Politicians readying themselves to negotiate the next government are not just dealing for the next three weeks. They’re dealing for the next three years.
Among the many considerations one party will have when eyeing up 36 months – 156 weeks – governing with another is getting some certainty over just who will be the leader of the other guys. If you seal a deal with one person, will that person see out their three year term as your partner?
Most graphically, this harks back to 1996-99 when New Zealand First leader Winston Peters thought he’d signed up with Jim Bolger’s National Party but in December 1997 ended up with Jenny Shipley’s National Party. The resulting, messy fallout saw the coalition fracture nine months later and Peters depart government, his own party fragmenting on him to help form Mauri Pacific and prop up Shipley until the whole thing was put out of its misery in 1999.
So Peters sits now eyeing Bill English, deputy and then leader of National over the past nine years. If English was to be voted out for any other reason had to leave office, who then would Peters face? On current rankings it would be National’s number 2 Paula Bennett, but there seems little love lost between Peters and her. Who else? Simon Bridges, Judith Collins, Jonathan Coleman? And how proscriptive ought any governance deal written now be in binding a future National leader? The last thing Peters would want would be another Shipley being imposed on him.
Similarly, as he negotiates with Jacinda Ardern and Labour, who could he rely on in Labour to be someone he could work with beyond the current leader if she was not around? If ‘events, dear boy, events’ led to her early demise, her deputy Kelvin Davis is on friendly terms but is a leadership neophyte who did not impress publicly on the campaign trail. Again, as Peters and his people go down the list, who could they trust who might end up taking the reins of power in Labour? David Parker, Andrew Little?
If New Zealand First hitches its wagon to a warmover National administration that then goes on to have a leadership convulsion, or a freshwoman Labour group where leadership becomes an issue, how damaged could the smaller party be for good? Commentators often talk of Peters wanting to make a viable, ongoing New Zealand First party his legacy.
The two big parties might well be making the same consideration about the longevity of the person across the table. Relationships matter in government.
Peters has thrice had to leave cabinet positions, twice sacked and once offering to stand aside in the classic Human Resources ‘elegant solution’ after clear signals from a boss.
How much confidence could National or Labour and the Greens have in signing up now to a party so singularly linked and formed in the image of Winston Raymond Peters?
What if Peters, aged 72 and with almost 40 years in and out of the House, cannot see out his term for political or personal reasons? What would National, or Labour, be left with then in government? His deputy Ron Mark is a firebrand and impatient of political humbug. Shane Jones will be in the New Zealand First caucus and a natural to step up to be the Rangatira of the party. Both big parties have worked with him. But again, he is anything but predictable.
Peters has been less robust and less agile in this campaign. He scoffs at concerns over him starting again in government at 72, citing the example of the infamous United States senator Strom Thurmond who stayed in the Senate until he was 100. Thurmond was not only a segregationist who opposed the Civil Rights Act, but was widely believed to have had diminished mental faculties towards the end of his career.
In the 1980s Peters was fond of praising Ronald Reagan, who took the White House at 68 and left aged 76 with clearly reduced mental acuity, with his wife, Nancy, relying in part on an astrologer to guide their and the nation’s fortunes.
Peters’ difficulty is that he is old in New Zealand terms to be shaping, deputising for, and possibly leading the country.
Both major parties have heard unsubstantiated rumours over Peters’ health and medium term intentions, just as there were rumours over Ardern’s health early in her time as leader. English, so far, seems to have avoided that tired form of guerilla politicking. It’s fair to say no one in the parties, and presumably within NZ First, is putting any store on the rumours themselves. Peters has ruled himself off the air now until October 7 when the count of special votes is announced.
However his uncharacteristic displays in the latter part of the campaign – from the weird Morning Report interview through to momentarily forgetting the name of his once nemesis Ruth Richardson the morning after the election at Russell and then the contrivance of a bitter rant at the media on Wednesday posing as a political leader’s press conference – are unmissable. People do get grumpier with age, genuine medical studies confirmed.
Peters’ difficulty is that he is old in New Zealand terms to be shaping, deputising for, and possibly leading the country. He is older than President Donald Trump. Older than Sir Robert Muldoon was – not when Muldoon rose to the Prime Ministership, or left it, or left Parliament, but when he died aged 70. If Peters aspires to share the role of Prime Minister, unless he negotiates to get the job-share in the early part of the administration, he could be PM in 2020 and match Walter Nash at 75 as our oldest to become the nation’s leader.
If the burden of office, the travels as a possible foreign minister, the wearying inanity of dealing with enemies and the media became too great, who would Peters call on to take his party onwards? And how much confidence could National or Labour and the Greens have in signing up now to a party so singularly linked and formed in the image of Winston Raymond Peters?
You have to plan for all eventualities.