Is Winston Peters right to keep us in the dark?

by The Listener / 23 February, 2017

Cartoon/Chris Slane

We’re used to it, this triennial election-year question: “Whither Winston?” But in the design of our MMP voting system, it’s a frustrating blind spot.

Every election since we adopted proportional voting, we’ve had to ask: will New Zealand First hold the balance of power? And, if so, which governing party will it anoint?

Sure enough, the year’s first opinion poll confirms that yet again, Winston Peters’ party is in the box seat. Colmar Brunton found 11% support for NZF, which, given all relevant inter-party compatibilities and allergies, means it may well become kingmaker.

There is nothing wrong with that. It’s the sort of eventuality MMP is intended to allow – proportionality greatly reduces the ability of a single party to get all its own way. Indeed, minor parties are a proven handbrake on executive dominance; three support-party MPs stopped the Government weakening the Resource Management Act. Minor parties don’t, as was once feared, “wag the dog”. They have exacted only minor policy concession prices for their support.

However, NZF’s steadfast refusal to indicate which major party it favours – or even the policies it would support and oppose – remains problematic.

Peters has an impeccable argument for this stance. He’s adamant it’s not up to him to pick the election winner. It’s up to voters. NZF will see where the votes fall, then decide which party deserves support and how much weight it deserves to throw around. In practice, this means Peters will always open coalition/support negotiations with the highest-polling party. But that’s all it means.

Without knowing NZF’s policy must-haves and deal-breakers – which the party itself may not know before the election – voters can only guess what a vote for NZF actually means. Will it, as in 1996, sign with National? Or will Peters support Labour, as in 2005 – with or without the Greens? Given his relentless anti-Government rhetoric, one might pick the latter. But NZF was founded expressly to make National regret being too right wing, and the best way to achieve this might be to make its fourth term in the Beehive a policy-by-policy humiliation and atonement.

Though small “c” conservative, NZF has considerable commonality with Labour and the Greens, despite having blocked the Greens in 2005. Monetary reform, regional development, restricting foreign-asset and property sales, saving rail, raising health and education funding, concern about immigration and free trade – the list of common causes on substantive policy is striking.

Yet Peters knows the risk, in a scenario where National will likely win the most votes, of enabling what could be seen as a coalition of losers. And if Labour again fails to achieve a vote respectably above the 30% mark, such a regime would strike many voters as barely legitimate.

So it is for arguably high-minded motivation, as well as for self-preservation and gamesmanship, that Peters will keep us guessing again. The only novelty this election is his assertion that he will actually lead the next Government. Whether this is Trump/Brexit-infused braggadocio about his party’s future polling, or a hint that he expects to be made prime minister in the next coalition deal, leaves us once again in the dark.

The prospect of having to work with such aggressive enigmas was doubtless one of the reasons John Key was unable to face seeing out another term as prime minister. But no rule change could decently force binding disclosure from parties about their coalition intentions. Being able to keep some powder dry may make centrist parties more effective, in keeping dominant players aware they might have to moderate their more extreme policies for the sake of consensus.

Even as we’re maddened by Whither Winston? Part VIII and by proportionality’s uncertainties, we should reflect on MMP’s alternatives. Anti-Europe party UKIP got 20% of the British vote but just one MP – an inequity that festered to fuel the Brexit vote. And America’s systemic electoral barriers to minor parties leave the Senate, House of Representatives and judiciary with a very light kit of checks and balances with which to face President Donald Trump’s anarchic agenda.

Yes, we wish Winston Peters would just spit it out: Labour or National? But, frustrating as it is for voters, at least our perennial Man of Mystery helps keep the executive accountable.

This editorial was first published in the March 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.  

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