The first caucus meetings since Labour’s thumping election win brought boundless joy for Jacinda Ardern and her team, but the beginnings of soul searching for National and Judith Collins
Analysis: The newly enlarged Labour caucus streamed into their meeting room on Tuesday morning – or perhaps flooded was the more appropriate word, given the red wave that brought them into Parliament.
MP after MP after MP, all with grins as wide as the party’s margin over National.
As the media piled into the room to document the historic occasion, Chris Hipkins fought his way through the crowd in a desperate bid to secure a seat.
There weren’t even enough pockets for all of Labour’s 64 MPs to store their phones, although given the ebullient mood the caucus is in, leaks are unlikely to be a problem for now.
“I have not seen this room so full before…there’s no room for the sausage rolls!” Jacinda Ardern proclaimed as she sat down after a cacophony of cheers and applause.
“Today we crack on with the mahi – we’ve all been elected to do a job at a critical time in New Zealand’s history and I can’t imagine a better group with greater representation across New Zealand with a stronger mandate than what Labour has won,” she added.
It is that word, mandate, which the Prime Minister again leaned upon when speaking to the media about her talks with potential partner the Green Party.
“What’s very clear, obviously to New Zealand and to us, is we do have a very clear mandate, but as I’ve said before, I’m interested in areas of cooperation where we can use the strengths that exist in [the Greens] team for the benefit of the Government and all New Zealand.”
The two parties had spoken informally on Monday to set out the path ahead, with Ardern’s “very clear expectation” that negotiations around any areas of cooperation would be concluded, and the outcome announced, next week.
She gave away little about what form such cooperation could take, although offered a veiled hint that she was interested not just in the Greens’ policy areas but their personnel as well.
“What’s very clear, obviously to New Zealand and to us, is we do have a very clear mandate, but as I’ve said before, I’m interested in areas of cooperation where we can use the strengths that exist in their team for the benefit of the Government and all New Zealand.”
That would suggest ministerial roles for James Shaw and others could be in the mix, although the Greens themselves were also keeping schtum at a photo opportunity for their new caucus.
Asked whether the party expected a formal coalition agreement with Labour, Shaw replied: “We expect nothing – we’re just going to have to see how the coming weeks play out.”
Shaw’s co-leader Marama Davidson had little more to say, although she added the Greens would “figure out the best way to work together with Labour for our people and for our planet”.
The Greens are in a difficult position, possessing no real leverage given Labour’s parliamentary majority and the narrative from some pundits, if not endorsed by Ardern then hardly disavowed, that the swing from National to Labour was in part due to conservative voters afraid about the prospects of a Labour-Green government.
It is a highly speculative claim to say the least, and one that cannot be proven on the data that we have to hand, but even the spectre of soft support fleeing back to National might make some Labour MPs think twice about the extent of any deal.
On the other hand, it could make sense for Ardern to keep the Greens close and stop her government being attacked from both its left and right flanks.
The calculus is much less complicated for National – three years of painful rebuilding lies ahead.
The party’s depleted caucus gathered in Wellington to farewell departing colleagues, with the customary gift of a silver tray little consolation for those now forced into the job market against their will.
Fronting the media after an extended caucus meeting, National leader Judith Collins was flanked by the remaining National MPs in a bid to show unity.
She tried a similar trick after taking on the job in July: it did nothing to stop leaking and in-fighting during the election campaign, and there seems little reason to think it will be more successful this time around.
New Botany MP and ostensible leader-in-waiting Chris Luxon tried to stay inconspicuous several rows back, as did Maungakiekie MP Denise Lee, whose leaked email criticising the leadership cost the party five points in its internal polling according to Collins.
“It’s onwards and upwards for us, and we are determined to be the best opposition ever – we may not have quite the size that we have had in the past but we will be very focused on that,” the National leader said, optimistically.
While greatness could yet be proven, the opposition’s diversity is undeniably poor. Although Parliament as a whole is becoming more diverse this term, National no longer has any Pasifika MPs, while it has 24 men and just 11 women.
“One of the really sad things was to lose some very valued colleagues today who very clearly represent parts of New Zealand and people in the communities in New Zealand that we’re not currently representing in the way that we want to,” Collins said.
One way to improve that representation would be for senior MPs like Gerry Brownlee and Nick Smith, who both lost their seats but remain in Parliament via the list, to step down and bring others in – yet both said they intended to serve out the term.
That is understandable, and National does need to retain some experienced politicians – but it is a sign of the struggle ahead as the party tries to rejuvenate and learn from where it went wrong, without giving up on the 2023 election.