Winston Peters has 7% support yet 100% of the power – that feels wrong

by The Listener / 28 September, 2017
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Winston Peters. Photo/Getty Images

Winston Peters' power to annoint the next prime minister feels intuitively wrong in a country that values fairness.

Since our inconclusive general election, there has been no shortage of opinion and speculation about which political party or combination of parties might form a minority or coalition government to lead the country for the next three years.

Greens Leader James Shaw’s energetic election-night spruiking of the idea that more people had “voted for change” than for any other outcome has generated a popular refrain on the Left, but being popular does not make it correct. If the single party with the most support, National, is unable to form a government, New Zealanders will rightly want to know why.

National’s leader, Bill English, derives a moral authority from his party’s numerical advantage, just as Chancellor Angela Merkel is the accepted winner of the election in Germany, even though creating a coalition there could take months.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, in his latest shambles of a press conference, claimed that English had no such authority: in saying so, he speaks on behalf of just 7% of voters. National, on the other hand, won 46% of the vote, dropping only one point on its last election result.

The overall result was not a shock: the poll numbers moved around during the campaign but the likelihood that either National alone or Labour and the Greens together would have to find a friend in order to govern was clear even before Andrew Little stepped aside as Labour leader in favour of the more appealing and empathetic Jacinda Ardern, and the Greens imploded in ugly fashion.

If it is to be seen as a weakness of mixed member proportional representation that either a coalition or a minority government will be required after most elections, then it is a weakness of the system, not of the parties themselves. But the need for power-sharing can be seen as one of MMP’s strengths: New Zealanders have diverse views, so it is only to be expected that they should elect diverse parties to represent them. That is the point of proportional representation.

Its downside is to be found in the situation we have now. Peters, who lost his own electorate seat and whose party vote went down, has 100% of the power to anoint the next prime minister. For a country that values fairness, that feels intuitively wrong. On election-night results, English should be in the driving seat; the problem is that Peters is lying across the windscreen.

Shaw’s argument that most New Zealanders voted for change would stack up if New Zealand First had declared before the election that it would align with the Greens and Labour. Peters, although regularly disparaging of National, didn’t made a commitment either way. He always wanted his time in the spotlight. He has it now.

To the public, it seems that the Greens have chosen to put more weight on positioning themselves politically to the left of Labour than on their environmental agenda. The post-election negotiations should be an opportunity for them to demand considerable policy concessions from National in return for support to govern. National would probably be grateful to have a choice other than a coalition with New Zealand First or minority government. Yet it seems the Greens would rather continue to occupy the Opposition benches, where they have spent almost two decades, than sit in unfamiliar chairs in the Cabinet room, where they could have influence. That is a strange choice for any political party, especially one stressing the urgency of action on climate change.

The Greens’ loss of six seats was the single-biggest election-night loss, but the Maori Party losing its only two MPs was catastrophic. The movement will be hard to keep alive without an MP. It had real policy wins in its time and National could have done more to acknowledge that. Instead of the Maori Party, we now have Peters with his long-held divisive policy of a binding referendum on the Maori seats.

The winners from the election are obvious. First, Ardern for increasing Labour’s vote by 12% and invigorating party morale. Second, English whose leadership since Key’s departure and stewardship of the economy before then have won strong support – evidenced by this being the fourth consecutive election in which National has scored more than 44%.

Whether the country is also a winner, with a stable government that can last three years, remains to be seen.

This editorial was first published in the October 7, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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