Terry Barnes advised Tony Abbott when he was a Cabinet minister in John Howard’s government. He is also a fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Today, the last effective centre-right government in the Anglosphere has fallen.
New Zealand’s National Party government, led by Bill English, has been dispatched by one man: New Zealand First’s party leader, Winston Peters.
After almost a month, Peters has announced his party will enter a coalition led by Jacinda Ardern, Labour’s leader. Only 37 years old, having spent all her parliamentary time in Opposition and therefore never having held ministerial office, Ardern suddenly and unexpectedly (she all but conceded to English on election night) finds herself Prime Minister in a minority coalition, with wily 72-year-old Peters as her nominal deputy, but really the power behind her fragile throne.
The deal combines Labour and New Zealand First in a minority coalition, with the National Party going into Opposition, despite having gained 45 per cent of the national vote – only a few seats short of a majority, and with an electorate generally satisfied with English’s economic leadership over nine years, first as Finance Minister and, for the last year, as Prime Minister.
After her initial honeymoon started to fade mid-campaign, “Ardernmania” was pegged back by English with a strong, confident and dogged performance that surprised even those who know him well. He and the National Party succeeded in exposing Ardern’s inexperience and lack of policy depth, as she struggled to defend ill-defined and uncosted policies which she inherited from her predecessor, but over which she had little control.
Nevertheless, while the National Party reasserted its dominance to post a strong lead in votes and seats on election night – and both matter in New Zealand’s German-style voting system – a potential majority of seats emerged between Labour, New Zealand First and the Green party capable of deposing the incumbent Government.
And that, today, is exactly what Winston Peters did – after a fortnight’s toying with the other parties, the media and the New Zealand public. Dragging on the decision until the very last, staging a bidding war for Cabinet seats that, in the end, National reportedly rejected, Peters came down for Labour.
That the combined parties in the new Government will be outnumbered by the National Party doesn’t matter. The Greens are committing to a supply and confidence agreement with Labour that will secure the Left-populist coalition, while ensuring that the new Government will not have full control of its own agenda. The need to keep the Greens happy on environmental and social policy will drag the new coalition even further to the Left.
Peters insists that the decision was a consensus of his MPs and his party’s board of management. The reality is, however, is that New Zealand First is Peters’s personal creation and his personal creature: whatever Winston wants, Winston gets. He could see an inexperienced Prime Minister in Ardern, and that a Labour party which was promoting populist and big-spending policies, especially on housing construction and affordability that it never expected to implement, would need him more then he needed them. While he’s done coalition deals before, going with the largest party (and was widely expected to do it again now), this time round he has cynically maximised his personal power and influence by choosing Labour over National.
That’s politics. Brutal, raw, what’s-in-it-for-me politics.
Peters’s extraordinary announcement press conference earlier today, at which he made clear that Ardern may become Prime Minister but that he, Peters, will call the shots, bodes ill for stable government in New Zealand. At a time when the domestic economy is slowing, the international scene is chaotic and China’s leadership is flexing its muscles while the United States’ flounders, a small nation like New Zealand must strive hard to stay afloat. It is hard to see this Left-populist arrangement as conducive to meeting these challenges, and keeping New Zealand as open to the wider world as the outgoing National Party government did.
Under English and his predecessor, John Key, New Zealand successfully applied, and the National Party was twice re-elected on, prudent but compassionate economic and social policies – returning the budget to surplus, and creating an openness to international free trade and foreign investment that Peters and, to an extent, Ardern rejects. English can truly be proud of the legacy he leaves, and although there are still two nominally centre-right governments in the Anglosphere, the United Kingdom and Australia (surely no-one can claim that the Trump administration answers that description), both those governments, with mediocre leaders further diminished by unnecessary electoral near-death experiences, and riven by personal and policy conflicts, are directionless and ineffectual.
Only small but able New Zealand was left to show that the centre-right can govern cohesively and competently. Now that one last beacon of the responsible centre-right is being extinguished, and not at the ballot box.
In 1996, New Zealanders chose the German parliamentary model to end Westminster first-past-the-post’s small vote shares giving exaggerated seat majorities, believing that the former is more truly democratic and fair. In doing so, they chose multi-party representative diversity over government and political two-party stability. What they have got instead is a democracy that has become the plaything of just one man, Winston Peters. And well he knows it.