Much has been written of the handbrake New Zealand First put on Labour last term, but as political editor Jo Moir writes, the Government’s newfound freedom is missing crucial oversight

Analysis: Labour’s coalition with New Zealand First last term is often branded as a handbrake on what could have been transformational reform by the left.

After winning a single-party governing majority in 2020 Labour’s been given a new lease on legislation.

With such a landslide win at the election it didn’t even need the Greens, leading to a cooperation agreement that severely limits the Cabinet papers they’re consulted on.

Previously under the principle of confidence and supply the Green Party had eyes on everything proposed and being passed – now it’s only those portfolios its two ministers outside cabinet have involvement in, significantly narrowing its input in legislation.

As for NZ First, it was turfed from Parliament altogether.

But as the Government hits the five-year mark of being in power – and the two-thirds mark of this term steering the ship on its own – arguably some of the extra eyes on policy in the previous term of government were more help than hindrance.

For every idea a minister brought to the table between 2017 and 2020 there were three parties checking for any gaps or potholes, and the process of how to communicate it to the public was debated at length.

Individual portfolios benefited. For instance in finance, Grant Robertson had two associates – James Shaw for the Greens and Shane Jones for NZ First. By all accounts the trio worked well together and how money was spent had a high but necessary level of checks and balances.

Clearly some policy was watered down or scrapped altogether, particularly if New Zealand First wasn’t on board – think capital gains tax as the most obvious example of that.

But even senior Green Party staff and MPs will admit there were productive elements during that period in government and often the likes of Shaw and his then-chief of staff Tory Whanau found ways to improve policy in collaboration with their NZ First counterparts.

And when the cookie didn’t crumble the way of the Greens, at least any glaring mistakes had been identified.

As to how the Government would go about selling it to the public was considered from three different viewpoints before being delivered to the public, which often meant more people could stomach any change.

If a handbrake government looks like it achieved more and took more people along with it in the process than the current one, next year’s election presents even more problems for Labour than it might have thought.

But now Labour ministers are completely reliant on each other at the Cabinet table and there are just a handful of ministers loaded up with the bulk of the work.

Those who are best placed to pick up their colleague’s mistakes don’t have the time to be running a fine-toothed comb through every other portfolio.

Ministers assume legislation is being progressed for the good of the party and seem to be dependent on their colleagues producing something that they’ll all agree with, both in how to present it to the public and the actual policy.

Look no further than David Parker’s announcement of a tax on Kiwisaver fees in August, and the way it seemed to blindside many of his colleagues who either hadn’t properly looked over the Cabinet paper or if they had, had skimmed without thinking through how it might be perceived publicly.

It resulted in a backtrack just one day later, and a general acceptance that nobody had quite realised how much opposition there would be to people’s Kiwisaver being messed with at the same time there’s a cost of living crisis and mortgage and interest rates are going through the roof.

Even the pace of the proposed TVNZ/RNZ merger has ramped up this term, when perhaps it would benefit from some of the stalling seen under New Zealand First. 

Last term Labour and New Zealand First mostly agreed on the need for strengthened public broadcasting but when then-broadcasting minister Kris Faafoi took a paper with just one option to Cabinet in 2019, he was told to go away and try again.

If that had gone ahead, the Government wouldn’t have considered a substantive business case at all, instead immediately passing legislation under urgency to disestablish RNZ and TVNZ and then proceed with a business plan later.

At the time RNZ reported some Labour and New Zealand First ministers pushed back on the way the preferred option had been arrived at and were said to be uncomfortable with the pace in which things were progressing.

The brakes went on and a new approach was taken.

Now the Government is full steam ahead but still struggling to properly explain the need for the new entity, and get buy-in from the sector and the public.

Labour has had a busy week progressing policies that satisfy its base, from the passing of the fair pay agreements, to alcohol reform and better conditions for bus drivers.

Some of that work is going to be met with a fight regardless of how it’s rolled out, purely because of ideological differences.

But as ministers use the remaining year to push through as much of Labour’s work programme before the next election, which is looking to be an ever-tightening race, the Government might need to pause on occasion to find the potholes.

If a handbrake government looks like it achieved more and took more people along with it in the process than the current one, next year’s election presents even more problems for Labour than it might have thought.

MMP can create the potential for too many cooks in the kitchen, but in the case of the last term of government, it was the thing that kept the main course from burning on more than one occasion.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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