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Simon Bridges had a big decision to make (Image: Getty Images, edited by Tina Tiller)
Simon Bridges had a big decision to make (Image: Getty Images, edited by Tina Tiller)

PoliticsJanuary 23, 2020

Simon Bridges is about to make a big decision that could shape the election

Simon Bridges had a big decision to make (Image: Getty Images, edited by Tina Tiller)
Simon Bridges had a big decision to make (Image: Getty Images, edited by Tina Tiller)

It’s a huge call for the National leader: should he rule out working with NZ First after the 2020 election? Alex Braae speculates on the options.

Updated February 2: Simon Bridges has made the call, ruling out working with not just Winston Peters, but NZ First as a party. He says he doesn’t trust them, or believe that there can be a constructive working relationship between the two.

Bridges also added that the decision by Winston Peters to sue several National Party figures was a cause of bad blood.

In response, Winston Peters said it didn’t worry him. He also said that he’d be happy working with another leader of National, sending a signal to their caucus that if it is possible to form a post-election government with a different leader, Peters would be open to it.

The following is the piece as originally published on January 23.

When all the votes are counted after the 2020 election there are likely to be two key blocs. Put simply, and based on current polling, on one side will be Labour and the Greens, on the other National and ACT. And it’s a fair bet that, should they be returned to parliament, NZ First will once again be able to choose which to put into power.

Now, it may just be politics as usual, but right now National and NZ First are on very bad terms with each other. Attacks between the two parties are flying thick and fast, and the general tone from both sides is that the other is not fit to govern.

Within that mix, National leader Simon Bridges has a huge decision to make. Should he rule out working with NZ First? Or should he keep his options open, and hope to negotiate a post-election deal? He has indicated that an announcement will be made on where National stands on other parties, and an early call either way could set a narrative that either wins or loses the election for National.

There are a few plausible scenarios, and a few more that are much less plausible but a lot of fun to contemplate. Here are some of the considerations that will go into each:

Scenario 1 – Play the MMP game

Look, things happen in politics, and there’s no reason to live in the past. Under this scenario, National would refuse to rule out NZ First, and make sure that if it does come down to them vs Labour, they’re still in the running to win. It’s in some ways the simplest scenario, because it doesn’t involve anything really changing or even needing to be announced. National could continue to criticise NZ First, and vice-versa, with both knowing full well that they may have to put it all behind them.

The downside of this approach is that it would once again give NZ First incredible leverage in the post-election negotiations, like they had in 2017. It would also give them a real boost during the campaign, because they could credibly tell voters that they’re the only party that can keep both of the big guns honest. And if the idea of Winston Peters’ party hopping from Labour to National seems a reach, especially given the stated rationale in 2017, you may be underestimating his nimbleness.

Scenario 1(a): National rules out a coalition with NZ First, but stops at that, leaving open the possibility of a confidence and supply arrangement.

Scenario 2 – The execution strategy

Simon Bridges could stand up and say exactly the same things he’s been saying about NZ First and Peters over the last two years, and conclude that on the basis of all of that evidence the two parties simply can’t work together. It would immediately signal that only a vote for National (or ACT, presumably) would deliver a National government. And for NZ First, that’s a real problem – the 2017 New Zealand Election Study showed that more NZ First voters prefered a National-led to a Labour-led government. For a party that cannot guarantee meeting the 5% threshold, any erosion in support – real or perceived – can be catastrophic, because it means other voters may not want to risk wasting their vote.

Former National leader John Key ruled out working with Winston Peters before the 2008 election, and NZ First fell out of parliament altogether. But there’s another election that could haunt National’s strategists considering this option – 2011. Key once again ruled NZ First out, and it looked like an easy decision, with Peters’ party polling at around 2%. But then the so-called Teapot Tapes came out, which sounded for all the world like Key and then-ACT leader John Banks showing contempt for NZ First voters. It gave the party a huge shot in the arm, which they converted into a return to parliament after the election. If Peters could spin a rejection from Bridges as a sign that his party was needed to hold parliament to account, it could counter-intuitively be a boost.

Scenario 2(a): There’s another potential outcome of Bridges rejecting NZ First – it could encourage Labour to do a deal. If Labour indicated, for example, that Auckland’s port was definitely going to move to Northland, and they need their current infrastructure minister Shane Jones (now an NZ First MP, funnily enough) to stay in parliament to see it all through, well, that would be a pretty compelling case to stand aside. Could it be done? The numbers for the Northland electorate suggest that Winston Peters would have beaten National’s Matt King if Labour weren’t standing in 2017. And it would be rich for National to cry foul, given the long running arrangement with ACT in Epsom. Critically, for Labour it would be a way to avoid losing a serious chunk of the vote that might otherwise be wasted, and gain a more compliant ally in the process.

Scenario 3 – The decapitation strategy

A more chaotic option, but one that commentator Matthew Hooton has suggested is a strong possibility. Here’s how it would go – “Bridges is expected to rule out working with Peters but not with the party as a whole, to which NZ First will respond accordingly, saying it is happy to work with National but not with Bridges or Paula Bennett.” Then for both parties, the question would become whether one of them would blink and decide to roll the leader to form a government. It’s probably fair to say that Winston Peters’ hold over NZ First is stronger than Simon Bridges’ hold over National, which isn’t a commentary on Bridges’ leadership so much as stating the central fact that NZ First exists because Winston Peters decided it should exist. But, who knows, if such an ultimatum were made, maybe, just maybe Peters would stand aside so that his party might prosper beyond him.

Scenario 3(a): National rules out working with Peters; NZ First rules out working with Bridges; they magically get over it the week after the election and it’s PM Bridges, deputy Peters.

Shane Jones finishing up a press conference at parliament (Getty Images)

Scenario 4 – You can’t fire me, I quit

Winston Peters could pre-empt all of this by firing his bullets first. A pretext for this could be National’s flirtations with the Chinese Communist Party, including for example the fact that their caucus includes a man who used to train China’s spies. Such a position would be entirely ideologically consistent with the rest of Winston Peters’ career, so it isn’t hard to imagine. But it would require him giving up that previously mentioned leverage which keeps NZ First relevant in post-election negotiations.

Scenario 4(a): Peters falls out with Labour and National and pledges to go cross-benches or bust.

Scenario 5 – Labour goes nuclear

Around the end of last year, when NZ First was going through yet another scandal, there was moderately serious speculation that Labour could pull the pin on the government altogether, and try and win without needing NZ First. If the controversy around NZ First donations intensified or, heaven forbid, serious ministerial misbehaviour surfaced, it’s not completely out of the question that Labour might say the partnership was untenable. After all, many believe that such an embrace is what ultimately doomed Helen Clark’s government in 2008.

Scenario 6 – We’re not going to take it any more

What if the other parties in parliament get fed up of being bit-players in the games of others? Both the Greens and ACT would have ample reason to not want to prop up any government that involves NZ First. Their supporters might even like them more for it. Sure, it would leave both of them with much diminished chances of being part of the next government, but at least they’d get to preserve their purity.

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