Due to the obvious importance of New Zealand First to either side forming a government in 2017, from now til the next Election there will be an absolutely huge quantity of political pontification from pundits, politicians, and assorted other somewhat self-important talking heads as to what Winston – or, more properly, NZF as a whole – might do.
I emphasize that we are talking about an entire political party rather than one man here, not just because it’s the truth of the matter and frequently forgotten about – but because it is worth remembering that any future coalition entanglement featuring New Zealand First will undoubtedly be contingent, to some extent at least, upon the preferences of our Party membership.
But before we get to that stage, there’s the matter of navigating the coalition bottom lines which Winston laid out earlier this month.
Every electoral cycle in recent memory where the potential for a coalition has been on the table, he’s done this. In some cases, it’s obvious that these are conceptualized and deployed in order to force particular issues onto the political agenda – and to force other parties to take them seriously. In other cases, they are construed in a more strategic manner – so as to put up forcible barriers between New Zealand First and either or both potential fulcrums of coalition (or, for that matter, other possible coalition support parties).
The bottom lines laid out for the 2014 Election numbered six, and encompassed a broad mix of both objectives.
They included a brazen demand for the renationalization of those power companies privatized by National (thus making an NZF-National coalition singularly unlikely – but also highlighting how NZF’s position was to the arguable left of either Labour or The Greens on this issue, and hoping to draw them both towards it); an imperative to prevent the retirement age from being raised beyond 65 (which handily ruled out Labour – who’d made an increase a bizarre key plank in their electoral campaign, while also putting trenchant opposition to the increase on the political map); a “KiwiFund” proposal for a sovereign wealth fund that would both invest in NZ and make superannuation both sustainable and affordable; an “end to race-based policy” (which, while nebulous, appeared to be a strike against National’s Whanau Ora enactment, and a warning shot in the direction of Labour/Greens); a directive to stop selling farmland offshore (which, obviously, National would never have agreed to); and a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Dirty Politics (which was both a topical issue at the time, and something which National, again, was rather unlikely to agree to).
In the 2011-2014 electoral cycle, Winston started laying out these aforementioned ‘bottom lines’ mid-way through. He didn’t realize them all at once, nor did he attempt to put forward a complete platform immediately before the Election. Instead, as issues became salient (or started to dip from the radar and run the risk of dropping into obscurity again), he sought to plant the NZ First flag upon them.
This appears to be a similar pattern to what he’s engaging in here.
More than a year out from the next Election, he’s signaled two areas upon which to stand going forward into 2017: “mass immigration” and “separatism”.
Now it’s important to note at this juncture that the language he used during the Q&A interview in which these areas of concern were announced was deliberately non-commital. Both points were prefaced with a “for example”, and were intended to be taken as indicative of the type of government which New Zealand First could not, in good conscience, support.
However, I see no especially good reason to presume that the Party will resile from either presumptive bottom line at any point between now and the next Election. They’re both fundamentally consistent with NZF’s enduring political message (to the point that I’m genuinely surprised it wasn’t included as a bottom line in 2014’s wishlist); as well as being sufficiently vague enough to be twisted in precise philosophical ambit and practical-political application so as not to be what amounts to an undue electoral straightjacket in the latter half of next year.
But there are some clear and obvious impacts here. New Zealand First has previously made undertakings – whether explicit or implicit – not to work with each of the Maori Party or ACT. Due to the effective positional underpinnings of each party, this set of draft bottom lines would solidify that commitment to exclude them from a government NZ First participated in.
It also sends a message to both National and Labour/Greens that fundamental elements of their respective political programmes so far will have to be abandoned if they want to have any hope of seriously working with Winston.
The big question, of course, is whom it will therefore become harder to coagulate with.
And to be frank, there’s no easy answer.
On the surface of it – and in-line with some of my personal preferences if push comes to absolute shove – there’s much more dissonance between National’s track-record of the last eight years and New Zealand First than there is with Labour’s present stances.
One of these parties undid NZF and Labour’s work on the Foreshore & Seabed Act 2004, gave us the multibillion dollar ‘brown elephant’ policy of Whanau Ora, and continues to preside over immigration figures six times that which we had under Helen Clark. Alongside this, it has not escaped attention that Labour has attempted to imitate NZ First (clumsily, albeit) when it comes to immigration rhetoric – everything from Phil Twyford’s snafu over alleged Chinese domination of the Auckland housing market through to Andrew Little’s more recent commentary about Chinese & Indian ethnic restaurant chefs … could rather justifiably be referred to as “Winstonian rhetoric”.
But on the other hand … it has previously been said that the National Party would crawl on its knees over broken glass in pursuit of political power – so while it’s perhaps unlikely so long as National can find alternative coalition partners, nobody would rule out National doing a substantive one-eighty on both of these issues in pursuit of NZ First’s coalition support. At that stage, it becomes a very different game whose bottom lines might very well include “John Key’s Head” – but that’s a subject for another article entirely.
Further, while Labour was dead keen to signal a review-and-potential-scrapping of Whanau Ora in response to Winston’s 2014 anti-“separatist” bottom line … dependent upon what Winston means by it in 2017, there is a chance that the Green Party might fall afoul of the same stricture. Given that Labour’s previously stated they’re rather highly unlikely to leave the Green Party hanging at the altar come Coalition ’17 regardless of NZF’s charms, this could create some problems.
So all things considered, Winston’s latest foray into providing voters with 2017 surety arguably only increases the uncertainty about what might happen next year. We need more information from him as to how these bottom lines are to be defined in practice before it’s possible to sensibly triangulate whom they might affect the most, and how.
But looking towards the next Election, it’s appearing increasingly likely that it will come down to a contest of desperation between the two blocks to try and measure up to our standards – rather than what we’ve had previously of the larger parties running their own platforms and naively expecting us to get with THEIR program.
The challenge for those of us on the left wing of NZ First is to attempt to ensure the power which comes with our resurgent position at the center of Kiwi politics is used wisely and for progressive-amenable ends.