Winston Peters' party continues to clip Jacinda Ardern's wings in what is now becoming a trend. Photo by Mark Tantrum/Getty Images

Five times NZ First muscled up on Labour and got away with it

It’s being called the most pure MMP government in history. Does that just mean Winston Peters’ party gets to pull swifties on Jacinda Ardern whenever they feel like it? 

Coalition governments, by their very nature, require compromises and negotiations. But over 2018, it has seemed like NZ First have been doing a lot more negotiation, and Labour a lot more compromising.

In part that reflects the options available to both parties. NZ First could have given their support to National, making it the lead party of government. They could still switch their support to National tomorrow and bring the government down. It’s a hypothetical scenario, and nobody is suggesting that’s about to happen, but politicians generally know how to count, and the calculus is inescapable.

That’s led to no end of suggestions that Winston Peters has an effective veto power over anything he doesn’t like outside of the formal coalition agreement signed by the two parties. There were plenty of wins for NZ First in that document, but since then, they’ve also managed to go toe to toe and come out ahead on a range of issues – particularly those on which they’ve campaigned in the past. Here are the five most pronounced examples.

The three strikes backdown

Justice minister Andrew Little was all set to unveil the repeal of the three strikes sentencing law – a largely pointless piece of legislation which has the benefit of being very popular with conservative sections of New Zealand. But just before becoming acting PM, Winston Peters left Andrew Little high and dry, saying they wouldn’t support that part of the legislation. About seven weeks later, Mr Peters softened his stance, admitting that the law didn’t really work. But by then the political damage had been done.

Shane Jones speaks freely

NZ First MP and cabinet minister Shane Jones likes to talk. But it’s what he says, rather than how voluminously he says it, that has shown NZ First’s independence from Labour.

When Air NZ CEO Christopher Luxon was appointed to head up the government’s new business advisory council, Mr Jones didn’t hold back, saying Luxon was a “celebrity”, and that he had no time for celebrities in business. It followed a range of criticisms earlier in the year, especially over Air NZ’s pullout from some regions. The fact is though, is that Shane Jones is a minister, and his comments on a range of matters have gone far further than almost anyone else in the government would be able to get away with.

By contrast, Labour’s Greg O’Connor was given a bollocking for daring to suggest that the PM might have maybe, possibly, handled the Clare Curran fiasco a tiny bit better. Seniority aside, the reality is that Ardern has considerably greater licence to slap down those in her own party.

The refugee quota

Winston Peters torpedoed any chance Jacinda Ardern had of a peaceful and relaxing trip to the Pacific, by rebuking the suggestion that the government was committed to raising the refugee quota. And he’s right – it hasn’t formally gone through cabinet – but Labour and Green MPs (remember how they’re in government too?) have been telling all and sundry that it’s going to go up to 1,500. It’s a core policy in the government of kindness brand that Labour have been trying to project around Jacinda Ardern. And yet, when it came down to it at the Pacific Nations Forum, Ardern had to admit that there was still a process that had to be gone through, while Peters stood just behind her shoulder.

Industrial relations reform

One of the most recent examples, and one that has the union movement concerned, is that NZ First is indicating it may not back some of Labour’s dearly held industrial relations reforms. It has even been hinted that NZ First might vote with National on some of them, which in terms of an attack on heartland Labour policy, would be sort of like Labour telling NZ First that the gold card for seniors is going to be scrapped.

Crown/Māori relations portfolio

Like the three strikes law, a new Crown/Māori relations agency was all set to be announced, before NZ First changed their mind. As Radio NZ reported, what came instead was consultation. It’s really not quite as exciting.

But on the other hand …

NZ First have had to swallow a dead rat in the form of the ban on oil and gas exploration – a policy that they don’t like because it could undermine their efforts to revitalise regional economies. But Shane Jones duly stood alongside his coalition partners, and made it clear that he was absolutely thrilled to be there with them.


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