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Winston Peters' theatrics play a big role in the Government's disunity

Winston Peters. Photo/Getty Images

Winston Peters and New Zealand First clearly see more votes in picking fights than fixing capitalism. 

To a chorus of charges that the Government is suffering dysfunction and stagnation, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters told Parliament this week that 1055 “decisions of unity” had been made in less than a year.

This sounds improbable. But let’s not forget the epic consultations early on over the font and colour of coalition stationery, and the need to decide daily on protocol for who should come to whose office so as not to trample on proper three-party hierarchical considerations.

Many in the media are uncharitably asking what else these decisions of unity could possibly comprise. Voters reasonably assumed they’d been promised a bit of a rumpus. On coalition decision night, Winston Peters made a dag-rattling speech about how capitalism had lost its way, and implied he would help Labour to fix it.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

As the Government’s first anniversary looms, it’s instructive to review what Peters’ New Zealand First has done in this administration to refurbish capitalism to a more equitable state.

This won’t take a minute.

Thanks to NZ First, it’s more lucrative to breed race horses, though there will be fewer courses on which to race them. It’s easier to get a lump sum for provincial infrastructure projects. We’ve got new embassies in Stockholm and Dublin. We’re buying some new air force planes. We will be planting a lot of trees, though when, where and which varieties is still to be finalised. It’s easier to oust a dissident MP from Parliament. The Reserve Bank Act is being reviewed. Again. Plans for criminal justice and drugs reform have been delayed. And foreigners are no longer allowed to buy our properties.

It’s hard to discern from this the outline of a shining new, inclusive era of capitalism, except in as much as the foreign buyers’ ban is credited with bringing house prices down.

Grandiosity alert

But let’s not be picky. This is actually a decent headline list of modest policy trophies for a party that scored 7% of the vote. NZ First has played carefully to its heartland vote in the regions – or rather, to what it hopes will again become its heartland vote. Nothing wrong there.

But, increasingly, Peters is demanding NZ First be treated as an equal partner to Labour, the Greens a mere afterthought. His fatwa against the term “Labour-led Government” is preposterous grandiosity that only fuels the media “narrative” – because we don’t have stories and facts any more, we must have a narrative – of disunity.

Yet that disunity is mostly a combination of Peters’ theatrics and banal failures of process in the coalition’s internal machinery.

Watching Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Peters chatting and joshing in Parliament, it’s impossible to trust the prevailing media portrayal of a hopelessly divided coalition Government. You can’t fake that sort of ease and chumminess. Behind the scenes, all is not rosy, but transgressions have occurred on all sides. It’s not just NZ First being high-handed and obstructive. Some Labour ministers and aides have also forgotten the discipline required to maintain coalition unity. Andrew Little’s decision to scrap the three-strikes rule without NZ First’s sign-off was one of the few publicised faux pas, but there have been others.

Most of the clashes and contradictions chronicled recently – over refugee numbers, appointments and Māori policy – have fallen squarely into the MMP manners zone: fail to consult a junior partner and it has every right to cry “Oi!” This doesn’t indicate the coalition is shaky or that no-speakies has broken out. On the contrary, after Labour failed to consult NZ First fully about its new Māori-Crown partnership, leading to another media frenzy, the issue was sorted out in private in a matter of hours. That is less a sign of dysfunction than of everyone being on a vertiginous learning curve in an inexperienced Cabinet in a near-unprecedented coalition configuration.

The trouble is, Peters makes all these skirmishes reverberate as though they’re deep and abiding travesties rather than the bumpy inevitability of MMP consensus/compromise. His entire career has been a cycle: he courts a populist vote by raging against the establishment, but when he gets into power, can’t let himself become the new, improved establishment figure for long before the craving to be the downtrodden battler overwhelms him again.

Slaying phantoms

So now he’s a David again in search of a Goliath. As “relentlessly positive” Ardern is no ogre, he’s had to invent a phantom oppressor, shadow boxing imagined grave slights and transgressions without being able to be specific, because there are none.

Alas, he has now escalated this theatrical turn in a way that could cause lasting damage. His mad peek-a-boo carry-on about whether or not NZ First will support the industrial legislation, now into its final days in Parliament, is a clear betrayal of MMP manners and important constitutional practice. The threat to withdraw support for such an important law at the last minute, with no good reason, is calculated to cause instability.

It’s not just fretful businesses but every citizen who needs a degree of certainty that the Government can do what it says it will do.

The legislation could fail, damaging the administration’s unity and reputation, for no better reason than that NZ First sees the need to fatten its vote by sabre-rattling.

It’s a short-sighted strategy that feeds the other tiresome “narrative” of the MMP tail wagging the dog. Looking at NZ First’s policy wins, it’s barely waking the dog, let alone wagging it. If he’s ever to get NZ First back up to the 15%-plus vote it had before last election, Peters needs to stop behaving like the demented tail and start looking effective and leader-like. Denying that Labour is in charge and he is subordinate, when patently that’s the case, just makes him look bonkers and reminds people NZ First is still a tiddler party.

Imagine the kudos Peters could accrue if, instead of brawling with the media, he played the grown-up card: admitting that MMP means he cannot, and should not, get his own way on everything? The “narrative” is his to change. How childish we would look if we kept rabbitting on about splits and divisions when our ministers were flat-outadulting” the MMP ethos, including a gracious Winston Peters.

Or we could just wait for him to fix capitalism.

This article was first published in the September 29, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.