POLITICS Unlikely Bedfellows

United Future wants very differEnt tax system from Labour. It opposes most of Labour’s workplace law and the Air New Zealand-Qantas alliance. All its MPs voted against the Prostitution Bill while almost all Labour MPs voted for it. It is suspicious of abolition of the Privy Council.

So what on earth has it been doing this past year in bed with Labour?

What indeed? asks the National party, infuriated that “natural” ally should have gone with the enemy.

National lists string of failures or incompatibilities: the Care of Children Bill and the Responsible Gambling Bill; voting through the Local Government Bill after accepting petition opposing it; failing to stop the workplace safety legislation and to limit change to the Resource Management Amendment Bill; and failure to get the Transmission Gully road out of Wellington on the 10-year programme.

From day one, National ripped into United Future in Parliament and elsewhere, accusing it, in effect, of betrayal of principles and its voters.

This shocked the tenderfoots who had thought politics was an honourable occupation. Their reaction was to harden support for the decision to go with Labour which leader Peter Dunne drove.

National hopes United Future will self-destruct. But if it doesn’t, National’s attacks have hardened the likelihood that after the 2005 election, United Future will go with Labour again unless there is clear indication voters want change of Government. That would lock out four-way National-led coalition.

In the meantime, far from shrinking from its commitment to give the Government the numbers in the House – which includes allowing ministers to push through bills under “urgency” – United Future has stuck to its promise. Labour has turned to the Greens only twice in year for support for “urgency”.

United Future has not been deterred by the fact that in helping the Government pass bills it agrees with, it is also ensuring earlier passage for bills it disagrees with.

Moreover, United Future MPs’ expression of frustration or annoyance with being snowed by Labour’s wily old operators has so far got no further than corridor talk.

But can this hold? The signs are that it will.

From Helen Clark down, Labour’s leaders pay attention to their unlikely new mates. The top brass have regular meetings, which are said to be cordial. Ministers brief United Future MPs extensively – sometimes painstakingly. Labour women, moral liberals all, speak highly of Judy Turner, United Future’s lone woman MP.

And United Future has had some wins.

It is getting its Families Commission. Among other wins, according to its count, are removal of the Maori heritage provisions from the Resource Management Bill, more funding to speed up Treaty settlements, stronger victims’ rights law, more money for teachers implementing the NCEA qualification in schools, widening the terms of reference of the committee on the Privy Council and earlier implementation of lower tax for superannuation schemes catering to low-income people.

It’s not stunning list but also not bad start for party that has only one MP with any experience. Less evident and not readily measurable are the informal influences it has because it is consulted on all significant Government measures.

And so far United Future has not suffered quite as much in polls as New Zealand First and the Alliance, which dropped to negligible ratings. That may be because United Future has delivered on one thing neither of those parties could: stability.

Stability was, and remains, core plank in United Future’s pitch to the public. While it is far too early to say it will save the party from descent to the ephemeral support it had before 2002, the evidence so far is enough to encourage it.

And United Future has achieved one important political objective: it has rescued Labour from dependence on the Greens, which worried both Labour and many middle New Zealanders.

Dunne’s crew also fits into core objective of Clark’s: to set up long-run Labour-led Government. With the moral conservatives in tow, Clark reaches across the centre line and squeezes National’s room for manoeuvre.

Which is why Clark pays Dunne and his tyros great and warm attention. It will be why you will see her and other ministers give United Future credit for policy wins, even when the evidence is unconvincing. Clark wants centre-right voters to vote for United Future.

In such plan, what’s difference or two, or 20, between friends? This is MMP.

Colin James is Management’s regular political writer. [email protected]

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