LET’S GET ONE thing straight: this government is not a “pure MMP coalition”. On the contrary, it is a most impure political arrangement. A “pure” MMP coalition is one in which all of the component parties share, to a greater or lesser extent, a set of common philosophical convictions. The National-NZ First coalition government of 1996-97 was one such; likewise the Labour-Alliance minority coalition government of 1999-2002; which was, it is often forgotten, kept in office by a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Greens.
Jim Bolger and Winston Peters – the two principal players in the National-NZ First coalition government – had for many years sat in the same caucus. Both of them grew up in large, and far from affluent, rural families. Neither politician had much in the way of sympathy for trade unions. It was Jim Bolger who commissioned his long-time friend and ally, Bill Birch, to shepherd the Employment Contracts Bill through Parliament. And, it was Winston Peters who voted for that extraordinary piece of union-busting legislation without demur. Both men were staunch supporters of private enterprise.
Significantly, the Labour-Alliance coalition government was also led by two politicians who had sat together in the same party caucus. Helen Clark and Jim Anderton had been friends and comrades for many years until, as happened to so many friends and comrades in the Labour Party, they fell out over what came to be known as “Rogernomics”. By 1998, however, the civil war on the left of New Zealand electoral politics had been brought to a close. Labour and the Alliance were pledged to form a “loose” progressive coalition if the votes went their way in the 1999 election – which they did.
This current government, however, is a very different proposition from nearly all of the coalitions which preceded it. The votes of all three of its component parties: Labour, NZ First and the Greens; must be combined before any piece of government legislation can pass through the House of Representatives. Accordingly, the withdrawal of support by any one of this governing troika of parties can kill any bill.
To make the politics of this coalition government even more intractable, the NZ First Party is philosophically out-of-step with its allies. It has thrown in its lot with the parties of the left for one reason, and one reason only: because it allowed itself to be convinced that Labour’s and the Greens’ hostility to the neoliberal order was as unflinching as its own. In the nearly 12 months that have elapsed since the 2017 general election, however, NZ First and its leader have been given more and more cause to believe that Labour’s and the Greens’ opposition to neoliberalism is more rhetorical than real.
In the absence of genuine and decisive moves against the core elements of the economic and social order erected by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, Winston Peters and his party have felt obliged to protect their electoral flanks by either vetoing or delaying the “progressive” legislation promoted by Labour and the Greens.
Peters’ “partners” have been aggrieved by these interventions. But, if Labour and the Greens really believed that NZ First: the law-and-order party; the anti-immigration party; was going to vote for the repeal of the “three-strikes” legislation, or a doubling of the refugee quota, absent the political cover provided by an uncompromising roll-back of neoliberalism; then they were dreaming. Likewise, with the key amendments to the Employment Relations Act. Without the covering fire of “Big Change”, the instinctively anti-union Peters has opted to keep his right-wing powder dry.
The leader of NZ First has no intention of emulating the behaviour of the Alliance leader, Jim Anderton. Once seated at the cabinet table, Anderton, felt obliged to follow Labour’s lead in all things: a strategy that saw the Alliance’s electoral support evaporate at an alarming rate. Peters has done his best to avoid being precipitately or unreasonably obstructive. He did, after all, swallow the dead rats of the resurrection of the TPP and the Labour-Green decision to call a halt to offshore oil and gas exploration. The problem, from NZ First’s perspective, is that the more compromises the party makes to its left-wing partners, the more it is expected to make. Peters is simply making it clear that there are limits to his co-operation. A warrior he may be – but he’s not a Social Justice Warrior!
Which brings us to the truly original aspect of the current coalition: the potential for at least one of its partners to go over to the Opposition, break up the coalition, and bring down the government – without the need for a new election. It would be a dangerous move, but what other option would NZ First – an essentially conservative political party – have if it found itself expected to vote for one piece of radical legislation after another? Coalitions are not suicide pacts.
What Labour and the Greens have apparently failed to grasp is that Peters is committed to facilitating not a radically progressive, but a radically conservative revolution. NZ First’s political programme is dedicated not to carrying our nation forward but to taking their country back. The New Zealand which Peters and his colleagues is seeking to restore is the New Zealand whose provinces thrived; whose families felt secure; whose culture was proudly British (with just a smidgen of Maoritanga thrown in for good measure) and whose future was something to be shaped by the hands of its own people – not the talons of a rapacious and globalised capitalism.
The crucial political failure of Labour and the Greens is that they have yet to appreciate that without the realisation of the radical conservatives’ programme, the chances of a radically progressive programme succeeding are nil. Until the slums of neoliberalism have been cleared, a New Zealand fit to live in cannot be built.