Opinion: Chris Hipkins’ announcement that Labour would not work with New Zealand First should it need its support after the election was more a statement of the obvious than a surprise. After all, NZ First had ruled out months ago working again with Labour to form a government.

The real point of Hipkins’ statement was to snooker National. National leader Christopher Luxon has been hedging his bets all year on any post-election working arrangement with NZ First. As he continues to do so, and the election draws ever nearer, his seeming determination not to commit one way or the other on the question makes it appear more and more likely National will seek some kind of deal with NZ First after the election, should it need to.

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Hipkins’ clever snooker could leave National in the worst of all positions. Its most likely coalition partner, Act, says it will not join NZ First in any governing arrangement. That makes a National/Act/NZ First government unlikely unless Act reneges and tolerates some form of arms-length confidence-and-supply arrangement with NZ First. But Act’s position also makes Luxon’s continuing refusal to rule out NZ First much more difficult to understand.

Moreover, Luxon must surely know NZ First’s three stints in government have ended in failure. After its 1996-98 coalition with National broke up, it barely made it back to Parliament at the 1999 election and the National government was defeated. In 2008, NZ First’s governing arrangement with Labour ended with its leader suspended as a minister, and the party losing all its seats as well as Labour being ousted from government. In 2020, after three years in coalition with Labour, NZ First was once again voted out of Parliament altogether.

Despite its serial, staged grumpiness, NZ First could not be happier being ruled out by Hipkins. He has given it the one thing it always desperately craves and has so far this campaign been lacking – relevance

Hipkins says NZ First is “a force for instability and chaos”. Based on its record in government it is hard to argue otherwise. Yet, by appearing to keep open the possibility of working with NZ First, National gives the impression it believes that, in a fourth spell in government, NZ First would somehow behave differently than it has before. National may not wish to be reminded of this but leopards do not change their spots, not even for Christopher Luxon.

This is exactly what Hipkins was hoping for. Given NZ First’s historical performance, the deep enmity between NZ First and Act, and National’s ambivalence, he now has a new negative campaign weapon – the coalition of fear, instability, and chaos – which he has already started using. It may well smack of desperation, as Luxon complains, but it may also strike a chord with some voters, and when you are struggling for support as Labour is, every little bit helps. The line will be repeated mercilessly throughout the coming campaign to Luxon’s obvious discomfort.

Despite its serial, staged grumpiness, NZ First could not be happier being ruled out by Hipkins. He has given it the one thing it always desperately craves and has so far this campaign been lacking – relevance. Now, justified or not, and despite Luxon’s increasingly pallid attempts to play down NZ First’s return to Parliament as “hypothetical”, even if he may well be correct, NZ First will be the dark, awkward shadow that hangs over every discussion about what a centre-right government after the election might look like. That is the second successful part of Hipkins’ snooker.

Yet for National it was all so avoidable, had Luxon followed the stand of his mentor Sir John Key at the start of 2008 in categorically ruling out working with NZ First. That decision, and Helen Clark’s later suspension of its leader, Winston Peters, from his ministerial position related to Owen Glenn’s $100,000 donation to NZ First, deprived the party of relevance. And when NZ First loses relevance its otherwise erratic, xenophobic, shamelessly populist approach to politics is not enough to see it re-elected, as was the case in 2008.

Had Luxon moved in a similar way to Key earlier this year, NZ First may well have been an irrelevant, distant election memory by now, the last resort of eccentric, disillusioned conspiracy theorists. But Luxon’s silence has ensured otherwise. His failure to spell out specifically that voting for NZ First will not help National get into government may even encourage some of National’s more dim-witted arch-conservative supporters at the Trumpist end of National’s spectrum, to party vote NZ First to mistakenly “give National a hand” and keep Act in check.

Yet Luxon ruling out New Zealand First now, at this late stage, could look somewhat desperate and contrived – and too late if NZ First starts to build up some steam over the next few weeks. Again, this will be precisely what Hipkins is hoping for.

None of these machinations is likely to be enough to turn the election in Hipkins’ favour. But they could certainly make life for National extremely difficult if it does not get over the election line with Act alone. History shows any government involving NZ First does not survive beyond one term, a reality National curiously chooses to ignore. But Labour knows that full well and is already seeking to lay the ground for a strong showing at the 2026 election.

Last year Luxon named Winston Churchill as one of three people in history he would have most liked to have had dinner with. If the spectre of NZ First is allowed to hang too low over the coming election campaign, he may well have cause to recall Churchill’s reported remarks to the House of Commons in 1948 that “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. Luxon may come to rue the fact that when he had the chance to learn from history and deal to New Zealand First accordingly, he failed to do so.  

Peter Dunne was the leader of United Future and served as a minister in former National and Labour governments.

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