Politically Engineered

OK, so Helen Clark’s heading for second term in November. But with the Alliance split and the Greens stamping their feet, what sort of government will she have?
Come to think of it, what sort of government would Bill English have if he pulled off win?
The answer is similar for both: coalition partners or supporters on their flanks that pull them away from the centre. They will lack the balancing mechanism of centre parties common in European systems.
For the moment New Zealand First is supplying that. When Clark’s allies play up, leader Winston Peters often steps in, to back urgency to expedite the Government’s legislative programme or, in the case of the Michael Cullen’s superannuation scheme, to support major bill.
But there is foretaste of what might come in the next Parliament if Winston disappears. Peters joined the Alliance and the Greens against the Singapore free trade agreement, forcing Clark into National’s arms.
New Zealand First is not strictly centre party. It offers grabbag of policies from all over the political spectrum, not compromise between Labour and National.
But Peter Dunne’s United Future, which is true centre party, can’t crack one percent, no matter how many parties it absorbs or merges with – most recently the former Christian Democrats. In any case, it is philosophically closer to National than Labour.
Dunne is victim of 70 years of ingrained political culture of “ins” and “outs” which scrap over the centre ground. Who won the centre won government.
That culture has survived MMP. The electorate appears to have been rearranging Parliament’s shambled furniture into an “ins” and “outs” configuration, left group and right group.
It is distinct possibility New Zealand First will fade out in November. Only miracle will lift it over the five percent threshold.
If National eliminates leader Winston Peters’ 1999 63-vote margin in Tauranga, New Zealand First is history.
The Greens might productively pray for Peters to hang on. Had Katherine O’Regan captured those 63 votes in 1999, Labour-Alliance would have had majority, eliminating the Greens’ leverage.
Current evidence points to Labour winning more votes in November and the Alliance losing votes. They might well balance each other off and end up with roughly the same percentage share of the vote as 1999 – 46.5 percent.
If votes for minor parties stay around the 1999 total of six percent and losing New Zealand First gets four percent, the “effective” party vote would be 90 percent. So 46.5 percent, being more than half of 90 percent, would win majority. Peters’ performance in Tauranga may be pivotal.
If Labour-Alliance falls short of an outright majority and Peters disappears, Clark will have no fallback when the Greens play hardball. Henceforth they will. They think they have been too lenient when Labour has, according to them, drifted right and pushed programmes for which the Greens won funding in Budget negotiations down the priority list.
Most debate centres on what the Greens would do in coalition. But this outcome is unlikely. The Greens’ conditions – which include an allocation of some portfolios, detailed coalition agreement and referral back to delegate conference for consensus decisions – would be too difficult for Labour. The Greens are unsure about coalition anyway and may well find it more productive squeezing out concessions on the basis of qualified support for the Budget.
This would be more attractive if Labour-Alliance remained minority and New Zealand First disappeared. Then, when the Greens turn up the heat, Clark would have only National and ACT to turn to. With one seat Peter Dunne makes little difference between minority and majority, unless – very unlikely – his seat is an “overhang” and the seats total thus 121.
Even if Peters disappears and Labour-Alliance gets majority, the Alliance’s own difficulties with the “right-wing” Labour party (including, de facto, their leader Jim Anderton) might undo that majority at some point and restore the Greens’ leverage.
Should Clark be bothered? Maybe not. Free trade and wars are assured because the right cannot oppose them. Her contentious measures are mostly left-leaning and the Greens are left on social and environmental issues. And if the Greens just abstain, that is still win in Parliament.
But there will be tests. The Greens are rising anti-establishment brand, not yet tainted with power. Clark will need to nurture them.

Colin James, Synapsis Ltd, P O Box 9494, Wellington, New Zealand Ph (64-4)-384 7030, Fax (64-4)-384 9175, Mobile (64-21)-438 434 Webpage: www.ColinJames.co.nz, Email: [email protected].

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