Saturday, October 24, 2020

Karl du Fresne: At least there's no argument about who won the right to govern

Tell you what (as Judith Collins likes to say): there’s at least one thing I welcome about the election result. It’s that there can be no doubt about its legitimacy, and hence about Labour’s right to govern.

It was a clean win, an emphatic win. Even if it wasn’t the result many of us wanted, we were left in no doubt about who were the winners and who were the losers.

More specifically, I welcome the result because we’re likely to be spared the grubby, opaque post-election manoeuvring that has tarnished so many elections since New Zealand adopted the MMP system in 1996.
I’ve always maintained that we replaced one imperfect electoral system with another that was even more deeply flawed. The most egregious of MMP’s many defects is that once the citizens have cast their votes, they relinquish all control over what happens. The politicians disappear behind closed doors and indulge in horse-trading that we can neither see nor influence.

All bets are off. Never mind what the parties campaigned on or what promises were made; pretty much everything is on the table in these coalition talks, and what emerges is rarely what people voted for.

The great irony is that we were sold MMP on the basis that it made politicians more accountable, when the exact reverse is the case. It’s the very antithesis of transparency.

We saw it at its worst in 2017, when Winston Peters leveraged his party’s puny 7 percent share of the vote into the assumed right to dictate the arrangements under which we were to be governed for the following there years – the apparent starting point being Peters’ insistence on his own appointment as deputy prime minister, for which there was no skerrick of a mandate.

All of which was bad enough. But what made things even worse – infinitely worse – in that instance was the realisation, after the event, that the coalition talks were an elaborate charade. Those participating assumed National and Labour were negotiating for Peters’ favour in good faith from positions of equal strength (as did the hapless voters trying to peer through the impenetrable smokescreen). It was only later that we learned Peters had quietly instigated legal action against senior National cabinet ministers over the supposed leaking of his superannuation over-payments, and was thus no more likely to enter a coalition with National than to announce that he was renouncing politics and entering a Trappist monastery.

Peters’ deception meant he was able to extract commitments from Labour that they might not have made had they realised he was bound to do a deal with them anyway. So we ended up with a Labour-led government that was established in shonky circumstances and whose legitimacy remained tainted throughout its term.

No one can say the same about the Ardern government Mk II. It commences its triennium free of any doubt about its right to govern.

That leads me to the other thing I welcome about the election result. Mr Seven Percent became Mr 2.7 Percent on Saturday night, and so was consigned to richly deserved political oblivion. Thus a man who has been a mostly malignant, vindictive presence in New Zealand politics for more than four decades has been banished at long last. I couldn’t help but think of Oliver Cromwell’s ringing words to England’s so-called Rump Parliament in 1653: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

It remains to be seen whether Labour will enter some sort of governing arrangement with the Greens, but it’s hard to see why they should. As things stand, Labour will have 64 seats in the new Parliament, which is more than enough to govern alone.

Labour doesn’t need the Greens, and from a pragmatic standpoint would be better off without them. As both Helen Clark and Michael Cullen have reminded Labour in the past 24 hours, New Zealand elections are won in the political centre. Labour triumphed in this election by persuading voters they had nothing to fear from a second Ardern government. It’s clear that a large number of National voters switched their allegiance to Labour for one reason: to keep the Greens out of power. Labour will already be looking ahead to 2023 and will want to lock in those centrist votes, knowing it’s likely to face a far better-organised National opposition than it did this time. So it must weigh up the appeal of buddying up with the Greens, and thereby keeping faith with the hard-core left, against the risk of scaring off all those new converts to Labour.

Bear in mind too that Ardern pledged in her victory speech to govern for every New Zealander, and will be held to that. It’s hard to see how she can fulfil that promise while aligning herself with a radical left party that commanded only 7.6 percent of the vote. She will have to make a choice, and history suggests she will tack pragmatically just as previous Labour leaders have done (remember Clark and the Foreshore and Seabed?), and as she did herself when she ruled out a capital gains tax.

All that aside, from a purely democratic standpoint there’s another compelling reason why the Greens should not be in government, and it comes back to that 7.6 per cent. It’s a measure of how our thinking has been distorted by MMP that a party with so little popular support assumes it’s entitled to exercise power. Since 1996, New Zealand has experienced tail-wagging-the-dog politics because the system gave it little choice; no party won enough votes to govern on its own. Now that a party is emphatically in a position to do so, it should act on the mandate voters have given it.

A few other thoughts about the result:

■ There will be a huge burden on David Seymour and his nine novice ACT MPs, who will probably have to do the heavy lifting in opposition to proposed hate speech laws – the crucial political and ideological battle of the next three years – and other woke initiatives. ACT shouldn’t count on receiving much support from National, which will be busy either settling scores or licking its wounds, and in any case has rarely shown much commitment to the fight against neo-Marxism.

■ Congratulations to the new “real” MPs: i.e. those former list MPs who now represent actual electorates and are therefore accountable to real people rather than to party apparatchiks. Chloe Swarbrick in Auckland Central is one; Kieran McAnulty in Wairarapa and Jo Luxton in Rangitata are others. The question for all of them is this: which comes first – loyalty to the party or duty to the electorate? It becomes especially pertinent in predominantly rural electorates where government policies could be inimical to farmers, especially if the Greens get into positions of power.

■ Kelvin Davis has rightly been excoriated for his oafish, churlish speech on election night – the one grating note during a generally good-hearted night when losing National Party candidates (Nick Smith, for one) were applauded for turning up at Labour celebrations to concede personally to their opponents, which was an example of New Zealand politics at its benign best. Any thought of the tone-deaf Davis remaining Labour’s deputy leader – or heaven forbid, becoming deputy prime minister – should have been extinguished right there and then.

■ Chris Luxon – really? If he’s the answer, then people aren’t asking the right question.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at


Unknown said...

The main reason Labour possibly will do a deal with the Greens is to to implement the wealth/asset/levy 'a tax by any name'. We will know next week as Jacindahas admitted they are in discussions.

Ross said...

I have to disagree with this idea that people voted for Labour to keep the Greens out of the Government.
I think it was simply that the Government had voters absolutely terrified about Covid and somehow convinced them that they saved everyone. (lots of island nations have done well and some a lot better). The votes were based on fear and not on any policies.
This goes back to early in the year when the first public poll had National & ACT being able govern. Then Covid came along,there was quite long period between polls and when the next poll came out National had lost about 30% of it's support which it had being getting for 11 years ( they had polled 40-45%+/- during that period). That shift can only have been because of the fear generated about Covid and how the PM would save everyone. Great PR exercise, Labour knew they were onto something and they milked it right up to the election. The PM said it would be Covid election when she came out of the Labour Party conference.
Bridges made a huge mistake when in the beginning he said National would postpone electioneering until things settled ( even Sir John Key said it was not a time to play politics). Meanwhile the PM went into overdrive with politicising the issue.