POPULISM VERSUS RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT. The Regions versus Metropolitan New Zealand. NZ First versus Labour. Shane Jones versus Grant Robertson. “Oh yes, Ladies and gentlemen, there’s Trouble: Trouble with a capital ‘T’; and it’s brewing right here in Political City!”
The only way the coalition between Labour and NZ First can ever be made to work is if Jacinda Ardern, beneath the necessary veneer of “responsible government”, is actually every bit as populist as Winston Peters.
No other political modus vivendi offers the slightest chance of success. In no time at all, a genuinely “responsible” Labour-led government would be placing a whole platter-full of dead rats before its coalition partners and expecting them to smack their lips with delight. How many of these delicacies NZ First could consume before its remaining followers threw up their hands in horror and disgust is uncertain – but it’s highly unlikely to be a lot.
It wouldn’t be quite so bad if Labour’s junior coalition partner possessed a solid buffer of popular support to keep it well above the 5 percent MMP threshold. Enough to sanction a little tactical erosion. But that is not the case. By opting to put Labour on the Treasury Benches, Winston Peters instantly burned-off that part of his electoral base which had been expecting him to turn right. The 7.2 percent support NZ First attracted at the General Election was halved in the first of the big post-election opinion polls. A steady diet of dead rats is hardly likely to improve the party’s position!
The biggest of those rats – the CPTPP – was, perhaps, unavoidable. To take on the combined forces of MFAT, MPI, Treasury, Business NZ and Federated Farmers in the first crucial weeks of the coalition’s life was simply too big an ask. Even the most radical of NZ First’s populist followers could see that. Likewise, the need to cry ‘Tai Hoa!’ on the free-trade agreement with the Russian Federation. If Teresa May’s “sexed-up” accusations are proved to be as false as Tony Blair’s WMDs – as a great many of NZ First’s members expect – then Albion’s perfidy will soon be made clear and negotiations can resume with gusto.
The consumption of rat carcases must, however, end right there. Labour cannot afford to set any more before Winston Peters and his caucus colleagues. They have allowed Jacinda to take what she absolutely had to have – now it’s her turn to give NZ First what it needs.
But can she? Will her “Kitchen Cabinet” – David Parker, Grant Robertson, Phil Twyford – let her? The answer would appear to be ‘No’. Not if the Labour Party leadership’s reaction to Shane Jones’ full-scale populist assault on Air New Zealand’s treatment of the provinces is anything to go by.
Jones’ attack was perfectly pitched to the pissed-off provincial voters NZ First needs to win back. It was excoriatingly anti-corporate and anti-elitist: directed with pin-point populist accuracy at the Big End of Town. All that Labour had to do in response was avoid saying anything that could be interpreted as a reproof of Jones’ rhetorical axe-swinging.
After the arrogant telling-off directed at Finance Minister Robertson by Air New Zealand’s management, saying nothing should have been a no-brainer. No government can afford to let itself be lectured to by a corporation in which the people of New Zealand hold a 51 percent stake. Certainly, a brief media release from Robertson (confirming that would be carefully considering the composition of the Air New Zealand board in September) would have popped a cherry on the top of Jones’ populist sundae – but it wasn’t essential. Labour’s silence would have spoken loudly enough.
Significantly, neither Jacinda Ardern nor Grant Robertson was willing to keep silent on the subject of Jones’ populist broadside against the management of Air New Zealand. The Prime Minister felt compelled to tell the news media that: “Calling for the sacking of any board member is a step too far and I have told Shane Jones that.” Robertson, according to the NZ Herald, “said he disagreed with Jones and the board and chief executive were doing a good job.”
It is impossible to argue that Robertson’s comment was not also directed with pin-point accuracy at the Big End of Town. The problem being that, instead of informing the corporate elite that Labour was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with its coalition partner, it let them know, in terms that could not possibly be misconstrued: “We’re with you guys.”
All of which leaves Winston Peters with some very serious thinking to do. Because the party in which he opted to place his trust in October 2017: the party he still believed capable of singing that same old “Hallelujah Song” belted out by Mickey Savage and Norman Kirk; is steadily demonstrating, both to NZ First and the New Zealand electorate, that the only songs it remembers how to sing are the ones it learned from Roger Douglas back in the 1980s.
And that won’t do – not at all. Thirty-nine working-parties and policy reviews are no substitute for NZ First’s plain and simple promises to put things right. Those promises were a big part of the reason why Labour, NZ First and the Greens won enough seats to form a government. If they are not kept or, worse still, they are shown – by Labour – to be “just the sort of thing you say when you’re in Opposition and then forget about when you’re in Government”, then NZ First will simply have to say “fuck it” – and walk away.