Sunday, October 08, 2017

What will he do?

The Official Results of the 2017 NZ General Election were released on Saturday, right on schedule, and there was as a slight change: The National Party lost two seats and the Labour Party and Green Party picked up one seat each, pretty much in line with most expectations. But this leaves neither the National Party nor Labour together with the Greens with enough seats to form government. That leaves Winston Peters and his New Zealand First Party in the driver’s seat. Who will Winston choose?

Winston has said that he’ll make a decision by October 12, and the pundits are furiously spinning what think will happen. The truth is, however, no one who is talking knows, and whoever knows isn’t talking. So, us common people won’t know until the announcement is made—there’s no obvious choice.

There are three main possibilities: Winston could choose National, he could choose Labour/Greens, or he could choose to sit on the crossbenches. Any one of the three is possible and a convincing argument could be made for any one of them, but all of them also sound impossible. That’s why there’s no obvious choice.

Choosing National: There are reasons why this makes sense for Winston: He’s personally a social conservative, and conservative on some other issues as well, he used to be a National Party MP until he was from cabinet, and it would be just him and National.

However, in 1991 National sacked him from the cabinet, and his 1996 coalition with them ended in his party ripping apart. He intensely dislikes some current senior National MPs, someone in National seems certain to have leaked the fact Winston had been overpaid his superannuation (retirement benefit; he’d actually paid it back before news was leaked), and National campaigned hard—and successfully—to take his Northland Electorate seat back from him. Winston is known for carrying grudges.

There’s also the problem of propping up a fourth term government that a majority of New Zealanders didn’t vote for. This could be suicide for his party, which could be wiped out in the 2020 elections as voters punish Winston and his party for forcing another three years of National on New Zealand.

Choosing Labour/Greens: Many of Winston’s policies are more in line with Labour than with National. He gets on well with some senior Labour MPs, including Deputy Leader Kelvin Davis. Going with Labour/Greens would be going with a fresh start for New Zealand, which would appeal to him, especially since a majority of New Zealanders voted for a party other than National—and for the Centre-Left, not the Centre-Right. He also had a stable coalition with Labour in 2005-08.

On the other hand, he doesn’t really know Labour Leader Jacinda Ardern, and he values personal relationships. He also may not want to be in government with the Greens (though my own impression is that he despises Act more than the Greens). His party has only one more seat than the Greens, and he would like more sway than such a slim margin would suggest was proper.

Finally, he could sit on the crossbenches. This means supporting whoever forms government, but not being in a formal coalition OR opposition. Being truly independent would likely make any government inherently unstable—they’d need to win Winston’s support on most issues, and he could force the government to fall at any time by withholding his support.

Or, he could be on the crossbenches but give confidence and supply to a government formed by either National or Labour/Greens. National has 56 seats in the new parliament (57 with the one-man Act “Party”), while together Labour and the Greens have 54 seats. So, a truly independent crossbenches move would mean a fourth term National Government, since they have slightly more seats, with all the negative consequences of enabling that.

Winston could also choose to offer confidence and supply to one side or the other in exchange for something (like concessions on some policies), while remaining outside any government. That could support either National or Labour/Greens, with all the consequences—negative and positive—of choosing either.

So, all three options have arguments in favour and against, and all three seem both likely and unlikely. Which will it be? Naturally, I don’t know any more than anyone else does, but also like them, I have my opinions:

Supporting National: Still possible, but highly problematic. I’d rate this second most likely at the moment, but not far behind the most likely.

Supporting Labour/Greens: This option would appeal most to Winston for a lot of reasons, especially with them taking two seats from National. If he wants to be part of a formal coalition, this seems the most likely.

Sitting on the crossbenches: Being truly independent is a non-starter for all the reasons I said, not the least the instability. If he goes this route, it will be with a confidence and supply guarantee for one side or the other, and—at the moment—I’m betting it would be Labour/Greens. This could get Winston the policy concessions he wants, he could still criticise the government, and he wouldn’t have to be in government with the Greens—from his perspective, a Win/Win/Win.

I’ve changed my mind about the shape of our next government several times since the election, and I may do so again between now and the announcement. The uncertainty is that high this year.

But, at this particular moment, I think that when Winston chooses it’ll be for a Labour/Greens government.

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