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On Winston Peters, delays, and not wanting to let go

October 12th, 2017

Since 1996, over the course of seven general elections, New Zealand and its politicians have seen that the country’s MMP electoral system inevitably leads to coalitions, partnerships, confidence-and-supply agreements — almost any possible combination of parties and ways of cobbling together a government other than through a simple majority of seats in Parliament. Every election so far under the current system has been followed by horse-trading between the major parties and a clutch of smaller ones who understand that influence, with a relative absence of responsibility, can be almost as valuable as actual power.

So how could New Zealand, and its political leaders, have been so surprised at the end of September 23rd this year, when, after an election campaign that was, admittedly, a little unusual, with neither major-party leader having been been in place at the start of the year, it became clear that neither Labour nor incumbents National would have enough seats, yet again, to form a government without some kind of support from a lesser party?

It’s hard to imagine any of Jacinda Ardern, Bill English or Winston Peters waking up on the morning of Sunday 24th and thinking “Well, whaddaya know — a hung parliament. I really didn’t see that coming.” It’s hard to imagine that James Shaw saw the results of the election and wondered why he wasn’t the new prime minister.

But, a fortnight on from the election, we’re still waiting for Winston Peters to, it would appear, lick his finger, stick it in the wind, and decide where to bestow his favour. It beggars belief that he and his advisors didn’t rehearse every possible scenario, every possible outcome. There can’t possibly have been that many possibilities — either Labour or National, with the latter the favourite, would be the dominant party in Parliament, and the only question really must have been just how much momentum Ardern had managed to generate, how much she could narrow the gap between Labour and National. But surely nobody, realistically, imagined that any party would have an outright majority, if only for the very simple reason that in the previous seven elections, in the previous two decades, no party had ever managed this under MMP.

It’s similarly unlikely that Ardern’s and English’s advisors also were taken by surprise. They might be lack experience as party leaders, but they’re both astute politicians with party leaderships, advisory panels, gurus, mentors behind them – they would both have been acutely aware that there was little to no chance of either of them walking off with the title of prime minister immediately after this election. So, again, it is hard to believe that either party had failed to sketch out plans for every possible permutation ahead of the election.

So why are we waiting, currently almost three weeks, to find out who will lead New Zealand’s next government? The answer has to be Winston Peters. He has, at this stage, little, indeed no, real chance of becoming New Zealand’s first Māori prime minister, an accomplishment that would have been quite remarkable but which will now never be his. It’s his last chance to be significant, in all likelihood, his last hurrah, his last chance to pretend that the baubles of office mean nothing to him, his last chance for a bespoke cabinet post, his last opportunity to wield if not power then influence.

NZ First were supposed to announce their decision on which major party to side with, and in what way, today. And Peters has today said that his self-imposed deadline has slipped now to Saturday, three weeks after the election. It’ll be hard for Peters finally to declare for either the National Party or for a Labour-Green coalition — once he’s played his hand, the media will turn their attention to the prime minister, whichever party’s leader might assume that office, and away from Winston, who’ll no longer be the kingmaker, and will have to start to find ways to make sure he’s more than just a pawn.

The delay, then, isn’t about policies. Yes, there’s a lot to thrash out; no, it can’t be rushed. But the pretence that Peters, and to a lesser degree Ardern and English, are maintaining, that there were no preconceived ideas of how negotiations should take place before the electoral dust settled, is absurd. Peters knows exactly what he wants, and that’s to be on centre stage. Once he’s declared, he’l have, inevitably, to step back, to let go of control. Right now he’s the only person that matters in New Zealand’s political media, and it’s clear that he’s relishing the prominent. As soon as he anoints the next prime minister, though, it’ll all be over, and what Peters and his party, who at this stage might better be called Winston Peters First, are most concerned about is how long they can prolong their moment in the sun  — because when it’s over, it’s all over for Peters, and that will be very, very hard for him to bear.

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