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Winston Peters, Christopher Luxon and David Seymour dressed for a wedding
Three men and a political baby (image: Archi Banal)

OPINIONPoliticsOctober 17, 2023

Five reasons Luxon should call Peters now – before he really needs to

Winston Peters, Christopher Luxon and David Seymour dressed for a wedding
Three men and a political baby (image: Archi Banal)

As of today, Christopher Luxon doesn’t need Winston Peters. That makes this the best time to get a deal done.

The line is a good one, and it goes: once every three years, New Zealand has an election – then Winston Peters decides the next prime minister. As of today, it’s not quite true. There is an extremely slim majority for a combined National-Act government, the precise scenario both parties expressed extreme preference for all year. 

The working assumption is that National and Act will thrash out a coalition while nervously awaiting the results of the special votes (which can cause a few seats to swing, typically left) on November 2, to find out whether they’ll still be able to govern alone after the Port Waikato byelection on November 25, then probably call Winston Peters. It all sounds very lengthy and tense and complicated, and on some level it is. There are already signs they’re trying to figure out a fudge, with Politik reporting attempts to cajole Peters or Labour’s Adrian Rurawhe into the role of speaker. Both ideas probably had to be tested; each is also some type of laughable.

It could also be wholly unnecessary. There are multiple scenarios which imply that National and Act could still govern without needing an arrangement with anyone else. These include a diminished leftward swing in the specials due to the outgoing red tide, or the overhang created by the Port Waikato byelection cancelling out the loss of a single seat in the special votes. 

Still, there is a compelling case for getting a governing agreement thrashed out and locked in well ahead of the finalised vote on November 2. While that would represent an unfortunate outcome, given National and Act’s strong preference to have a stable two-party arrangement, it might also be the best way to navigate a very tricky political reality. Not the least of which being that if you were really keen, you could try and get it done by Friday. 

It doesn’t seem likely, but here are five reasons why it is at least worth considering.

1. It’s negotiating with Winston Peters from a position of relative strength

Peters is a notoriously canny political operator, and also operates by his own arcane rules of etiquette. He will have calculated the odds of every different scenario, and be aware that while he’s likely to be needed, it’s by no means guaranteed. For Luxon to genuflect to Peters before he strictly needs to would guarantee NZ First a triumphant return to power, while also plausibly diminishing the price extracted for that support. 

Perhaps more importantly, it would wash away the heated language used in the campaign and allow Peters and NZ First access to power with pride and status intact. This could allow the government to start from a place of civility and mutual respect (or a shot at it) – hardly guaranteed if there is a fractious three-way negotiation, with a loudly ticking clock, impatient public and panicky stock market accompanying it.

2. It takes a probabilistic view of the outcome of the specials and diminishes risk

The whole function of installing a CEO as your prime minister is to take someone who has been around mergers and acquisitions and understands how to complete them while maximising returns and minimising risk. The most likely scenario is that a three-way coalition is needed, but by buying an arrangement involving NZ First before being forced, Luxon is effectively purchasing its support with an implied discount due to the inherent uncertainty of the outcome. 

It also functions as insurance against running a governing arrangement with a very slender majority, giving the trio more room for explosions like Jami-Lee Ross or Gaurav Sharma to occur without the potential to haul down the government with them.

3. It allows Peters to play the statesman with the national interest at heart

It is not about the baubles of office for Peters, right? He is not remotely interested in those! But if you insist… There are a few portfolios that NZ First covets, for reasons only the party really knows and about which we couldn’t possibly speculate. Why not cave to the inevitable and carve them out? Peters was a notoriously quite good foreign minister, which comes with the added bonus of keeping him on the road for most of the term. Give Shane Jones regional development and a mini-PGF. Give Jenny Marcroft broadcasting.

Most of all, give Peters the chance to bask before reporters as the man who answered the bell and got the government operating faster and more effectively. If you must have him part of your governing arrangement, surely better to have him preening and proud than cantankerous and slighted as you start your time in office.

4. It makes you all look more interested in governing than maximising power

A large part of the campaign involved National and Act saying that the core public service had grown bloated and self-obsessed, and indifferent to the idea of delivering outcomes. Act in particular has repeatedly said it would trade ministerial positions for policy wins. What better way to show you really meant that than by setting aside misgiving and ego in favour of getting hands on the tools quickly and quietly – even if you have to dance with your political devil to do it.

5. It diminishes the wasted time associated with elections

Almost no one thinks three-year election cycles are a good idea. They’re a blot that degrades our otherwise incredibly cool MMP system. What makes them particularly frustrating is the way they burn months in the preamble of the campaign and post-election negotiation. All three of National, Act and NZ First said, apparently earnestly, that the government’s books are in dangerous territory. National picked up Pattrick Smellie’s idea of a pre-Christmas mini-budget. Don’t tell us you’re concerned – show us. A short, sharp, sensible negotiation maximises your useful time in power, and gets whatever your planned fix is in motion faster. 

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