From MMP to SBI: strange bedfellows indeed

Our new Labour-led government has brought together a very surprising combination of parties and provided an equally surprising explanation: ‘We had to work with the cards the voters dealt us’. So let’s look at that. If Labour has New Zealand First with

Paul Green

Our new Labour-led government has brought together a very surprising combination of parties and provided an equally surprising explanation: ‘We had to work with the cards the voters dealt us’. So let’s look at that. If Labour has New Zealand First with seven seats plus United Future with three and those are added to Labour’s 51 seats (including the Progressive Jim Anderton’s one, the one and only coalition partner) we have a total of 61. Yet this bare majority is guaranteed only on issues of confidence and supply for a minority-led government. Further, the allied ministers, Winston Peters in Foreign Affairs and Peter Dunne in Revenue, will not only be outside cabinet they may also be in opposition (regardless of where they sit).

But wait a minute, if Labour had coalesced with the ever loyal Green Party (six seats) and negotiated some concessions with the Māori Party (four seats), they would have had the same number of votes and perhaps a coalition government that controlled all 61 votes on matters of agreed policy; not just on confidence and supply. If my old fashioned maths is correct 50+1+7+3=50+1+6+4 or 61, right? So if it wasn’t the number of cards they were dealt, perhaps it was a matter of who held the trump cards.

Surely other factors must have influenced the decision that led to this government of strange bedfellows. Perhaps we must assume that the potential alliance with the Green and the Māori parties was deemed too costly, or more difficult to manage and negotiate with than an alliance with the caustic and outspoken Winston Peters or the petulant Peter Dunne? That doesn’t make a lot of sense, since, on the face of it, the Green Party were committed to support most Labour policies, and the government already had a guarantee of supply and confidence from NZ First (or did Winston renege because of the Green Party?) Maybe it was a problem of negotiating an agreement with the Māori Party? Perhaps Tariana Turia wanted to have the foreshore and seabed legislation revoked or amended so that Māori could have their day in court (as Rodney Hide [Act] and many others said they should).

Could working with Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples be more difficult or costly than working with Winston Peters and Peter Dunne? It is well known that the latter refused to sit in a government with the Greens and thus ‘held the country to ransom’, as Jeanette Fitzsimons said.

Many voters would have some sympathy for the Greens especially those Labour voters who gave the Greens their party vote knowing that Labour would need them in a coalition government. I wonder how many Labour voters gave NZ First their party vote.

It has been suggested that the Māori Party queered their chances to join the present government by flirting with the National Party, but surely Peter Dunne was just as willing to court National and would probably have accepted a coalition with them. If the Māori Party had joined in supporting a National-led government, their voters would surely have felt betrayed, since most of them gave their party vote to Labour.

A lot of people seem to be unhappy or doubtful about our new government. According to an online poll taken by Stuff soon after the announcement, about 4% thought it was fantastic, about 14% OK, while about 43% thought it was terrible; all the rest would ‘wait and see’ (Helen Bain, Sunday Star Times, 22/10/2005, A12:6).

It is difficult to understand why Winston was offered Foreign Affairs unless it was to tempt him away from providing confidence and supply for National. It was a very puzzling month for us outsiders due to the story that National had 57 votes tied up, which means they were counting on Act, United Future and the Māori Party (talk about strange bedfellows!) and assumes that Labour had only the Greens and Jim Anderton in tow. Clearly the numbers games and the bargaining between parties were volatile activities but can provide only a partial explanation for this unprecedented government.

So maybe we have to look outside government and ask who is happy and who is sad. From all the evidence in the news media it would appear that the business community and Federated Farmers are reasonably content, if not mightily relieved, that the Greens are not in government. Federated Farmers are even saying nice things about Jim Anderton as Minister of Agriculture.

Perhaps those ‘wait and see’ voters will also be pleased if the foreshore and seabed issue is not tampered with by a government promising a full and final settlement of all Treaty claims by 2008.

We also need to look at the prospects for legislative programmes and government policies. Labour, for example, must deliver on its promises to:

• remove the interest from loans to students who remain in New Zealand

• boost the tax relief to families with children

• increase Kiwi Saver workplace retirement savings with its $10,000 first-home grant, and

• significantly increase cataract operations and joint procedures in the health sector.

With NZ First on board, the government has agreed to:

• increase superannuation to 66% of the average weekly wage

• give senior citizens a Golden Age card for services and discounts

• increase the minimum wage to $12 an hour

• lower the age of criminal responsibility to 12 years

• add 1,000 new police and

• give an assurance that there will be no sales of strategic assets (like Air New Zealand?)

United Future have been guaranteed there will be:

• no support for decriminalising cannabis

• no downgrading of the Families Commission, and

• support for a new tax rebate scheme for charities.

Though these add substantially to the government’s spending commitments, most of the programmes are consistent with Labour’s historic social welfare policies.

The other agenda and perhaps the most serious challenge to the stability of the Labour-led government will come with the policy reviews they have promised. Both NZ First and United Future have demanded a review of business tax regimes that will not sit well with Labour’s union supporters. NZ First will also get a review of immigration policies, the Kyoto carbon tax and of ways to speed up the Treaty settlement process, while United Future will get a review of the prostitution laws to limit street soliciting and an agreement to use private hospitals to reduce waiting lists. All in all this combination of programmes and policy reviews will probably be acceptable to a wide range of groups. The trouble is that it could also cause huge budget blowouts and spark inter-party wrangles over whose commitments should take priority.

Though National failed to win the government benches they have nonetheless doubled their numbers in Parliament to 48 seats. They can probably proceed to develop a more effective opposition and do so without having to compromise on policy issues with any other party. Their failure to win may be a blessing in disguise as they position themselves to win power in 2008 and get ready to pounce if and when the present government crumbles.

If National had left their sure-to-win members off the list, asked their loyal voters for their party vote and made some strategic deals with selected Act candidates, they could have won it all. As it was, however, the smartest voters were the Māori who managed to get four seats with a very small percentage of the vote. Unfortunately for them they did not hold the balance of power and the only party on offer was the one led by Don Brash, a man seen as racist by many and who seems to have no understanding of our Treaty commitments.

The Greens probably feel the hardest done by, since they were completely up front about their support for Labour as well as their policy commitments. They have won some policy concessions but they have been denied the role in government that was their due. There will be a campaign for the public to buy kiwi-made, Jeanette Fitzsimons will be spokesperson for an energy efficiency programme and there will be more support for GE-free produce and for developing public transport. These look a bit like crumbs from a rich woman’s table. In the end the Greens were simply out-flanked by those parties who had mainstream support from the centre-right of our political spectrum, in particular among the older generation, various business groups and the moral conservatives. The Greens were undoubtedly rejected because they are perceived as too leftwing and too radical on issues environmental. As we oldies die off the next generation may find them more acceptable.

As strange as this government may seem, Labour has probably succeeded in defusing a very bitter election campaign. The business community, the farmers, families with children, tertiary students, most churchgoers and retired people will all find that there is something in it for them, but just a little more or less than they had hoped for.

As Helen Clark tries out her management skills on this alliance of inconvenience, most voters will settle back to see how she handles it. She has won power and she will undoubtedly set about the business of positioning herself and her party to win a record fourth term.

The only reasonable conclusion we can come to is that the shape of this government was motivated by an overarching aim – to win and to hold power at whatever cost.

Paul Green is a member of the Palmerston North Justice and Peace Commission.