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Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

PoliticsSeptember 13, 2018

‘We chose the harder path’: Winston Peters on election 2017

Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

The NZ First leader defends his party’s approach to coalition negotiations, explains why they went with Labour and, of course, upbraids the media.

This is the second in a series of extracts from the new VUP collection Stardust and Substance, which is published today. Read Jacinda Ardern’s review of ‘the most extraordinary year of my life’ here.

Eight weeks out from the general election, New Zealand First was poised to challenge Labour’s status as the second largest political party – this was a sign: when things are going great you should be worried most. Polling revealed that we were statistically tied with Labour. From our perspective that day would have been a good one for the country to have voted.

It was not to be. By the beginning of September, Colmar Brunton had Labour gaining 19 points in the party vote in just four weeks. The keystone, former Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei’s ill-conceived and poorly implemented foray into welfare, first jolted, then reconfigured, centre-left votes. Having blinked, then Labour Party leader Andrew Little stood down, and then dramatically everything changed for a number of measurable and determinate reasons.

The rise in support for Labour that followed the elevation of Jacinda Ardern altered the election dynamic. Intense media focus ensued so it became a different and more difficult campaign. The media and so-called experts chose to frame the election as a straight two-horse race.

Like the Brash-Brethren-Crash election of 2005, this denied equal political space for all the political parties contesting the 2017 election. A democracy should guarantee equal opportunity during an election campaign period, especially a democracy underpinned by multi-party politics. Yet ours did not. In the UK elections the last two Tory leaders got to go into debates against all the main contenders. In this country we didn’t.

The fact is that for 21 years we’ve had the MMP system. The implication drawn from the 2017 election is that the media is driving our conception and perception of politics. These are the facts from our perspective. After our eighth post-MMP campaign and election there have been some appalling examples of media mendacity that undermined electoral integrity and confidence.

First, on election night, with still over 15% of the vote to be counted, the media declared government formation with National the likely outcome. What it is to have a great presence of mind and a crystal ball and not have to pay a cent for it. The public understood better than its so-called guardians in the media that the result was only a provisional one, with real political consequences should seats change hands, as expected, with the counting of the special votes. That is what the public suspected would occur and that is what happened.

Second, by any standard, and certainly in terms of our own MMP history in New Zealand, as well as in proportional representation systems abroad, the government formation process was conducted in a responsible and responsive manner. Out of an electoral cycle of around 1,100 days the government took just 11 days to form after the election result became official, when the 442,000 further votes were known. Yet the media would breathlessly report, each day, “another day waiting”. Unbelievable. What do they suggest we do? Hire the Cake Tin, turn on lights and loudspeakers, and tell them what’s happening next? And which person in their right mind is going to do that? Apparently that is what we are meant to do.

Third, the government that was formed is a two-party (minority) coalition government, with confidence and supply from the Green Party. We are in for the same type of government as Labour had throughout its previous three terms under Prime Minister Helen Clark. The media are still catching up to this fundamental and so ordinary fact about the 2017 coalition.

But back to the campaign. Each party had its choices about which strategy might prove best for the conditions in New Zealand in 2017. What were those conditions?

  • Nine years of drift;
  • Neglect of provincial and regional New Zealand;
  • Homelessness in a land of plenty – the premier symbol of inequality;
  • A government willing to sell out to people who do not have the country’s best interests at heart; and
  • A casualness about, and hubris over, ethical standards and democratic norms.

With this political backdrop, National decided during its campaign to convince the voting public to “cut out the middleman” – take a wild guess on who they meant by that. Take, for example, the leak of my superannuation details, one that breached the fundamental right to privacy that all democratic peoples share. It did not influence the eventual coalition choice of New Zealand First, as many have erroneously claimed, but it did reinforce National’s instinct to destroy rather than to build. Instead of wanting to cooperate with our desire for positive change, National’s strategy was designed to extinguish it.

It was an example of short-term thinking. Relying upon Colin Craig’s wasted vote wasn’t going to be enough. From at least 12 months prior to the general election National had choices about how it could have proceeded. Its approach revealed much about its idea of cooperation, or the lack of it.

It matters because the electoral rules under MMP support an overall framework of operating cooperatively with like-minded parties to achieve shared goals. That way, separate parties with unique identities can find common ground to work together in the public interest. That is the essence of MMP. During our history of proportional representation, parties that under-stand that will continue to create opportunities. Those parties that still think only in terms of domination and acquiescence will continue to fall short.

Once the final results were declared, with each party now being delivered its final hand of cards by the people, the process of government formation began. The left, as opposed the remainder, had achieved a swing of over 6%, so the electoral energy was on that side of politics.

National’s vote was also respected by us, although as previously noted, it declined less than it otherwise would have only because of Colin Craig’s demise. National’s electoral energy was spent. Forty-four per cent might sound like “winning the election” to some commentators, who need an abacus and are still stuck in FPP thinking. The point, however, is that over a dozen other combinations of parties across New Zealand’s modern political history, on both sides of politics, have lost while receiving a higher voter share than National did in 2017. That is a fact.

New Zealand First entered into negotiations with both National and Labour in good faith.

We maintained that good faith throughout, with both parties, irrespective of the erroneous post- election media speculation to the contrary. We also believe that that good faith was reciprocated.

The New Zealand First Party wanted as a coalition partner a political party that would agree to a shared policy vision going forward. We knew we couldn’t win everything, but we wanted to work with a party that, having committed to a shared policy vision, would work with New Zealand First to make change happen.

We also wanted as a partner the party that, like us, believed in the New Zealand people. There had to be a human face behind every policy choice and commitment. That view had been lost in the policies of the past 30+ years. That view never left us as we worked through negotiations.

When wealth becomes too grossly unequal our view is that people are then pitted against each other. That is unacceptable. It comes at enormous societal costs. For people who want to see, it is obvious today. Nor is it consistent with New Zealand’s history or the country’s political culture. Younger New Zealanders also get it. That’s why a clear majority of New Zealanders voted against the status quo at the election. New Zealand First recognised that change and its final choice reflected it.

New Zealand First chose to form a two-party coalition government with the New Zealand Labour Party because Labour was willing to share our vision of building a more prosperous and fairer New Zealand, to help restore old truths while also exploring new ones. New Zealand First is committed to making the coalition work for the public’s benefit and well-being, and we will do whatever we can to make that happen.

We, as a party, faced risks whatever choice we made. The easiest choice would have been to commit to a slightly modified status quo, and go with just one other party; that would have been the tidiest thing to do. If we had, the very people decrying our coalition arrangements would now be all over us like a rash saying “thank you”. A two-party majority coalition with National was therefore an easier choice. We instead chose the harder path – of change and regeneration. Change was necessary and it is our responsibility to deliver it. And we will.

Policy gains to improve people’s lives drove our deliberations from the beginning and they pointed us in a more challenging direction. That direction now has the potential to write a new chapter in MMP politics, and that would do both sides of politics a favour, whenever or wherever party fragmentation develops in our future politics.

This is an edited extract from Stardust and Substance: the New Zealand General Election of 2017, ed Stephen Levine (VUP)

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