Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Keeping friends closer

There’s that old expression, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” In politics, that often means doing deals with one’s enemies to keep them from causing trouble. But what about when your “friends” are sometimes the biggest threat?

After the election, John Key stitched-up deals with the lone MP from the Act “Party”, John Banks, and the lone MP from the United Future “Party”, along with the 3 MPs left in the Maori Party Caucus. He needed to do deals since, with only 59 seats, he needed three more seats in order to form government.

John Banks is an ex-National Party MP and former National government cabinet minister. He’s a Nat through and through, so I predict that sometime in the next three years he’ll defect to the National Party—unless some other former National Party “leader” steps forward to “save” the party again. Whatever happens, Banks’ will be John Key’s poodle—safe and reliable.

The same is true with Peter Dunne. The conventional wisdom often repeated by pundits is that Dunne is a Nat, but avoids joining the party because his wife is Labour. His support is almost as rock-solid as Banks, though he’s been known to dig his heals in sometimes.

The Maori Party’s natural home is in coalition with National because they are a conservative party. That’s a problem for them, because Maori voters are not typically supporters of National. If Hone Harawera’s Mana Party ever becomes more than a one-man band or, far more likely, Labour gets its act together, the Maori Party faces extinction, particularly with both its co-leaders leaving next election. Because their hopes for survival will rest on mostly untested candidates, the party isn’t a reliable partner for Key, no matter how friendly and pro-National they may be.

Things aren’t so very different on the left, with the two main parties often seeming to forget that one day they’ll probably need each other to form government. During the election campaign, there was far too much sniping between Labour and the Greens over "stealing" policies. It seems to me a good idea is a good idea and if both parties back a policy, that's twice as good. Who "owns" the policy only interests partisans—it bores voters.

Both parties also need to stop being so precious about their supposed political purity and embrace strategic voting as National has done so effectively, with National voters casting their ballots for non-National candidates to help their party. In Epsom, for example, 60 percent of National voters voted for Banks. 54% of Green voters voted for the National candidate in an attempt to get rid of Banks and Act, but a disgusting 35% of Labour voters did that. Put the other way round, 46% of Greens and 65% of Labour voters in Epsom helped John Banks win that seat. Smart—real smart.

Green voters also got it wrong in Waitakere where 13% voted for National’s Paula Bennett (a higher percentage than in 2008), handing her the win over Labour’s Carmel Sepuloni. Bennett was assured of a seat regardless, but by losing the seat Sepuloni was out of Parliament. No matter how much the left disliked Sepuloni, helping elect Bennett was just stupid.

Still, in general, Green Party voters were clearly smarter about tactical voting than were Labour voters, possibly because they were told the party was only seeking their Party Vote, leaving them free to vote for whoever they wanted to. But I wonder how much of the animus between the two parties affected Green supporters’ votes.

The bottom line, really, is this: A centre-left government will almost certainly require a coalition between Labour and the Greens. They don’t have to like each other, and they certainly don’t need to subsume their separate identities into one. But they do need to learn to work with each other, and especially to act more like friends than adversaries—even though that will probably keep each other closer than they would enemies.

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