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Minority Rules: Who will be the first voted off Coalition Island?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Illustration/Weef

As a reality-TV show full of dramatic challenges, this new Government has a lot going for it. But the biggest challenge is probably for voters: they need to understand what is, even by global MMP standards, our unique way of forming governments.

Even as Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters clinked whisky tumblers to celebrate what will surely be shorthanded as Jacinston or Wincinda, the bad fairy hovered over the christening. Many voters simply won’t see this arrangement as legitimate because National got the most votes.

This is not the first time that the most popular party in an election using a proportional voting system has been left out of the Government, but it’s still an arresting novelty to us: how does the most popular party, National, not get any power at all?

It’s a fair question, and even those smarty-britches whose habitual retort is, “(Sigh). You just don’t understand MMP, do you?” are a bit out on a limb on this one.

For the record, the only other time it has happened was in Sweden in the 1970s, and the resultant Government didn’t last the full term intact. In fairness, the circumstances were very different. The dominant centre-left party had held sway for four decades, which is by most lights an unhealthy length of time in power. In the 1976 election, three other parties, led by a centre-right party with 20% less of the vote than the most popular party, buddied up. They later fell out over nuclear energy, but even that wasn’t the end of the Government, which carried on as a minority led by an even smaller party.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Given those vastly different circumstances, that’s not an especially helpful precedent, but it does go to show that coalition politics is like Lego: bits can click together and bits can come off, but the whole edifice need not crumble, even if the bits are put together in a different order from the one people are used to.

Even the MMP peculiarities we’ve grown used to are very peculiar indeed. Nowhere else in the world do governing coalitions allow minority partners to be ministers outside of the executive and give them a degree of licence to disagree publicly with their Government and even stop it in its tracks. Yet this is the deal the Greens have now and it was the deal the Maori Party and Peter Dunne (aka United Future) had with the previous National-led administrations, and NZ First had with Labour before that).

And just as those three MPs occasionally frustrated National, for instance refusing to support Resource Management Act Reform or the Kermadecs sanctuary, so the Greens will have the power to stop their Labour-New Zealand First-Green Government from doing things.

This is a little “agree-to-disagree” hybridisation of MMP cooked up in the formation of the 2005 Labour-NZ First Government. It was most famously put to the test when then Foreign Minister Peters publicly dissented from the free-trade deal with China. The rift was carefully quarantined and stage-managed, and the Government saw out its full term with no worries.

 It’s a departure from the time-honoured Westminster principle of “Cabinet collective responsibility”(CCR), and – perhaps playfully - dubbed “selective Cabinet collective responsibility” by Sir Geoffrey Palmer.

MMP expert Professor Jonathan Boston points out that CCR can be remarkably elastic, as in Britain’s minority Conservative Government, whose senior figures are vigorously publicly at odds over Brexit. Other countries might scratch their heads at our formalisation of an inside-and-outside-the-tent-at-once sort of variation, but it has so far made it possible to prevent cacophonous intragovernmental warfare like Britain’s.

A further peculiarity is whether, technically, we now have a minority Government. It depends who’s talking. Prime Minister-designate Ardern is referring to it as a “partnership” of all three parties. Putative deputy PM Peters regards it as a coalition between his team and Labour, with the Greens in a supporting role. (Australian headlines have called it winning losers, but (sigh) they don’t understand MMP, do they?)

These technicalities of MMP might seem something for the boffins to fuss over, but they are an impediment to the all-important public perception of whether this can be a stable administration. Confusion breeds uncertainty: while we await policy details and the topsy-turvy fascination of long-time Opposition figures suddenly ruling the roost, Ardern’s, Peters’ and Shaw’s most immediate problem is finding ways to soothe a considerable public mood that their coalition is not entirely legitimate.

The National Party will fan this unease by presenting itself as an exiled Government-in-waiting. Hashtag: #KeepYourReceipt. If you don’t like what you’ve been sold, you can exchange it.

 As English said on Thursday night, “almost one in two New Zealanders supported us.” National stands ready for an electionless return to power if the new arrangement goes pear-shaped.

A key question here is, did a majority of voters vote for change, the status quo, or a modified status quo? Analysis of final Electoral Commission returns are shedding some light on this by indicating how NZF voters split their votes. But it’s also perhaps necessary to factor in the way supporters of below-the-threshold parties, including the Opportunities Party and the Maori Party, leant in their electorate preferences.

Even that can tell us only so much about voters’ true intentions. Giving NZF your party vote, and the National candidate your electorate vote might just mean you think the candidate’s a good sort, not that you necessarily back the National Government.

That’s why NZF’s caucus spent so long wrestling over the final decision. If only there was a Hogwarts Sorting Hat for occasions like these. The party knew as soon as it saw its disappointing election haul that it was in a longer-term no-win situation, despite holding the balance of power. The backlash it would have copped for supporting National after deploring it for all these years might be less ferocious that the one it’s copping for empowering the runner-up Labour.

Again, that’s first-past-the-post thinking, but no matter how big a boffin stick constitutional experts wave around, the voters are always right. If they simply can’t tolerate this sort-of-minority style of governance, it won’t become popular.

We’ll hear a lot of talk about “reframing,” and fair enough. It’s as accurate to say that three parties have agreed to work together as a government as it is to say that nine MPs (NZF) got to choose a government. But for a lot of people it will come down simply to a long-incubating case of Winston-itis.

The only thing for it is for Ardern and her team to come blasting out of the starting blocks with such a flurry of (popular) activity that people forget to be shocked about the maths.

At the risk of kicking the party now it’s up, Labour’s policy performance on the campaign trail didn’t betoken a team on standby with a 40-point plan for everything. Nine years’ workshopping and seminaring over policies with never the sniff of action is a hard habit to break.

However, there’s plenty of goodwill out there toward any new administration, and Ardern is so difficult to dislike or resent that the new Government should get the traditional honeymoon.

The election’s timing may be helpful here, as there probably needs to be only a perfunctory session of Parliament before the holiday adjournment. Early reiteration of policy intentions is essential. But the three parties can use the silly season to nail down the details and get ready to dominate the agenda in the New Year. Key public service analysts’ hols will be the first casualty.

For National, this is a cruel, unusual and mostly unexpected turn of events. Though badly rattled by Labour’s late surge in the campaign, it had remained quietly confident of resuming business-nearly-as-usual after NZ First had carried out the requisite soul-searching.

For younger, newer caucus members, it’s a bummer but possibly a blessing. They’ll be betting this new coalition is what Sir John Key might term a “three-headed devil-beast from hell”, which might not even last the term. They can wait it out, more confident of getting a senior job in the sixth National-led Government.

For National’s seniors, however, it’s a devastating letdown. Should they hang in there, confident of an early collapse and restoration of the rightful regime? Or would it be more dignified to graduate to that lucrative post-politics career like Key?

Given the metabolic cycles of our politics, they probably need not tackle these tough decisions till the New Year.