WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 19: Prime Minister elect Jacinda Ardern hugs list MP Trevor Mallard during a Labour Party announcement at Parliament on October 19, 2017 in Wellington, New Zealand. After weeks of coalition negotiations, New Zealand First have announced their decision to form a coalition government with Labour and the Greens. With neither the National nor Labour parties winning enough seats in last month's general election to govern outright, New Zealand First was left holding the balance of power. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

A government absent the biggest party marks MMP’s coming of age

Andrew Geddis assesses the shape and viability of the new Jacinda Ardern led government. And sings the praises of two individuals, one from the Greens, the other National.

So, very late yesterday afternoon (let’s be charitable) Winston Peters lifted the box’s lid and out wandered a cat with a black head, red body and green tail. Whereupon a number of (small p) pundits fell all over themselves to explain to us why this outcome was always the only one possible and we were silly to think anything different. While the Taxpayer’s Union’s Jordan Williams, in an oddly now-deleted (but still cached) tweet, promises that the result will cause him to inflict mass horror upon the population at large:

However, as I wrote in my last post here, I do not think the meaning of the 2017 election really is very clear at all. Had Peters announced an intention to go into coalition with National, our narrative would be one of fundamental continuity and an endorsement of the last nine years of “strong and stable” management (albeit with some change in emphasis towards regional NZ).

And it appears the decision on which path to take really was in doubt right up until the last moments. Andrea Vance reports that Peters only made his final choice 15 minutes before leaving his office to tell the nation (and Bill English and Jacinda Ardern) what he was going to do. If true, that really is a remarkable illustration of how close-run things were.

Furthermore, it also indicates some severe disagreement within NZ First over what was the best choice for it. Remember that Peters said this about the decision-making process that NZ First’s Board would follow:

“You want a serious consensus. If you haven’t got a serious consensus stay there until you get one, but who wants a 50-50 vote.”

Mr Peters said he expected the agreement [of the NZ First Board] to be far more than 75 percent.

I may be wrong here, but if things really were still in doubt up until the final 15 minutes then it seems unlikely there was “a serious consensus” within that Board on what to do. Indeed, Peters himself said during the Q&A session after his announcement there was disagreement with the final decision within NZ First’s ranks.

Nevertheless, now we have the outcome that we have. A choice has been made. The narrative of “change” has been set – complete with a new PM from a new generation. What can we expect?

First off, I don’t buy all the doom-and-gloom prognostications that this “Malawi Mixture” (remember, you read it here first!) is destined to fail. Sure, it’ll have challenges and tensions. But both Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson (Labour’s real number two) have significant experience in the management of disparate coalitions from their time in Helen Clark’s office. They’ve seen how this can be done successfully.

However, nor should we see this as a new dawn of immediate, radical change. Yes, the Malawi Mixture will be a different government from a National-NZ First combination. But Ardern was very, very quick to emphasise in her first Q&A session after Peters’ announcement that Labour remains committed to running surpluses and to staying within existing fiscal frameworks (or other economic jargon I don’t really understand). And, of course, the Greens have signed up to a similar commitment.

Jacinda Ardern embraces Trevor Mallard following the announcement of a Labour-NZ First coalition. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty

So, there will be change – but change of a responsible, careful, considered sort. Change that won’t scare the horses too much … or, more importantly, the farmers who own those horses.

Which brings me to MMP. Despite grumblings from those whose team didn’t get the result they wanted – you all know who I mean – this outcome may well represent the voting system’s coming of age. It kills off any theories that the largest party will somehow inevitably get to govern (sorry, Claire!) and reiterates the more fundamental truth; a majority in the House of Representatives (howsoever formed) is all our constitution demands.

Furthermore, the comingling of NZ First and Labour in cabinet with the Greens joining them somewhere along the “governing spectrum” delivers on the original promise of quite antagonistic parties sublimating their differences to govern in some degree of harmony. It also provides internal checks on the possibly worst impulses of each component – take the most extreme policy of each party that most scares the crap out of you, and you can be reasonably sure it won’t actually be able to be fulfilled.

Let me finish this ramble with a shout out to two individuals. The first is Bill English, whose concession speech last night helped to redeem his pretty shameful enabling of Stephen Joyce’s invisible $11.7 billion fiscal hole lie during the campaign. English could have been bitter. He could have railed against the unfairness (as he probably sees it) of getting over 44% of the vote and still losing his job. But he didn’t. Rather, he calmly accepted that this is the way the process can work and wished the incoming government well (while promising to do his new job in opposing them).

That was mature, gracious and respectful to the country. It deserves praise.

The second shout out is to someone who has slipped from view, but arguably could ultimately be credited with causing the change in government. Back in July, the speech that Metiria Turei gave to the Greens AGM on her experiences as a beneficiary in the 1990s (including an admission she broke the law) was the pebble that started yesterday’s avalanche.

It led to a not insignificant number of Labour voters switching support to the Greens. Which then drove Labour’s poll ratings down to the low-mid 20s. Which caused Andrew Little to resign as leader. Which put Jacinda Ardern in charge of Labour. After which, the rest is history.

If this list of policy “wins” by the Greens is to be believed, the resultant Malawi Mix has committed to an “overhaul of the welfare system”. That was the issue that Turei felt so moved to speak out on. Doing so cost her a political future – but it may ultimately have been what made this into a “change” election.

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