As Jacinda Ardern takes her baby exit - the show goes on

by Graham Adams / 17 June, 2018

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Opinion.
Jacinda Ardern and Damien O'Connor.

Jacinda Ardern with Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor at Fieldays - her last public engagement before going on maternity leave. Photo / Getty Images

A big, rambunctious coalition government may turn out to be more appealing to voters than National thinks.

One thing the National Party could never have guessed in the run-up to the last election was how much a Labour-led coalition government might confound it by its very heterogeneity. In fact, in its campaign ads, National sneered at the disparate nature of the coalition parties, painting the Greens, Labour and NZ First as a raggle-taggle band of misfits shackled together, limping along even as a teal-blue team of runners powered past in a show of streamlined efficiency.

Despite the fact its tactics thoroughly alienated Winston Peters to the extent the National Party is now occupying the opposition benches, it is pushing on with exactly the same strategy — doing its best to highlight any division in the coalition government to prove it is an unruly and unworkable combination.

Most recently, it seized on Justice Minister Andrew Little’s retraction of his attempt to repeal the Three Strikes law, after NZ First apparently pulled the rug from under him, as evidence of a government in chaos.   

Not everyone, however, will see it that way. Many Labour supporters, for instance, will think Peters saved them from a policy that could have sunk them, especially given the campaign whipped up by the likes of National’s pollster David Farrar, who was running a series of mugshots of unpleasant-looking crims on his website Kiwiblog to highlight what he saw as the looming danger to public safety.

Without Peters’ intervention, Little undoubtedly would have pressed on, even as public disquiet mounted. Peters threw him a lifeline over an electorally unpopular policy, and boosted his own party’s credentials of being tough on crime while Labour can claim to have given one of its prison reform policies its best shot.

It also gave Ardern a chance to take the high ground and claim it was “simply democracy and MMP” in action — a stance Peters later reiterated in the House when challenged by Simon Bridges. Peters also praised Little in the same session as a “the most reformist minister we’ve had in decades” and a “visionary”, making it clear that he and Little might disagree on policy at times but that didn’t mean he didn’t hold Little in the highest regard. 

By painting the coalition partners as unstable, National will also be hoping to push support for the Greens and NZ First under the five per cent threshold so that the next election will effectively be a first-past-the-post contest in which Labour and National can square off against each other as the two big parties left standing.

It’s true that the history of the smaller parties in MMP governments in New Zealand has shown this to be the inevitable result of coalition governments — the minnows eventually get spat out by the whales, whether Labour or National.

What National has to grasp is that neither NZ First nor the Greens are minnows in this government.  Given the numbers, they each have considerable clout — as indeed the ban on oil and gas prospecting and the Three Strikes backdown have demonstrated. It is clear they cannot be treated as lapdogs.

National’s biggest mistake, however, may be to seriously underestimate the impact of an alliance of capable politicians with big personalities working alongside — and sometimes in opposition to — each other. Jacinda Ardern, Phil Twyford, Andrew Little, Winston Peters, Shane Jones, James Shaw, Marama Davidson… it’s a formidable array of talent and personality with each wanting a turn in the limelight, whether to raise their own profiles or to ensure their party’s electoral survival.

And because Ardern is hugely popular personally, she isn’t in any real danger of being overshadowed by any of them. She is the glue that makes the alliance possible.

Ardern can happily go off on maternity leave knowing there is a cast of colourful and capable people to fill the gap — most notably Peters himself, the oldest chameleon in Parliament. No one will be exactly sure which Peters they’ll get on any given day since he can be humorous, vindictive, endearing, exasperating and impossible — all within the space of a few sentences.

It won’t be easy for Simon Bridges to get the measure of him and if he hasn’t come off very well against Jacinda Ardern in the House so far, his chances of besting Peters are even lower.

That much was clear in a Q&A session in the House after Ardern had decamped to Auckland to be close to hospital before her impending birth. Standing in for the Prime Minister, Peters swatted away Bridges’ questions about the Three Strikes law with his characteristic mix of humour and seriousness but also with a jab — Peters suggested Bridges has claimed to be a Crown Prosecutor when he has never held that particular warrant. It was classic Peters.

In comparison to its government counterparts, National mostly gives the impression of a group of technocratic managers — best exemplified among its senior ranks by third-ranked finance spokesperson Amy Adams: cool, capable and efficient. That has its attractions but it’s hard to compete when you’re faced with a boisterous, colourful group of opponents who make up the government, with all the publicity that provides.

It’s true that Paula Bennett and Judith Collins — flanking Adams at number two and four in the opposition lineup respectively — have attention-grabbing personalities but they hardly offset the coalition government’s riotous, outspoken lineup.

And if National thinks NZ First’s Shane Jones is harming the coalition government by speaking out against the likes of Air NZ and Fonterra, they have sadly misread how many people feel after nine years of the Key-English administration sucking up to big business — including running a mass immigration policy on their behalf that gooses demand and supplies cheap labour even as Auckland seizes up from the influx.

As Jones put it in defending his call for Fonterra’s chairman to step down: “This is coalition politics. I’m a robust member of the NZ First party, I've got nothing but admiration for the Prime Minister and my leader but this is not a government that’s going to pander to the corporate culture that Fonterra at its highest level shows.” 

National, of course, is making much of the business community’s discontent with the coalition government as shown by business confidence surveys but there is a recent poll they have been only too happy to ignore.

Victoria University’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies has released the results of a survey on public attitudes to authorities, which show significant improvements in how much people trust the government since the same poll was undertaken in 2016.

Asked whether they trust the government to do what is right for New Zealand, 65 per cent now say yes, compared with 48 per cent in 2016.

And, 49 per cent think New Zealand citizens’ interests are equally and fairly considered by the government, up from 39 per cent.

Fifty-nine per cent say they trust the government to deal successfully with national problems, up from 47 per cent in 2016.

The survey was taken between February 26 and March 4. It’s a reasonable bet that a lot of that change over two years is due to Jacinda Ardern's rise to prominence with her stated aim to foster a kinder and fairer approach to politics.

Increasing levels of trust may also be reinforced by politicians from the government’s constituent parties speaking up in public for what they believe, rather than debating contentious topics behind closed doors and presenting the public with a unified front and no hint of competing views.

Many will agree with Ardern: it’s democracy in all its fractious glory.

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