A year ago today, Bill English and Winston Peters formally tied the political knot. Toby Manhire assesses the first 12 months for the coalition and the challenge for Jacinda Ardern, leading a Labour Party left out in the cold again.
They were called the Odd Couple, they were called yesterday’s men, they were called the Waldorf and Statler of the Beehive. But Bill English and Winston Peters are still standing, one year after they signed the documents that installed a National-NZ First government, marking the end of the tumultuous New Zealand election campaign of 2017. These two political veterans, oftentimes political enemies, have for the most part proved they can remain coalescent allies. They have even earned a nickname, which was heard more than once at yesterday’s gathering of orphans and business leaders at a Premier House garden party to mark the first birthday: Winglish.
It is strange to think that back then, a week before the signing-in ceremony at Government House, Winston Peters held a nation in the pin-striped palm of his hand as he addressed New Zealand in prime-time. From the podium at the Beehive Theatrette, MMP was made into reality television.
“We believe capitalism must regain its human face,” Peters intoned. “We believe the status quo is not the answer.”
Was he going left? A Labour-NZ-First-Green hydra? It seemed that way. Aware of the energies devoted to his every word, Peters played it matter-of-fact, indifferent. He might have been putting in a phone order at the Mangonui Fish and Chip Shop.
“The status quo is not the answer, but neither is revolution. New Zealanders have had enough, they demand change, but they also demand stability,” he growled.
“We have secured the necessary guarantees that we will make those changes, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And that’s why in the end we chose a coalition government with New Zealand First and the National Party.”
Ever the showman, Peters offered a flicker of possibility that he might anoint a Prime Minister Ardern. But only the most credulous or naive political observer could have fallen for that. It was always going to be National, it was always going to be Prime Minister English.
As Peters later grudgingly acknowledged, National might have fallen short of an absolute majority, but it was impossible to ignore the fact that voters had awarded them 56 of 120 available seats. Moreover, the prospect of a three-headed government, with Labour relying on both NZ First and especially the Greens, was never a serious starter. Perhaps MMP is meant to provide such possibilities, but New Zealand is not yet ready for them. No serious student of politics would imagine such a governing arrangement lasting even a year.
The last 12 months have served up ample evidence of that. Consider not just the disarray among the opposition parties – of which more in a moment – but the tensions within the coalition itself. A two-party government has had enough stress applied. Three serious parties would never have sustained.
As deputy prime minister and foreign minister, the Winston Peters has calmed some of his oppositional instincts, but has caused plenty of problems for English, repeatedly scuppering policy annunciations by insisting that until they are approved by cabinet they mean nothing. Bizarrely, he remains determined to fight anyone who might call it a “National-led government”, insisting, almost childishly, that the only acceptable nomenclature is “National-NZ First government”. There is a palpable frustration on the part of National as they observe Peters’ pleasure in dismissing suggestions that he holds the reins, or that those reins are attached to the tail of a dog, whose body is wagging like a tail, which is absolutely not how a dog conventionally operates.
Meanwhile Shane Jones, with his massive regional growth fund, and as leader of the new “Ministry of Regions of National Significance ie All of Them!” remains a thorn in the side. Tensions between Jones and minister of finance Steven Joyce have repeatedly threatened to bubble over. But at the same time, there is no more effective lampooner of the Labour-Green shambles than Jones.
English can nonetheless boast, at very least, a satisfactory first year. The housing crisis rumbles on. There is unrest among teachers and nurses. There is outcry over tax cuts. The country is divided over the CPTPP, with Labour and the Greens leading protests across the country insisting that the reinvented post-Trump trade deal is a wolf in lamb’s clothing. But unemployment remains low. The surplus remains. And business confidence has continued to soar, with the most recent survey confounding expectations and statisticians by putting the confidence level at an unprecedented 11.7 billion percent.
English has done well to promote emerging talent, too. Jami-Lee Ross has proven himself the kind of minister who will drive through the night for his country. Maureen Pugh is very useful. And the departure of Judith Collins, who will make an able co-host of Fish of the Day, opened a by-election door for Christoper Luxon, who has future leader written all over him.
English has continued to show us a lighter side to his personality, too – and not just via Mary English’s cult Instagram account (is there no meal she cannot rearrange into a smiley face?) Despite rumours that Donald Trump, upon being introduced to Mr English, mistook the NZ prime minister for Theresa May’s husband, he has performed well on the world stage. At the recent UN leaders week Prime Minister English effortlessly was as at ease making the case for a rules-based global order on the floor of the the General Assembly as he was on the talk show sofas. Appearing with James Corden on The Late Late Show English scored a hit with his argument for pineapple and spaghetti on pizza. The sheep shearing with the boys in the changing sheds ahead of the first Bledisloe Cup Test was another small triumph.
And what of the opposition? Jacindamania seems so long ago: Let’s Do This a catchy but ephemeral memory; the Baby Shark of political slogans. Jacinda Ardern may have faced nothing like the leadership destabilisation campaigns of her predecessors, but there remain rumblings about her refusal to jump into the combative pit of opposition. It is only a matter of time until the outspoken front-bencher Clare Curran mounts a leadership challenge. Truly, the job of opposition leader is, as I like to call it, “the worst job in politics”.
Ardern has at least managed to avoid a major polling slump. That is helped, cynics might say, by the spotlight afforded the birth of her first child, Steve. The adorable photo-ops, in which Ardern and partner Clarke Gayford proudly held little Steve Morrinsville Ardern Gayford might have won New Zealand hearts. But many of those hearts chilled at the swirling rumours about Gayford. Rumours which turned out to be true: it has now been confirmed that he will star in several television projects with Judith Collins – a collaboration born after their unforgettable appearances on Dancing With the Stars.
No one has had it tougher in the last 12 months than the Greens. After convincing themselves they were on the brink of government, the party fell into what can only be called a deep dry-retching hangover. Having accepted that they’d let down the planet, a number of MPs were said to have stopped recycling altogether.
James Shaw, who was co-leader by himself for the campaign, was rightly held responsible for the party’s fate and for the inevitable destruction of humanity. At a bitter party conference, delegates voted to change the constitution so that there are seven co-leaders, meaning everyone in caucus is today a co-leader except Shaw, who has responded to criticisms by growing a gnarly beard.
No doubt the difficulties of the opposition as they enter their tenth year in the wilderness of opposition are a gift to the government, making it easy for Peters to offer vindication of his decision by pointing at what he calls “dysfunction junction”. But that is not the same thing as earning a legacy in government.
One year on, the question very much remains. Can Winglish, two men hewn quite literally from the craggy rocks of Aotearoa – one with roots in the rolling hills of the far north, the other in the rolling Rs of the deep south – hold firm for another two years, perhaps even beyond? As any smart political analyst will tell you, the answer is very clear. We’ll just have to wait and see. The jury is out. And only time will tell.
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