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Opinion: Divorce looms for Labour and NZ First

Author
Matthew Hooton,
Section
Opinion,
Publish Date
Friday, 8 February 2019, 6:14a.m.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Deputy PM and NZ First leader Winston Peters.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Deputy PM and NZ First leader Winston Peters.

COMMENT:

Jacinda Ardern has declared 2019 the "year of delivery" but for NZ First it must be the "year of divorce" — or at least an initial move into the spare room.

Policy-wise, the Coalition is clearly failing. KiwiBuild is a joke. Only with the most audacious creative accounting can Shane Jones pretend his billion trees programme is doing better.

His Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) has so far paid out only $27 million, creating just 54 jobs, plus the 118 bureaucrats hired to administer it.

There is no obvious progress on health, education, poverty, homelessness or mental health.

On economics, incumbent governments get to take the credit, deservedly or not, for low unemployment and strong fiscal surpluses.

Equally though, they are blamed for the local effects of factors beyond their control, and storm clouds are now clearly on the global economic horizon.

There is no advantage to NZ First in being associated with such policy failures or deteriorating economic data.

Already, the party is under MMP's 5 per cent threshold and well below the 10 per cent it polled this time in the previous cycle. Winston Peters has even managed to get on the wrong side of his core supporters by backing the UN's Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

Moreover, even were Ardern to achieve "delivery", the polling benefits would flow to Labour, not NZ First. Electorally, the NZ First brand demands Peters be an outsider rattling the establishment.

Even more important, NZ First's true power lies in coalition negotiations after an election. They require both Labour and National to at least perceive that Peters is open to the best offer from either side.

Winston Peters and Jacinda Ardern celebrate their 2017 Coalition deal. Photo / File
Winston Peters and Jacinda Ardern celebrate their 2017 Coalition deal. Photo / File
Senior NZ First figures are thus pondering how to conduct the necessary distancing from Labour. They say there is no longer any direct working relationship between Peters and Ardern, with Coalition business being carried out by ministers and senior staff.

They are conscious that distance must be achieved ahead of when Simon Bridges might rule out working with NZ First, allowing National to tell provincial New Zealand that a vote for NZ First is one for Labour.

Ardern will be pleased NZ First insiders say flouncing out of the Coalition has been ruled out. That did nothing for Peters in 1998 when he faced an even worse predicament in Coalition with Jenny Shipley.

The following year, his party scored just 4.26 per cent of the party vote and squeaked back into Parliament only after Peters won Tauranga by a mere 63 votes. No NZ First candidate has any chance of winning a seat in 2020.

However, nor is staying loyal to the end an option, as in 2008 when NZ First crashed out of Parliament altogether with just 4.07 per cent of the party vote. A middle ground must be found.

One option is to operate relatively loyally until after the 2020 Budget and then gently resign all the party's ministerial positions, allowing Labour to operate as a minority Government for the 90 days before the election.

The downside is not so much the pay cuts for Peters, Jones, Ron Mark, Tracey Martin and Fletcher Tabuteau, but the loss of ministerial staffing and resources which are used by governments for electioneering.

In any case, that risks being too little too late, with NZ First associated with Labour's failures and declining economic outlook in the meantime. It gives too much time for Bridges to rule out working with Peters but not enough for NZ First to demonstrate genuine neutrality.

Consequently, the current plan is to begin a slow, steady but ever-growing undermining of the Government from within.

On more occasions will Labour ministers be forced to publicly capitulate to NZ First demands, as Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash did this week on cameras on commercial fishing vessels. NZ First will more readily take the credit for such Labour embarrassments. Grumpiness with Labour will be expressed more often in public.

Most importantly, the boundaries of the PGF will be pushed to within a millimetre of what would risk drawing attention from the Auditor General. The lion's share of the cash will be dumped across the country in the 12 months before the election.

If the Labour Party, media or wider establishment kick up a fuss publicly, so much the better.

As a political strategy for NZ First, this all makes sense. It is Ardern we must pity over the next 18 months.

And it is Bridges who has major decisions ahead about National's relationship with New Zealand's perennial king-maker.

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