Winston Peters was the ageing after-dinner speaker. James Shaw the earnest reverend saying Green grace. And David Seymour the slightly wobbly final speaker roasting those before him.
The minor parties’ responses to the Prime Minister’s Statement on the first business day of Parliament were instructive. Labour and National’s leaders had been the main attractions and the undercard had to find a way to be distinct, to stand out, and to make an election year mark.
Peters, third to speak after Jacinda Ardern and Simon Bridges, was unstructured, avuncular, combative, fixated on Bridges and National and repeating jokes he has been using in the House for 30-plus years. His supporting actor role is that of an old general fighting the last war. He even mentioned Ruthanomics (his nemesis, Ruth Richardson’s policy prescription of fully 30 years ago) and some rail deal from back in 1993.
He muddled himself, saying: “The Prime Minister—the Deputy Prime Minister—wouldn’t know how to run the university tuck shop, have never ever run a business, and nor has their finance spokesman.”
In Government for two and a bit years and still attacking the Government, the Prime Minister and, yes, the Deputy Prime Minister.
When he wasn’t talking about the National Party – or the ‘national’ party as he verbally decapitalised it – and the 1980s and 1990s, there was time for lines so well worn that the public gallery at Parliament could almost recite them in unison with him. “This is like a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent,” he tried, surely searchable in Hansard for each of his 36 years in Parliament.
Peters did draw himself away from National for long enough to proclaim NZ First “a party where the differences in what you just heard are so obvious. Optimism versus pessimism. More progress versus back to the future. Investment versus divestment. Unity versus division.”
“Progress versus back to the future” was probably a shock to progressives and to NZ First party faithful simultaneously.
“We’re constructive, and throughout this term we’ve looked at restoring capacity in our central social services, addressing the massive disparity between country and town, city and the provinces, laying foundations for a more just society and creating a comparatively robust economy for all to share in, not just for the few and the very few,” he said.
“We’re ambitious to do more and achieve more. After all, we’ve only just got started. New Zealand First stands to win this election, and the best place to outline that is to tell you what we’re not going to stand for. We’re a party that will not tolerate letting this country fall into a pattern of decline and drift.”
The one policy steer from Peters was that NZ First wants a national debate on population policy, or more precisely immigration, in the next seven months.
“The big thing that’s going to happen this year—it’s important for New Zealanders to recognise this—is that we need a dialogue with the New Zealand people about our future population policy because the forecast of New Zealand’s population by 2050 has got us there already. All the forecasts said that where New Zealand would be in 2050 is today’s population, and no one has had a discussion with any New Zealanders at all and the consequences are huge. We can see the straining and suffering out there, where we’ve got Third World problems that we have allowed to be created, because we haven’t had a focused, smart policy.
“Where are they all going to? Mainly to Auckland. All around the provinces we need workers. So we need a focused immigration policy that looks at making sure the provinces get their fair share of overseas expertise as well,” he said.
Greens co-leader James Shaw played it straight. No personal slights or rehashing of ancient political battles.
He began by putting aside the debate on the Prime Minister’s Statement to acknowledge the devastating bushfires in Australia over the summer break. “I think it’s pretty easy amongst all the hurly-burly of our election year to forget the crises that have occurred to our nearest neighbour.
“There was, and has been, extraordinary loss of wildlife, of human life, of forestry, and of property. The areas that were burned by the fires, if that had occurred here in New Zealand, would have stretched from Cape Reinga in the North to Rotorua and burned everything in between.”
With Ardern, Bridges and Peters’ efforts no doubt ringing in his ears, Shaw reached for the high political ground. “I do hope that the politics of this place—and we have seen that amplified already by the proximity of the election, even though it is still something like eight months away—won’t distract us from the fact that we still have some big decisions to make that will have a profound effect on the lives of New Zealanders.”
But he found time to focus on those nine long years of National neglect in government.
“Look back at that nine-year period, and what most people will see is the familiar pattern of neglect that accompanies every National government—not just this last one, but the one before that and the one before that. Look back on that nine-year period that most people will see as that familiar pattern of neglect.
“They’ll see families that are struggling to make ends meet, forced to make impossible choices between heating their home or putting food on the table. They’ll see polluted rivers and a nearly cataclysmic absence of the native creatures that we know should inhabit our forests and our land; a complete absence of meaningful action to tackle the climate crisis. That’s what they will look back on on those last nine years.”
Where Peters offered population policy as a priority, Shaw’s focus was predictably on climate change – “not just another subject but a prism through which young people see the world”.
“As they think about their future, they’re looking at us and wondering whether we have the courage to step up. They want to know if we will take the action to create that better and cleaner world for them and their families, or what they will inherit from us for their children,” he said.
Then, forgetting that high ground of not politicking, Shaw slammed National’s record in government and time in Opposition on climate change. “National squandered nearly a decade of opportunity to do something about it, to create a better future. They gave us no reason to hope.They eroded any promise of change. They became a risk to our shared future. That is not just negligent; that is unforgivable.”
His was an earnest, thoughtful sermon, almost entirely un-interjected as few in the opposition or government pews stirred.
Which couldn’t be said of the Act leader, who followed. David Seymour launched immediately into the Prime Minister. “New Zealand faces a choice between the politics of gesture and the best political marketer in the world, who is also the world’s worst policy deliverer.”
Bang. Aiming the hyperbole straight at the Government’s biggest strength, Jacinda Ardern.
Seymour isn’t one to go after only one big cat, however. Next, he rounded on Peters, weirdly holding up signs of outlines of a pentagon, hexagon, octagon and a picture of the NZ First leader with the word “shouldbegone” .
As props go, that fell as flat as Ardern’s use of an indecipherable, faint red graph earlier in the debate.
“The facts are out there. People know what’s been going on. He can bluff and he can bluster, and he can huff and puff and threaten to blow our house down, but the truth is going to come out, and it’s going to finish a career.
“The tragedy of that career being finished is this: people are going to sit down and try and write the legacy of Winston Peters. They’ll try and compare it to the legacy of, perhaps, Mike Moore, who changed this country for the better for ever. As they sit and they try to describe what Winston Peters has achieved in 40 years, they will find they have nothing to write. What a shame—what a shame. But, sadly, it is still true that he is taking the shape of a “shouldbegone”.
Seymour ran through what he called failures of the Government: KiwiBuild, the Child Poverty Reduction Act, a pledge to cut 32 cents off petrol prices by attacking fuel companies’ margins, the ban on single use plastic bags, firearms laws and inaction on infrastructure.
“The Prime Minister had the temerity to say—and I guess if you’re 100 percent marketing-led you can say these things regardless of their veracity—that this is a Government of infrastructure. I mean, how does a Government of infrastructure spend two years trying to work out which projects they’re ideologically opposed to and then try to take the credit for building infrastructure that could have been started two years ago?”
Ever the iconoclast, the Act leader ended his contribution with a coded lecture for the Speaker, Trevor Mallard, on his obligation to defend Parliament’s right to hold the executive to account. Noting a ruling against Bridges and recalling “the way you treated me” at the end of last year, Seymour warned:
“I’d put it to you that, as the person with the privilege of upholding the parliamentary tradition, you, for now, have all the power except for one, which is to choose how others will judge you as you leave this place in future. Thank you, Mr Speaker.”
At that sensitive moment, and with no caucus to cheer him on, Seymour sat down to a silent chamber.