Wellington, August 16, 2019
It is often said that leopards rarely change their spots.
On that basis, it will be somewhat of a surprise if New Zealand First manages to survive the current three year term as part of the governing coalition.
Staying the distance is simply not in the Party’s or its Leader’s DNA.
Chain of events
In 1991, just a year into the Bolger National Government’s first term, Mr Peters was ejected from the Party Caucus and dismissed as a Minister. That set off a series of events that led to the launch of the New Zealand First Party in mid 1993, and its success at that year’s election.
In 1998, after 20 months of the National/New Zealand First Coalition Government, Mr Peters was dismissed as Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer and his Party left the Coalition shortly thereafter.
New Zealand First was able to regroup and recover its polling strength sufficiently to ensure it survived (just) the 1999 election.
In 2008, shortly before the election, Mr Peters was stood down as Foreign Minister while Parliament’s Privileges Committee investigated allegations of financial irregularities within New Zealand First. Its critical findings contributed to New Zealand First’s defeat at the ensuing election.
Now, with New Zealand First’s polling declining and ongoing speculation of tension within the present Coalition Government, with suggestions that New Zealand First calls all of the shots over Labour and its more natural ally, the Greens, the same questions are being asked again.
Fracture within the Government
Is New Zealand First reverting to type and is it about to bring about a fracture within the government to allow it to differentiate itself, and perhaps recover its support, in time for the election next year?
Critics are pointing to the confusion over abortion law changes and New Zealand First’s apparently late call for a binding referendum, having not raised the matter during the preceding negotiations on the proposed changes, and its less than enthusiastic support for the government’s position on Ihumatao as evidence Mr Peters may be up to his old tricks again.
While the odds fall heavily on the side of New Zealand First confirming its serial inability to stay the distance as part of a government, Mr Peters, by his very survival to this point, has shown that he can on occasion defy the odds.
It is just possible on this occasion he will do just that, and that all we are seeing at the moment is sabre-rattling to remind the public and the hapless Labour and Green Parties that he, not the Prime Minister, is in charge and drives this government.
At the same time, he is none too subtly reminding his government partners that without him and the way he wants to do things, there will be no government.
Ironically, he may well survive until the election, not because he necessarily wants to, but because the Prime Minister knows that feeding this tiger is the best way to ensure her own survival, at least in the short-term.
But, if New Zealand First’s polling does not recover, even the desperation of this modern-day appeasement may not be enough to keep the house of cards standing.
The National Party will be watching these disruptions with a strong sense of déjà vu.
They will be delighted to see Labour being led by the nose, as they were in 1996-98 and now equally powerless to do anything about it. But they should not get too far ahead of themselves. Of course, they would welcome the demise of the coalition, were it to happen. They might even be in a position to form a minority government to lead the country through until the next election, but they would be no better off as such a government would have to pay the price of relying on at least New Zealand First’s abstention on matters of confidence and supply to ensure its survival until then.
Even then, given National’s continuing unwillingness to rule out New Zealand First from its electoral calculations, it would have to face the same problem all over again after the election.
Mr Peters’ periodic restlessness is frustrating and unpredictable, and has never provided any contribution to good and stable government. But for him, those are secondary considerations, because his politics are all about putting himself centre stage.
While he has judiciously surrounded himself over the years with Caucuses of the timid and the vacuous, they and age are no longer his friends. People are starting to ask what happens next, once he shuffles on, probably sooner than later.
New Zealanders have shown him remarkable tolerance over the generations. Very few people, least of all politicians, get more than a second chance in our society, yet this term of government provides a fourth chance for him to try to stay the course.
The logical incentives must be powerful for him to do so, but the old spots are still there. While Labour and National are left helplessly to watch from the sidelines what irrational, Trumpian alarums he will embark upon next to try to recover his support, Mr Peters, true to form, will see that as utterly as it should be, and he will have it no other way.
It is all about him, after all.
Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led governments from November 1999 to September 2017. He set up the UnitedFuture Party and wound it up on retirement from Parliament. He lives in Wellington.