In making it a full term with New Zealand First without her own party suffering, Jacinda Ardern has succeeded where other prime ministers have failed, Liam Hehir writes

What is Jacinda Ardern’s greatest achievement in the realm of party politics? Is it breaking the 60 percent barrier for party support in opinion polls? Is it seeing off Bill English, Simon Bridges and Todd Muller, while being well on her way to defeating Judith Collins?

No. The Prime Minister is poised to achieve an even unlikelier feat. In defiance of New Zealand political history, Ardern has shared government with New Zealand First and come out of it undamaged.

Going into coalition with the party spelled the end of the fourth National government. Unhappy with how things with its junior coalition partner were working out, National transport minister Jenny Shipley staged a coup against Prime Minister Jim Bolger. Winston Peters was sacked from Cabinet shortly thereafter.

In the 1999 election, New Zealand First received less than five percent of the vote and only survived by dint of Peters winning the seat of Tauranga, National limped into the 1999 election with just over 30 percent of the vote. Labour took over the reins of power.

The second time around, New Zealand First had attached itself to Labour. This was quite surprising, in a way, because Helen Clark had ruled out working with Peters in 2002. However, a rapprochement occurred around 2004 over the foreshore and seabed issue with the parties working together to extinguish potential Maori land rights.

From that time, New Zealand First came to be seen as a member of the centre-left political party family in New Zealand. In 2005, it agreed to give confidence and supply to Labour. Peters became foreign minister and racing minister.

Helen Clark and Jim Bolger both suffered at the hands of coalition with Winston Peters and New Zealand First. Photo: RNZ/Elliott Childs.

It all came a cropper, you may remember, over questions about donations from figures like Owen Glenn, the Vela family and Sir Bob Jones. Despite Labour giving all the protection to Peters that it reasonably could, he ended up being censured by Parliament and stepping down amid a Serious Fraud Office investigation (in which, it has to be noted, he was subsequently cleared).

The bitter taste of those matters was a factor in the final loss of confidence voters had in the Clark government. The New Zealand First vote tanked once more and this time it was out of Parliament altogether. National re-captured the Treasury benches.

The party was back in 2011. In the years that followed, it continue to grow closer to Labour. The convergence was most clear when Labour chose to scapegoat Chinese people for the unaffordable costs of housing and undertook a variety of other questionable stands that we would more typically associate with New Zealand First.

Then Ardern became leader. Campaigning as an inspirational progressive and liberal internationalist, the immigrant bashing had to stop and its legacy was promptly shoved down the memory hole. There was no repudiation of Peters, however, and after he chose to install Ardern as prime minister after the 2017 vote, they have enjoyed co-governance of these islands for the last three years.

The usual thing has happened, and New Zealand First and those associated with it have been the source of much embarrassment for the government. Cabinet ministers from the party have made injudicious and sometimes xenophobic comments. Something called the New Zealand First Foundation was investigated by the Serious Fraud Office after documents outlining its finances were deposited for journalists in a skip bin, and last week we learned that charges are being laid.

Government with New Zealand First was once thought to be a Faustian bargain: you get three years but face destruction at the end of it. It seems, however, that this only applies to long-lived governments.

Amid all of this and the usual fallout from non-delivery of key promises made at the last election, the party is facing very long odds of re-election. At this point, it would take a miracle. That is, of course, as expected.

And yet somehow, despite everything, none of this has tarnished Ardern. She hasn’t made any moves to sack or effectively discipline New Zealand First MPs in her cabinet. Peters will, by all indications, serve a full parliamentary term as a minister. The prime minister refused to criticise him in last week’s Newshub debate.


How has this happened? Government with New Zealand First was once thought to be a Faustian bargain: you get three years but face destruction at the end of it. It seems, however, that this only applies to long-lived governments.

When New Zealand First went with National in 1996 and Labour in 2005, it bailed out existing governments that were already exhausted. The patience of the voting public was already frayed and the subsequent scandals only helped convince them that a time for a change was needed.

Voters are, of course, much more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to first-term governments. So while voters might be willing to let Ardern skate on the current issues with New Zealand First, they may not be so patient if they continue to drag on into the next term and beyond. That assumes, of course, that the party is around to figure in the equation at all.

Which, the Prime Minister will be pleased to have noted, is not a sound assumption to make.

Liam Hehir is a writer and newspaper columnist from the rural Manawatu and a former National Party activist.

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