Winston Peters is a seasoned politician. His time in the political spotlight, whether in or out of Parliament, totals 38 years – 20 years longer than I have been alive. He has been Deputy Prime Minister, Treasurer, Foreign Minister and Minister for Racing.
None of that is what makes him unique. Instead it’s the iron grasp he and New Zealand First have on the fabled ‘Kingmaker’ position in New Zealand politics – the possession by a single party of the votes needed to establish a majority in Parliament, and a willingness to bestow those votes either left or right.
Winston’s position as ‘Kingmaker’ in modern New Zealand politics is common knowledge. He brought down one government, and propped up two others. What is less understood is how rare that position is historically. At no other point in New Zealand history has there been a party with such immense leverage.
From the start of the 20th century to the introduction of MMP in 1996 there were just four elections where one party did not gain an outright majority of seats: 1911, 1922, 1928 and 1931. After each one, negotiations had to be held in order to form a government. And in each one, the broad result of those negotiations were predictable.
Because these elections were relatively close together, we have a consistent cast of political players. There was the centrist Liberal Party (later the United Party) led by Joseph Ward, then Thomas Wilford, then Ward again. Then the conservative Reform Party, led first by William Massey and then Gordon Coates. Finally, there was the newly-minted Labour Party, led initially by Alfred Hindmarsh, then Harry Holland.
In 1911, the Liberal Party won 33 seats, Reform won 37, and Labour won four. Labour was seemingly in a position of great power. They could give their votes to the Wards’ Liberals and form a minority government, or they could give their votes to the Masseys’ Reform and form a majority government.
It is this lack of historical precedent that makes [Peters] so unpredictable – it is hard to draw parallels to any other politician in our history.
However, Labour had only recently emerged from a trade union movement which had become disgusted with the right-ward drift of the Liberal Party. If Labour chose to support the even more conservative Reform Party, they would be crucified by their outraged and betrayed constituents. They had no choice but to support the short-lived Liberal Party minority government. This was clear from the moment the vote tallies were announced.
By 1922, William Massey had become Prime Minister in a Reform Party government, and was now fending off a challenge by Thomas Wilford (new leader of the Liberal Party) and Harry Holland (new leader of the Labour Party). Massey won 37 seats, Wilford won 22, and Holland won 17. Once again, the Labour Party found themselves in a political straitjacket, unable to cross the aisle and support the Reform Party over their Liberal allies. So instead, Massey’s Reform Party found itself supported by a few independents and some renegade Liberal Party MPs. No single independent MP held the balance of power, and Massey was always in pole position to form a government.
1928 was the first time Labour could contribute their votes to a majority government. The United Party (successor to the Liberals) had won 27 seats under a revitalised Sir Joseph Ward, and with the support of Labour they formed the next government. But again, Labour had little choice – they could not choose the Reform Party for fear of punishment by their voters for what would be perceived as betrayal.
The 1931 election took place in the depths of the Great Depression. The United-Labour government of 1928 had collapsed, and Labour was surging in popularity as people found themselves stranded in economic ruin. So in an attempt to preserve the political duopoly that had existed since 1887, Reform had joined forces with their prior arch-rivals, the United Party. The 1931 election returned the United-Reform coalition to government with 51 seats, a significant majority. Only United could have swung between right and left and formed a different coalition. They were the largest party in Parliament and controlled the Prime Ministership. In other words, United could hardly be the Kingmaker, as they were already the King.
Let us return to the era of MMP. In 1996, only Winston and New Zealand First could deliver a majority to either National or Labour, thus the title of Kingmaker. In 1999 and 2008, Labour and National were delivered into power by the Greens or ACT respectively, parties who could not possibly choose otherwise at the time. In 2002 and 2005, a National government was made impossible by first abysmal (2002) and then simply weak (2005) results. National has since been able to govern by stitching together United Future, ACT and the Māori Party – none of whom alone controlled the balance of power.
When Winston is forced to make a choice, he may find that his party’s survival is threatened – just like it was after his deal with Jim Bolger in 1996, and his deal with Helen Clark in 2005.
What our trek through the history book tells us is that in all of New Zealand political history only Winston, first in 1996 and now in this election, has ever held the balance of power in such a way. Indeed, it is this lack of historical precedent that makes him so unpredictable – it is hard to draw parallels to any other politician in our history.
There is a reason Winston and New Zealand First are so unique. No other party has had as much leverage because the political position Winston occupies is uncertain and other parties actively avoid it. His position in the supposed ‘centre’ of New Zealand politics requires him to regularly risk alienating parts of his constituency. If he chooses National, he annoys the people who voted for him to achieve change and who like Labour more. If he chooses Labour, he annoys the sizeable portion of his rural base who see Labour as a threat to their way of life. This has already happened to the Māori Party, which fatally alienated voters by going into government with National, but which would have angered many of its other supporters had it chosen to stay on the Opposition benches instead.
That threat doesn’t exist for parties which exist on definite sides of the political spectrum. By voting with Labour, the Greens annoy only a tiny portion of their voters. So too with ACT supporting National.
As a result, when Winston is forced to make a choice, he may find that his party’s survival is threatened – just like it was after his deal with Jim Bolger in 1996, and his deal with Helen Clark in 2005. After each, New Zealand First’s support collapsed. It seems that Winston is now in that lose-lose situation again.
All this is at stake for Winston. His decision could spell the end of New Zealand’s only Kingmaker, or it could be the beginning of a new chapter for a party whose path has been entirely unpredictable. Now that the special votes have been released, nobody knows which way Winston will go. With all this weighing on his mind, I suspect that the Kingmaker does not know either.