Take your partners: The jostle on the MMP dance floor

by Bevan Rapson / 15 May, 2018

One of Ronald Reagan's favourite political maxims was "dance with the one that brung ya". But in NZ under MMP, that ain't easy.

To be fair, “Disco Dave” Seymour’s routine in the first round of Three’s latest Dancing with the Stars series wasn’t the worst performance by a New Zealand politician on a dance floor.

At least he didn’t drop his partner on her head, as an earlier Act leader, Rodney Hide, managed to do in 2006, bringing his own stint on the show to an inglorious end.

And nor was his showing quite as memorable as the television footage of Geoffrey Palmer flailing goofily on a dance floor somewhere in the Pacific Islands during his brief spell as Prime Minister last century, when it appeared that a member of the Munster family had somehow got hold of an aloha shirt.

But the Epsom MP could really have no complaints about his immediate descent to the bottom of the show’s points table, or the judges’ harsh verbal verdicts. His tortured progress around the dance floor to the strains of The Knack looked less the product of normal motor skills than something generated by Supermarionation. If he’d worn a blue pilot suit, sash and little blue hat instead of the greaser shades, he might just about have passed off his performance as a Thunderbirds tribute act. Rather than reveal him as a man with two left feet, it raised the question of whether the things at the end of his legs were just a couple of vaguely foot-shaped concrete bollards.

Given his glaring co-ordination deficit, what the hell was he thinking when he agreed to participate? Almost certainly about Act’s equally embarrassing performance in last year’s election – when it won just 0.5% support (a paltry 13,075 votes across the entire country) – thereby raising the firm possibility that this term could be the last parliamentary waltz for both him and his party.

National needs partners, but giving Seymour a free pass in a true-blue seat hasn’t produced the desired dividend in extra MPs. If he can’t improve Act’s polling, that lifeline may well be cut in 2020. As the old dance-marathon movie stated it, “They shoot horses don’t they?”

To have a chance of staving off that fate, Seymour needs all the publicity he can get, so of course he was going to get himself on DWTS if the chance arose. Whether his moment in the spotlight will do him any good is open to question, however.
He's still on the show, but will we Seymour of him?

Hide led Act to a respectable 3.65% of the vote in 2008, recovering from its 1.5% in 2005 and increasing its caucus from two to five. But Act’s lowly standing in the polls received no obvious bump during his stint on the show or for a couple of years afterwards, recovering only in the final run to election day. A similar late rally might be too late for Seymour, whether it owes anything to his plucky, give-it-a-go dancing exploits or not.
To clomp on stubbornly with the dancing theme, perhaps it’s timely to recall that one of the late US President Ronald Reagan’s favourite political maxims was to “dance with the one that brung ya”. Said to be taken from a 1920s country song, the line expressed his intention to look after those who put him into office. In New Zealand under MMP, however, the political dance floor can be crowded and unpredictable.

If Jacinda Ardern is going to get on down with all of those that would claim to have brung her, she has to look after Labour’s traditional base, clearly, and its trade union supporters, and the younger voters who hanker for a “generational” policy leap, but also New Zealand First and the Green Party, whose support actually put her into power.

She will have learned what she can from the Clark and Key governments, which fashioned extended spells in office with the help of multiple partners, but faces a unique challenge in having to reconcile the quite different priorities and personalities of New Zealand First and the Greens. With each demanding their share of the action, the parliamentary disco could easily turn into a mosh pit.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and Greens co-leader James Shaw have both seemed willing to tread fairly softly. Peters’ Cabinet colleague Shane Jones has been more heavy-footed, on topics ranging from Air New Zealand’s treatment of the regions to the difficulty of getting action from the bureaucracy. And Shaw’s new co-leader Marama Davidson might also consider that she has a mandate to push the Greens’ social-justice agenda more vigorously.

As if Labour didn’t already have enough eager partners throwing their weight around, even National’s new leader is up for a little cross-party synchronisation. Ardern and Simon Bridges met recently to discuss the Child Poverty Reduction Bill, agreeing they wanted to work together on legislation. This flicker of bipartisanship was warmly welcomed by Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft, who told RNZ the issue needs to be “depoliticised”. The Prime Minister was at it again the same week with the announcement of a tripartite Future of Work Forum involving the government, Business New Zealand and the Council of Trade Unions.

This chummy approach fits well with Ardern’s breath-of-fresh-air persona, but we probably shouldn’t roll out the bunting to celebrate peace in our time just yet. You can be sure that even when it suits politicians to look constructive, the usual fear and loathing will be bubbling away off-camera.

Take the Greens, who pride themselves so much on taking the high road that they gave away their parliamentary Question Time questions to the National Party. Their own party was bitterly divided before the election over then co-leader Metiria Turei’s admission of benefit fraud. We got a reminder of the vitriol involved then when former MP Kennedy Graham, one of two who resigned over the Turei issue, was lined up to appear at a National Party BlueGreens event in April, prompting Green Party staffer Jack McDonald to take to Facebook in unforgiving terms: “No wonder [Graham] sabotaged us and Metiria when it mattered most.”

It sounded like McDonald was still all wound up over the Turei saga, and perhaps needed to have a nice long chat with former Greens co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons, who helped steer the party in and out of the Alliance, engaging with tough nuts like Jim Anderton and Matt McCarten without ever resorting to personal attacks.

Fitzsimons, who stood down from parliament in 2010, popped back into view in early May to strongly oppose the Government’s waka-jumping bill, which to her deep distress was supported by her party at its first reading.

The bill, which would force list MPs out of Parliament if they left or were expelled by their party, was part of the coalition agreement between New Zealand First and Labour. Described by Fitzsimons as “a poor solution, looking for a non-existent problem”, it was similarly opposed by a posse of legal and political academics.

At heart, it is an attempt to compel MPs to either keep dancing with the ones that brung them or get off the dance floor. Its opponents argue it empowers party hierarchies to stifle debate.

Weighing up the legislation in detail invites us to reflect on dramas of the past, involving such political luminaries as Alamein Kopu, Frank Grover, Gordon Copeland, Taito Phillip Field, Chris Carter, Brendan Horan – and the ex-New Zealand Firsters who propped up the Shipley Government in the late 90s. Makes quite a hall of fame, doesn’t it?

It’s also a reminder that even with skilful footwork and the best of intentions, there’s always the risk of dance-floor fisticuffs – or maybe even someone being dropped on their head.


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