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Though you may find it hard to believe, Nicola Willis has been superimposed into this photograph.
Though you may find it hard to believe, Nicola Willis has been superimposed into this photograph.

PoliticsNovember 21, 2023

One deputy PM? Two deputy PMs? Or what about no deputy PM at all?

Though you may find it hard to believe, Nicola Willis has been superimposed into this photograph.
Though you may find it hard to believe, Nicola Willis has been superimposed into this photograph.

Christopher Luxon has options in the 2IC stakes.

As the Weet-bix-powered coalition talks between the National, ACT and New Zealand First parties jog past the milestone of policy agreement and on to questions around ministerial positions, one of the interesting decisions to be made is the position of deputy prime minister.

While in many ways the role is symbolic, when called upon it carries, by definition, enormous responsibility. As it did in 2018, when deputy prime minister Winston Peters became acting prime minister for six weeks. Unlikely though it is that Christopher Luxon will have cause to take parental leave, still less have a baby while in office, there are numerous scenarios in which a prime minister finds themselves absent from office, for periods short or long, entailing the 2IC to step up.

Peters has filled the deputy boots twice; Jim Anderton, then Alliance leader in support of Helen Clark after 1999 is the other coalition partner to have done so. David Seymour has consistently insisted that titles are some way down the list of priorities, though he did this morning place some sort of stake in the lawn.

There was “a clear case” that he should be deputy PM, the Act leader told reporters after emerging from Luxon’s home this morning. (“I’ve just been here to visit a constituent in the Epsom electorate, he’s having some challenges with a negotiation he’s involved in and I found I could actually be quite helpful,” he also said.)

David seymour, a light-skinned man in a grey suit with a pink tie stands in front of a microphoone and the blue, yellow, and pink ACT logo
David Seymour: New Zealand’s next deputy prime minister?

There was, suggested Seymour, “a very clear agenda that the Act Party is the second-largest party in the government and therefore if there’s a second role in the government that should go to the second party. But having said that, a negotiation’s a negotiation, and you never know your luck … so I’m not going to try and predetermine it one way or another.”

There has been speculation over the last days and weeks that Peters may fancy a third stint as deputy. Another scenario that has featured in conjecture: co-deputies, with Seymour and Peters sharing the responsibility. Though such a configuration may be convenient in the short term, however, whether it would sow peace or fresh antagonism between two men who have had their moments is another matter.

All of which could make simply putting the deputy of the National Party, Nicola Willis, in the equivalent position in government even more appealing.

Nicola Willis: National deputy and deputy PM? (Photo: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

Or what about no deputy PM at all? After all, the British, the Westminster System originals, go without a deputy prime minister half the time. Why not do that here?

“Unlike the UK, there is a presumption in New Zealand that there will be a ‘deputy PM’ role (with that deputy PM filling in as ‘acting PM’ where necessary),” said Andrew Geddis, an electoral law expert and professor at the University of Otago. He pointed me towards a couple of examples of legislation that recognise that, such as the International Terrorism (Emergency Powers) Act and the Intelligence and Security Act.

But wait. “However, there’s nothing express to say there must be a deputy PM appointed or that there can only be one deputy PM (despite the two bits of legislation quoted referring to ‘the’ Deputy PM). And I guess you can make a system with more than one Deputy PM work,” he said. “Fiji has three of them!”

So there it is. The office is a relatively young one in New Zealand. Keith Holyoake was the first to be officially given the title in 1954 and Carmel Sepuloni is just the 20th person to formally hold the role. MMP innovations keep on coming. Who knows what this latest government could conjure up.

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