fortunately over the last 21 years of MMP the major political parties have come to understand how MMP works, not just in terms of the mathematics, but also in terms of operating MMP governments. Both Helen Clark and John Key were adept at making the necessary compromises and in also enforcing party discipline about respect for coalition partners.

Nevertheless MMP governments have not always been easy. Smaller parties, often having a more ideological bent than the major parties, have struggled with the compromises that MMP governments demand.

Thus in 2002 the Alliance blew itself up over Afghanistan. The majority of their MPs simply did not understand or accept that any New Zealand government was going to make a stand over Al Qaeda terrorism, and would take a direct part in the fight against it. And that if they were in such a government they were required to back it. When it came to that test, they preferred to walk away. The result was that the Alliance Party became a rump party of Jim Anderton and Matt Robson, before ultimately disappearing.

Similarly ACT could not hold itself together during the 2008 to 2011 National-led government. Many of their MPs felt very uncomfortable about the compromises required in coalition with a much larger party. Again the voters punished the party for lack of internal discipline.

The decline of the Māori Party has its origins in the nature of its support base.  Apart from Hone Harawira, the party has been remarkably coherent. Their problems stemmed from the fact that the majority of their supporters were inherently from the Labour side of politics. The Māori Party nine year coalition with National led to the slow erosion of support as their voters progressively returned to the Labour fold. However, Māori politics has been sufficiently volatile over the last 20 years that the Māori Party may yet rise again.

The experience of Winston Peters and New Zealand First has been quite different to other small parties. To begin with the party has a strong populist ethos, and is therefore not driven by a deep ideological commitment to a particular political philosophy. Instead the party principles are seated in protecting conservative values, which have underpinned traditional New Zealand, particularly in the provinces. Similarly their supporters have a pragmatic bent, which at least in the past has been something of a barometer of the direction of New Zealand politics.

Both the party and its supporters can comfortably go either left or right, provided the major party, whether National or Labour, has acted reasonably toward them. Even when New Zealand First has dipped below 5%, it was not the result of sharp differences of political principle. In 2008 Winston was politically damaged by the Owen Glenn affair. Without that, he and his party would have been comfortably returned to Parliament.

Thus being in government should not hold the same difficulties for New Zealand First as it has for other more philosophically driven parties. This also gives New Zealand First great power in any negotiation. They have already proved they can go either left or right.

Winston Peters. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

So what might be the key factors for Winston Peters and New Zealand First during the current negotiations? There are essentially two. The first is respect; the second is stability.

For the first that means that the agenda of the new government that is ultimately agreed must be fully accepted by all those involved. That the new government will have a full package of policies that all members fully support irrespective of which party they come from.

If it is National is successful in the negotiations that means an understanding by all National MPs that a National/New Zealand First government will have essentially a new set of policies that all members will be required to support, and more importantly be willing to advocate publicly. It will be an essential change from 1996 if such a coalition is to have a good chance of success.

The ultimate measure of respect may be the prime ministership. On Q&A Richard Prebble speculated that Labour could yet offer the prime ministership to Winston Peters for the first 18 months as a means of sealing the deal.

The issue of respect may also test the Greens, particularly if they are directly within the coalition, rather than simply supplying confidence and supply. The Greens may not get very many wins. In fact Winston Peters may not even negotiate directly with them. Since Labour has already taken many Green policies on public transport and water quality, the Greens may have to accept such wins as theirs by default. Given that it is New Zealand First that has the negotiating power, the Greens will not get more refugees, they will not get accountability-free welfare, they will not get water taxes on farmers, or many of the other things they hold dear.

The second, and related issue is the stability of government. This will essentially be an issue for a Labour/New Zealand First/Greens government. In most circumstances this will not be a problem. But it is not difficult to imagine situations where it will be an issue, particularly in foreign affairs which regularly produces untoward shocks.

For instance if North Korea attacks South Korea and South Korea asks for military support, the normal expectation is that New Zealand would provide military assistance. Naturally such an attack will have been preceded by all kinds of bellicose statements, no doubt some coming from President Trump. In that case the North Korean aggression will have occurred within the context of threats and counter threats.

I have no doubt that New Zealand, whether it has a National or Labour led government, will provide military support to South Korea even if it is quite limited. If the Alliance could self destruct over Afghanistan in 2002, then it is quite possible the Greens would do the same in similar circumstances. In part, the election of 2002 was held early because of the Alliance self-immolation.

This risk will be a further factor in encouraging both Labour and New Zealand to confine the negotiations to themselves, and to keep the Greens at some distance, relegated to a confidence and supply role.

New Zealand has now had 21 years of experience of MMP. The parties that have been in government have learned what is required, certainly to a much greater extent than in the early years. As voters, we need whatever government that is formed to perform its best for the nation. Perhaps more than anything else that will motivate the negotiators over the next few days.

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