Olivia O’Malley is a former press secretary to New Zealand’s Leader of the Opposition and long-time Conservative staffer. She currently works in public affairs.
This Saturday Chris Hipkins, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, will watch as King Charles III is crowned in Westminster Abbey.
That the coronation will be such a significant day for both the United Kingdom and New Zealand – His Majesty is sovereign of both realms – reflects the close historic and modern ties between our two countries.
And whilst public support for the monarchy in New Zealand naturally waxes and wanes over time, it remains popular: the most recent polls have indicated support for the crown hovering at around 40 per cent.
From time to time some, including Jacinda Ardern, the former premier, have suggested the idea that New Zealand’s becoming a republic is inevitable. But never quite yet.
There is little appetite for such a change. In part, this is for the usual reason that constitutional monarchies endure: it is seen to be an effective, stable model of government.
But it also reflects the particular role that the monarchy has played in the development of New Zealand – particularly the delicate navigation of the historical relationship between Māori people and the Crown, uniquely enshrined in New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, which established the new colony and was effectively the green light for the mass European settlement that helped to create modern New Zealand
So Hipkins finds himself flying the flag for New Zealand in London, as one of fourteen Commonwealth realms at the first coronation in 70 years.
But what should have been a celebratory, ceremonial outing for the new prime minister has instead been overshadowed by the resignation of a minister while he is abroad. Upon touching down in London on Tuesday, Hipkins was greeted with the news that Meka Whaitiri MP had crossed the floor to Te Pāti Māori (the Māori Party).
It appeared to be completely out of the blue. Whaitiri, the Minister for Customs, Veterans and Food Safety (the random distribution of portfolios among New Zealand’s Ministers is a discussion for another day) had not only resigned her portfolios, but also, potentially, her seat.
This fact, unusual in Westminster-based systems, is not an original feature of New Zealand’s Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system, the part-proportional, part-constituency hybrid I’ve talked about before.
Instead, it reflects the lingering influence of Winston Peters, a former deputy prime minister and the founder and long-term leader of the party New Zealand First.
Currently outside Parliament, NZF has in the past been a powerful kingmaker in Wellington. But it has been plagued by defections; the most recent was in 2012, but in 1998 the then-young party saw no fewer than eight of its 16 MPs cross the floor.
So when Peters negotiated his coalition agreement with Ardern in 2018 (to the surprise of many voters who had expected a blue/black coalition with the National Party), part of his price was the Electoral Integrity (Amendment) Act 2018.
Parliamentarians in New Zealand who change parties can be subject to ‘waka-jumping’ legislation, meaning their original party can force them to vacate their seats.
This means that, five months out from an election, Whaitiri’s constituents could have been left with no voice at all, let alone a ministerial one.
But there are compelling reasons for Whaitiri to stay in post. Her consitutency, Ikaroa-Rāwhiti on the North Island’s East Coast, was devastated by Cyclone Gabrielle in February. Her constituents will have benefited from having a voice at the top.
Perhaps for that reason, it doesn’t look as if Labour intends to exercise its right to force her out. Carmel Sepuloni, the acting prime minister, has downplayed Whaitiri’s resignation, saying little other than that she has not had a reason for the departure.
(Although this does highlight how legislation does not necessarily change a political culture overnight; National likewise failed to exercise its new rights in 2018 when one of its MPs, Jami-Lee Ross, resigned to sit as an Independent.)
Regardless, for now Whaitiri can continue to represent her constituents.
The confusion around her defection is partly down to the fact there is no obvious cause. There is no ongoing row or hot button issue to push her away such as there was in 2004, when Te Pāti Māori was created by mutinous Labour MPs off the back of the Foreshore and Seabed controversy.
All Whaitiri has said is that she wants to be part of a movement that is “unapologetically Māori”.
The move could prove to be a prescient one. Te Pāti Māori may well be the kingmaker in the October election, with neither the centre-right nor centre-left polling highly enough to form a government on its own.
Overlooked for promotion when Hipkins took office, Whaitiri may instead find herself with a prominent role in a much smaller party, and far greater influence than as a minister outside cabinet.
Hipkins, on the other hand, will be hoping that the spectre of his ministers defecting while he’s out of the country isn’t a harbinger of things to come in this year’s election. The stability and continuity represented by the monarchy might never have looked better.