New Zealand is not immune to political coups

In fact they have been regular and one is due in 2021
Peter Dunne
Wellington, August 31, 2018
There has been much scoffing and guffawing on this side of the Tasman in the last week about the brutal public coup within the ruling Liberal Party that saw the replacement of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister by Scott Morrison.
Unspoken undertone
All the traditionally wise voices here opined about how poorly timed and executed the coup was; how brutal Australian politics have become; and how all this was the death knell for the current Australian government due to face an election in a few months.
The unspoken undertone was that such crudity and barbarity would never happen in New Zealand – that we are so much more subtle.
Which is a load of uninformed nonsense, of course – faced with similar situations over the years our politicians have been just as venal and brutal.
Political Coups in New Zealand
Since 1990, there has been the coup initiated by Mike Moore which toppled Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, just a few weeks before Labour’s 1990 election rout.
Then, three years later, was Helen Clark’s ouster of Mike Moore, weeks after the 1993 election where National’s record majority of 48 had been reduced to just one. That was followed by the unsuccessful attempt by senior Labour MPs to stare down Helen Clark shortly before the 1996 election when Labour was polling at just 18%.
During its years in Opposition from 2008 to 2017, Labour stepped up this pace considerably. David Shearer, probably the best Prime Minister New Zealand never had, was undermined constantly from within from when he took the leadership in 2011, until he stood down in 2013. His successor, David Cunliffe, was similarly forced aside, although more unwillingly, after Labour’s third straight defeat in 2014.
Andrew Little was next, surviving for nearly three years, despite poor polls and ongoing Caucus mutterings, until it all got too much for him in August last year and he yielded to Jacinda Ardern.
National not immune
National has not been immune from such events either. In 1997, Prime Minister Jim Bolger was met at the airport on his return from a successful overseas visit by senior Minister Doug Graham to be told that a coup led by Jenny Shipley was underway and that he did not have the numbers to survive.
In 2003, it was Don Brash’s turn, following a series of poor poll showings by then leader, Bill English, and in 2006, after Dr Brash’s various peccadillos had been revealed, he was forced to stand aside to make way for John Key.
So while the jokes abound about how frequently the Australians change their Prime Ministers, it is worth recalling that leadership changes also occur frequently in this country as well. Excluding long-term leaders like Helen Clark, Jim Bolger and John Key, the average tenure for our major party leaders in the last 30 years has been just under three years.
Ominous signs
A similar comparison with Australian major party leaders in the same period, excluding the long term of John Howard, shows an average tenure of just over three years – slightly higher than the New Zealand figure. All of which, perhaps, does not bode too well for either Jacinda Ardern or Simon Bridges.
The one difference between the two countries is that leadership coups are generally more likely in New Zealand when a Party is in Opposition.
In Australia, of late, the opposite has been the case. In New Zealand, pre-election leadership coups have produced mixed results, but in Australia they are slightly more likely to have a positive result, as Julia Gillard’s 2010 and Malcolm Turnbull’s 2016 election wins show.
In that sense, Scott Morrison still has something to play for.
Sanguine public
What is clear though is that the public on both sides of the Tasman is much more sanguine. While the politicians become extremely exercised by the drama and pressure of coups, the public generally appears better able to take them in its stride.
While it is fashionable at present to tease our Australian neighbours about their current political antics, the record suggests it is not something we can rely upon for too long.
We are pretty good at it too – and our time will definitely come again.
On the basis of the record, almost certainly by early 2021.
Peter Dunne was a Minister under the Labour and National-led governments from November 1999 to September 2017. He established and wound up the UnitedFuture Party. He lives in Wellington and regularly comments on current affairs.
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Photo Caption:
Former Prime Ministers Jim Bolger, Mike Moore and Geoffrey Palmer
Photo: RNZ/Rebekah Parsons-King (Under a Special Arrangement with www.rnz.co.nz)

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