AS ELECTION-YEAR GAME-PLANS go, it’s a good one. Why bother to reconstruct Labour as a “broad church” when the same effect can be achieved by creating a broad political “faith” out of three separate parties. Broad churches were mandated by the first-past-the-post electoral system; proportional representation allows a broad faith to have “many mansions” – and even more voters.
Jacinda Ardern was quick to see the possibilities. Many people marvelled at how well she and Winston Peters hit it off during the crucial days of negotiation following the 2017 election. One explanation had Peters intuiting that Labour’s new leader just might be willing to sing the same “Hallelujah Song” he’d been humming quietly since 1993. With the benefit of hindsight, however, it is equally plausible to argue that Jacinda saw in Peters and NZ First precisely the sort of social-conservative hand-brake she and her government needed to protect itself from Labour’s policy enthusiasts and the chronically “woke” Greens.
What emerged was an extraordinarily shrewd division of labour among the three parties making up the Government’s parliamentary majority. In the past, such a division had to be accomplished within a single political formation. For every warm and fuzzy Cabinet Minister offering peace, love and mung beans, there had to be a hard-faced conservative bastard preaching hellfire and brimstone. Preventing these clearly contradictory political tendencies from dividing the party membership into angry and antagonistic factions required a pretty brutal set of leadership skills and a determination to keep intra-party democracy on a very tight leash.
What Peters was offering Jacinda was a conservative faction positioned safely beyond the reach of her liberal and radical allies. The Labour and Green parties’ rank-and-file could come up with as many wild and woolly schemes as they liked: capital gains taxes; lowering the voting age to sixteen; a swingeing Carbon Tax; a radically down-sized dairy herd. But, while Winston and his team remained on watch, no such measures would ever make it through Cabinet. The same, of course, applied, in reverse, if ever NZ First’s hellfire and brimstone got too smelly.
Best of all, this broad, heavily moderated, progressive faith did not require a prime minister with the powers of a medieval pope. Jacinda’s regime had no need of subterranean torture chambers to ensure compliance. A gift for diplomacy and the ability to inspire her fellow human-beings was all the new prime minister required, and she had both of those qualities – in spades! Call it “The Incredible Lightness of Being Jacinda”.
There is, naturally, a weakness in this new arrangement. And, oh, how Jacinda must have hoped and prayed that her potential political nemesis, Simon Bridges, didn’t spot it. That weakness arises out of NZ First’s capacity to form alliances with the party to its right as well as to its left. Press Peters and his people too hard, or, even worse, deny them their heart’s desire, and they’ll start packing-up their suitcases and ordering an Uber. Robbed of its conservative brake, Jacinda’s government would find itself required to say “No” all on its own. Dark clouds would soon overtake the Prime Minister’s sunny disposition. Recrimination and division would weaken Labour and the Green in ways that would be as hard to hide as they were to heal.
The first question Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have asked whenever a senior officer was recommended for promotion was: “Is he lucky?” Can it be doubted that Jacinda would have climbed very high in Napoleon’s Grand Armee? Has New Zealand ever had such a lucky prime minister? And has a new Zealand Leader of the Opposition ever provided his principal political rival with such a valuable gift?
By unequivocally ruling out NZ First as a possible coalition partner for National, Bridges has bolted Jacinda’s conservative handbrake firmly in place. Some might argue that this can only weaken his position. Surely, Bridges’ decision means that calling an Uber is no longer an option for NZ First? After all, where’s he gonna go? The problem with that argument is that the parliamentary arithmetic only changes once every three years. Once the votes have been counted, the numbers remain the numbers until the next election. And right there is where things get tricky.
With her right flank secured, Jacinda can now re-orient her government decisively towards the moderate centre. If her more radical supporters don’t like the idea of Labour building National’s roads, well, they can always bugger-off to the Greens. A move about which Jacinda, recalling her days on Tony Blair’s Third Way, can remain “intensely relaxed”. Because it just doesn’t matter whether the “woke” voters stay with Labour, or decamp to the Greens. Their voices continue to swell the progressive choir in either location.
But wait – there’s more. As Labour bulks up its vote by adopting policies dear to the heart of the moderate centre, and the Greens’ support is enlarged by Labour’s disgruntled progressive defectors, the awful prospect arises (from the perspective of moderate conservatives) of New Zealand electing its first, genuine Red-Green government. Better, surely, to head-off the possibility of an uninhibited left-wing government throwing off the clothing of common sense and getting all jiggy with the capitalist status quo, by making very sure they’re accompanied by a conservative NZ First chaperone!
Such is the delicious flexibility of this broad, new, ideologically ecumenical, political faith. The broad political churches of yesteryear were never able to be so accommodating!
One can only imagine Bridges’ dismay when he is finally forced to acknowledge that ruling out any kind of deal with NZ First was a very, very big mistake. When he realises that, in this country, both the Right and the Left get to the seat of power only after finding themselves a clear path to the Centre.
Jim Bolger, bless him, understood this – which is why he saved his prime-ministership by reaching out to Winston, on his left. Helen Clark understood it, too – which is why she was willing to break Rod Donald’s left-wing heart by making centrist Winston Peters’ day. Jacinda is a natural when it comes to inclusion – which is why she lost no time in learning how to sing Winston’s Hallelujah Song.
Simon Bridges, by making sure National remains a narrow political faith, has allowed Jacinda to further broaden her government’s ecumenical appeal.