It is tricky to warn of a ‘three-headed monster’ when your own bonce is flanked by David Seymour and the shimmering visage of Winston Peters.
Kicking off a weekend-long convention and campaign launch for the New Zealand First Party in Auckland on Saturday, Winston Peters turned to song. He was warning members to steel for the slinging of dirt. “Expect it and ignore it,” he said. “Just repeat to yourself the words of Chumbawamba: ‘I get knocked down. But I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.’”
Mercifully, Peters stopped there. He did not quote nor urge the faithful to draw inspiration from the British anarcho-communist rock band’s subsequent lyrics: “He drinks a whiskey drink, he drinks a vodka drink, he drinks a lager drink, he drinks a cider drink, he sings the songs that remind him of the good times.” But the good times did warrant a mention. Peters reminded the 30th party convention that “only three parties have survived from first being elected under FPP in 1993 until today”.
Across those 30 years, the party has had one leader – the hardiest orchid of New Zealand’s political garden. Indomitable, but not inflexible; as Newsroom’s Tim Murphy noted, in these days of labour shortage, Peters’ setpiece speeches across the weekend were remarkable for the absence of any reference to one of the most reliable bogeys in the New Zealand First playbook: immigration.
Otherwise, alongside policy pledges to ditch Pharmac, halt bracket creep and remove GST from fresh foods, Peters dispensed the full suite of rhetoric: down with the Labour government, down with the gaslighting commentators, and very much down, for that matter, with “the insidious woke agenda being driven by an elite cabal of social and ideological engineers”.
Shane Jones was singing from the same Republican National Convention jukebox, deriding transgender pronouns, “Hollywood woke flunkies” and “WHO guinea pigs”. That wasn’t the only overture to the small but nontrivial group of voters motivated by opposition to vaccine mandates and other, sometimes conspiratorial, causes in the self-described freedom movement, a rump which NZ First appears resolved to hoover up.
The question of whether Peters is worthy of the “freedom fighter” vote has been a lively theme of late in online forums populated by supporters of last year’s parliamentary grounds occupation, with opinion split between those favouring an experienced politician who showed up at the protest and those who regard him as an abject, irredeemable judas for supporting Jacinda Ardern’s government in 2017.
There would have been more about New Zealand First in the headlines this week had it not been for a Sunday night car crash on Evans Bay Parade. Among the pressing questions, with just five weeks until the house rises and the campaign proper kicks off, is whether National Party leader Christopher Luxon will follow the lead of early John Key, who ruled out any governing relationship with New Zealand First well ahead of elections in 2008 and 2011, or that of 2014 John Key and 2017 Bill English, who accepted the possibility of negotiating with Peters after the election. So far, Luxon seems stuck, banking on NZ First magically vanishing.
He was asked the question yesterday on RNZ. “Hypothetical,” he said, returning swiftly and with discipline to the sanctuary of urging people to party-vote National. Pressed on whether he would at any time rule the part in or rule it out – as he did te Pāti Māori, and as he did, after a mystifying delay, Brian Tamaki’s Freedoms NZ – Luxon said: “It’s not something we’ve thought about, because they’re not actually in parliament, and they’re below 3% in polling.” Which is balderdash obviously. Of course National’s senior MPs and strategists have thought about it. They continue to discuss it. It would be alarming were it otherwise.
The case for ruling out NZ First is compelling. It would look decisive, it would look confident, it would put Luxon on the front foot, setting the agenda at a time when his rival for the prime ministership after the election is scrambling with a depleted cabinet and a leaking caucus to keep afloat a ramshackle ship.
It could rescue some wasted vote. Given Peters has unequivocally (insofar as he does anything unequivocally) ruled out working with Labour, saying he was betrayed by Ardern’s lot in 2017, the number of NZ First voters who would respond to an untethering from Luxon by shifting their vote to Chris Hipkins’ party must be somewhere between zero and negligible. Some could, however, gravitate to National or Act. A small contingent, sure. But the election could be determined by a very small margin.
In practical terms, would a government formed at the behest of NZ First be worth the pain? It is a reasonable bet, informed by history, that it would all end in tears. Act and NZ First together in cabinet is impossible to imagine. Even with one in coalition and the other providing just confidence and supply it would surely come to blows. Just about the only thing Winston Peters and David Seymour agree on is how much they loathe one another.
Most persuasively, it would draw a vivid line under Luxon’s exercise in contrast: Labour’s presumptive “coalition of chaos”, set against his promise of a strong and stable government”. It is trickier to bemoan, as Luxon does, an "inherently, incredibly unstable" alternative, a "three-headed monster", when your own bonce is flanked on one side by David Seymour and on the other by a shimmery, spectral projection of Winston Peters.
To do the big old ruling-out does not come without risk. Peters has confounded political obituarists countless times. He would seize on any such announcement to go full-bore pox-on-both-their-houses – a rich vein at a time when disenchantment with the two big parties is high and getting higher. He could promise to sit as terriers for democracy on the cross-benches. He'd unleash a barrage of Winston-grade verbal missiles at a relative newcomer to politics who was eight years old when Peters first entered parliament. Luxon needs no new antagonists.
But it is hardly tenable to keep avoiding the question and hoping it will go away. When The AM Show put it to him yesterday, Luxon rolled out the usual prevarication on “a really hypothetical question”. To which Ryan Bridge responded, rhetorically, reasonably and uninterrupted, “it’s a possibility, though, by the sounds of it.” As the election draws closer, as long as NZ First keeps hovering around the 3%-plus mark, Luxon will keep getting asked, until he delivers an answer either way. For as long as he doesn't, it radiates not so much strong and stable as tentative and nervy.