Gordon Campbell on National’s need for Winston Peters

Peters image smallerAs a spectacle, politics can be pretty boring. MMP politics isn’t a cage fight, or even (ultimately) a struggle between individual parties. Moreover… Under MMP, not even megatons of public exposure to an unattractive party leader can turn a pumpkin into a prince. In the end, the outcome of MMP elections is almost always decided by the partnerships that exist between the teams that sit on roughly the same side of the political divide.

In the final calculation, do the party list votes and the electorate victories by all of the centre-right parties exceed those racked up by the entire centre-left bloc? That arithmetic is unlikely to set the pulses racing or galvanise much clickbait – which is why the media (and some politicians) tend to operate as if we’re still living in an FPP world.

In many ways, First Past the Post is far more in tune with the needs of the 24/7 news cycle, in that FPP reduced elections to a two horse race in only a handful of electorates. Reporting on MMP is more like monitoring the shifts in tectonic plates. The outcome may be massive, but there’s not much to see beforehand.

Lets try our best though, to make the process sound exciting. If Christopher Luxon is going to be the next Prime Minister, he is probably going to need to add New Zealand First to his column. On the recent Roy Morgan poll findings, the centre-right bloc (National plus ACT) was sitting at 45% of the vote and 59 seats, which is alluringly close to a governing majority. It may also be a high water mark. In which case…. Other than from NZF, where else are the centre-right’s additional numbers going to come from?

Gone are the days when John Key could rely on Peter Dunne and Tariana Turia to get National across the line. Theoretically, the ACT Party may get another surge in support once the full effect of its pitch to rural voters registers in the polls. Yet clearly, that would be at National’s expense. No doubt, ACT’s cannibalisation of the centre -right vote has been one of this year’s significant political events but – in itself– this doesn’t quite get the centre-right across the line and into power.

If anything, the onset of the campaign proper could induce many moderate conservatives who were initially attracted by ACT’s attacks of the Labour government to back off once it dawns on them just how radical (and unaffordable) many of ACT’s solutions would be. No doubt, ACT are a great opposition party. Yet only the moneyed 2% elite would ever want to see ACT’s agenda put into practice. New Zealand tried raw meat neo-liberalism in the 1980s, and it was a social and economic disaster.

Who else might defect to the centre right bloc? A few more elderly conservative voters may think Labour is now too woke – and too Maori – for them. Surely though, that wing of the Labour vote is more likely to defect to Peters. As things stand, Luxon needs Peters to get across the 5% MMP threshold. Or it needs Shane Jones to win the Northland electorate’s four way battle between Jones, Labour’s incumbent Willow-Jean Prime (by only 163 votes, thanks to the 2020 red tide) National’s farmer candidate Grant McCallum, and spoiler candidate Matt King, a former National MP.

That contest really is a cage fight, and it remains unclear that Jones will emerge the victor. The man has never won an electorate race before.

Counting the blocs

In the meantime, one should ignore the commentary that consistently describes Te Pāti Maori as the “kingmaker” at this election. This time around, the only “king” that Te Pati Maori would anoint is the Labour Party. Christopher Luxon has already ruled out working with Te Pāti Maori. The unspoken co-operative relationship in the Maori seats – John Tamihire and Willie Jackson go way back – is another one of the significant political events of 2023. It will deliver a win/win for the centre-left in the Maori seats, however the cards fall.

In short, Te Pāti Maori should be being counted alongside the Greens as a part of the centre-left bloc. On the basis of those last Roy Morgan poll results, the combined Labour plus Greens plus Te Pāti Maori percentages would deliver 61 seats to such a bloc. That would be a winning hand.

Among other things… National’s likely dependence on Peters and Jones getting the centre-right across the line poses a management nightmare for Luxon, should there be a change of government. In order to staunch the bleeding of its own supporters to ACT, National has felt impelled all year to adopt more and more extreme right wing positions, thereby leaving plenty of room for Peters (and for Labour!) in the moderate centre. And also plenty of room for conflict within a centre-right bloc of personal and policy incompatibles.

The prospect of Winson Peters being the moderate voice of reason and restraint in a Luxon-led government should be keeping some sensible conservatives awake at night. Having David Seymour and Winston Peters sitting around the Cabinet table – with Luxon as the referee! – looks like a recipe for anything but sane and stable government. It would be a blueprint for chaos, confusion and disarray, amidst a daily struggle to find common ground. Business confidence would be shaken, not stirred.

In the past, Seymour has called Peters “a charismatic crook” while Peters has called Seymour a “political cuckold” who “wouldn’t last ten seconds in the ring with me.” Would anyone pick Christopher Luxon to be the man best able to deliver happy compromises between these two brawling bedfellows?

So far, we haven’t heard anything from Luxon about whether he thinks National will need another friendly partner besides ACT to be able to govern. Nor whether he expects to need to work constructively in future with NZF. Nor has Luxon said anything about which ACT policies (if any) National opposes, on principle. Or whether Luxon thinks ACT’s policy agenda is fiscally affordable. Or what National’s own policy package will cost. Or how much extra borrowing it will entail.

In sum, voters are flying blind into this election, while focussed solely on the shortcomings of the Hipkins government. Chances are, the nation’s blind date with Christopher Luxon will end up being a source of deep regret, on the morning after.

Footnote One: As I mentioned above, ACT’s policies are unaffordable. For example: currently, this country’s GDP is worth circa $NZ398 billion. We devote 1.37% of GDP to defence spending, which would equate to about $5.17 billion. ACT is proposing to lift defence spending to 2% of GDP which comes to $7.9 billion, a cost increase of $2.7 billion. Where on earth would that extra money come from? Sadly, that’s par for the course. ACT has been peddling vote-grabbing populist initiatives, regardless of their cost or feasibility. A junior political party on the centre-left would never be allowed to get away with such shenanigans.

Footnote Two: The other potential ally for the centre right would not be part of a governing coalition, but would sit on the cross benches and could provide support on the crucial confidence and supply votes in Parliament. Such a role will hinge on whether Raf Manji can win the Ilam electorate for The Opportunities Party, and/or get TOP over the 5% MMP threshold.

In Ilam, Manji has been preparing the ground for a non-ideological pitch to National voters, on the basis that by voting for him, centre-right voters would actually get a “ two for one” bargain: Manji as a sensible hard-working local MP, and National’s Ilam candidate Hamish Campbell on the party list. What’s not for Fendaltion to like about that?

So far though, Luxon has not made National’s wider task any easier, because (inexplicably) he’s gone all-in behind Campbell. Manji has a real chance of winning Ilam. Besides, he is a skilled media performer who might do very well indeed in any TV leaders debates. Those with long memories will recall how Peter Dunne also did exceptionally well in the television debates in 2002 as the centrist voice of reason, such that his United Future party ended up with eight MPs. Given sufficient television exposure, Manji is likely to exceed expectations.

From the cross benches, Manji would also be likely to decide that he would have little choice in a democracy other than to give confidence and supply support to the party that wins the most votes. Since that’s likely to be National, Luxon should be doing all he can to get Manji into Parliament. The fact that Luxon isn’t, speaks volumes about his tactical abilities.

Any Labour voters in Ilam who might be thinking of voting tactically for Manji (against Campbell) need to keep in mind the scenario I’ve just outlined. Manji and TOP would not be a given for the centre-left bloc, and especially not if Manji wants to last for more than one term as the candidate for Ilam.

Footnote Four: As Mediawatch pointed out on the weekend, there is no evidence to support the claim that voters still don’t know the “real” Luxon, a man who – his small band of fans continue to insist- is still an unknown, mysterious figure to the general public. After 18 months of prime time, it seems that this elusively nocturnal Likeable Luxon has yet to emerge from his burrow.

Well… It seems more accurate to say that the public has seen more than enough of Christopher Luxon and his gaffes and accidental self-reveals, and it doesn’t like what it ses. End of story.

The dog that didn’t Wagner

Seems like I was wrong to be concerned that the Wagner Group mutiny might end up with a Wagner-led northern invasion of Ukraine launched from Belarus. The UK’s former military chief of general staff made the same mistake. Right now… Besides the slow-moving Ukraine counter-offensive in the south, we also have to worry about Ukraine deploying cluster bombs, and using uranium-depleted ammunition to pierce Russian tanks. Even if Ukraine somehow “wins” this conflict, the environmental damage – and the social and economic harm – will last for generations.

Reportedly, Russia’s own use of cluster bomb munitions has been more extensive than Ukraine’s, up until now.

….Hundreds of attacks by Russian forces with cluster munitions have already been recorded in the settlements of the Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, Kyiv, Luhansk, Mykolaiv, Odesa, Sumy, Kharkiv, Kherson and Chernihiv regions.215 civilians are known to have been killed in these shellings and 474 injured….

The “extensive“ use by Russia of cluster bombs was condemned by Human Rights Watch in a report published a few days ago.

Both sides should immediately stop using cluster munitins and not seek to obtain more of these indiscriminate weapons. The US should not transfer cluster munitions to Ukraine.

The US, Russia and Ukraine (among others) did not sign up to the 2008 convention limiting the use of cluster bombs. About 100 other countries did sign that convention.

Slowdive, from the high board

The UK shoegaze band Slowdive will be playing an already sold out show at the Power Station in Auckland later this month. No one would ever accuse them of being wildly prolific. Their classic second album Souvlaki was followed by the less successful Pygmalion in 1994, but then a further 22 years elapsed before their triumphant Slowdive comeback. Six years further on, here’s the lead-off single “Kisses” from the Everything Is Alive album that’s due in early September. As usual, the official video is mesmerising:

And here’s their great “Sugar For The Pill” track from the 2017 album.