Gordon Campbell on why Winston Peters could be National’s new BFF

petthumbOver the weekend, some classic double speak from National. Christopher Luxon is saying he’ll be able to make a deal with whatever power configuration the voters hand to him. (He’s been a CEO deal maker with an international airline, don’t you know.) But simultaneously, National’s campaign manager Chris Bishop is threatening a second election if National doesn’t get the results it wants.

At least Luxon is paying lip service to the notion that he needs to respect the wishes of the electorate and make the best deal he can manage from the hand delivered to him by the voters. The reality is that current polling tells us that a significant number of voters want to give New Zealand First a meaningful voice in the next administration, whether that suits Chris Bishop or not. Yet for the greater purpose of scare-mongering, Bishop has been willing to put a question mark over the deal-making abilities of his leader.

Post election, going postal

At this point in the campaign, the Luxon call to “party vote National” is also something of a double- edged sword. The more that National pleads with centre right voters to give it a strong hand to deal with the scourge of Winston Peters, the more it erodes ACT’s vote and increases New Zealand First’s bargaining power, post election. That’s because at this late stage of the campaign, the centre right parties are locked into a zero sum game. Meaning: any extra votes for National at this point are very very likely to be coming at the expense of the ACT Party.

This whiplash effect could also explain why last Thursday, Sir John Key was urging voters to rally around National against Peters, and then shortly afterwards, Key was also saying in effect… That no worries, Peters’s track record in government hasn’t been all that bad.

The probable reason for that switcheroo is that some-one must have taken Key aside and explained to him that there’s actually a three dimensional chess game going on right now between National, ACT and New Zealand First. One in which if support for National goes up, ACT will keep on going down and Peters will keep on laughing.

If he didn’t sense it long ago, Peters must know now that he’s dealing with a bunch of amateurs, and – more than anything – Peters simply can’t abide political dilettantes. On that score, keep in mind that National’s brains trust – Chris Bishop and Nicola Willis – were also the tactical geniuses behind the leadership reign of Todd Muller. Look how well that turned out.

NZF, for the long haul

Moving right along… Even if only as a thought experiment, there’s a case to be made that National should prefer to deal with Peters post-election, rather than with David Seymour. Already this morning, Seymour has been saying that a referendum to rewrite Treaty principles is his number one bottom line, even though Luxon continues to rule out a referendum on that complex and divisive subject. It has to be a sign of ACT’s desperation over its sinking support levels that it should try to publicly hold National to ransom in such fashion.

If National is foolish enough to put all (or most) of its policy eggs in the ACT basket it will then have to face the long term consequences of being yoked to ACT’s hardline – and electorally poisonous – version of neo-liberalism. The more that Seymour chatters on happily about firing 15,000 centrist voters who work in the public service (at least half of whom will be National voters) the more attractive Peters’ cranky old school Muldoonism should be looking to the party strategists setting National’s course for the next three years.

Credit where due. Seymour has been a useful tool for the centre right in discrediting the Labour government and putting National on the cusp of power. Yet Seymour has been a liability during the campaign proper. Post election, Seymour is all downside. His premature talk of bottom lines and open rancour against Peters has looked politically infantile. If Brooke Van Velden can manage to win Tamaki (and that contest is a close call right now) she would be a much more acceptable face for the ACT Party within a National-led government. For similar reasons, Peters is a more sustainable bet for helping National to govern from the centre for the next three years and beyond.

Going postal, post election

On current polling, ACT is sitting only a couple of percentage points ahead of New Zealand First, with the political momentum seemingly running in NZF’s favour. If the polls are accurate and the election outcome does leave the centre right dependent on Peters to govern… Then it’s pretty clear that Peters’s price of putting Christopher Luxon into power would include: Deputy PM and Foreign Minister, for starters.

Peters would also want a NZF stake in economic policy, which could mean – ironically – that Shane Jones ends up as Minister of Economic Development, or dukes it out with Seymour for the post of something like, say… Revenue Minister. To augment its role in foreign policy, NZF would also probably want the Defence portfolio again, given that it scored very significant amounts of funding for Defence while in coalition with Labour.

Defence is going to be an interesting portfolio. For obvious reasons much of the media coverage during the campaign has focussed on the conflict between Seymour and Peters. But post election, Defence will be one of several potential Venn diagram points of policy overlap on the centre right. So far, ACT and National have both been talking about raising New Zealand’s spending on Defence to 2% of GDP from the current 1.18% for 2022, as estimated by the World Bank. It would cost billions over the next few years, for us to reach 2%. However, that also happens to be the likely price tag for the replacements for the ANZAC frigates.

If New Zealand is to go down the road of replacing the frigates – and it really, really shouldn’t – it would make more economic sense for New Zealand to lease the ships from the Americans. Yet, according to the Australian Financial Review, our Navy has already signalled that it would be willing to buy the British firm Babcock’s Arrowhead light frigates, and have them built in Aussie shipyards as a job creation scheme for Australian workers. We’re always a soft touch when it comes to this sort of thing.

Defence is one area where ACT and NZF could co-operate. Welfare reform is another. (So help us, Seymour could well end up as Minister of Social Welfare.) But as history has told us ever since Octavian, Mark Antony and Lepidus (who?) tried to make a go of it together in ancient Rome, three-way power sharing doesn’t last long. After Saturday’s election, the two big dogs in the ruling triumvirate in this country are likely to be National and New Zealand First, with ACT tagging along for a while in third place. Or going off onto the cross benches in a hissy fit.

Footnote One: A glance at the policy page on New Zealand First’s website shows that NZF has its own binding referendum bottom line in mind – namely, a vote to create a four year government term. If we had that in place right now, Winston Peters would be 82 years old at the end of the next term of government. Food for thought.

Footnote Two: The same page also shows just how deeply New Zealand First has gone down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole. The globalisation that Act and National both happen to keenly support ? well… Lets just hope Christopher Luxon wasn’t planning to hobnob with the rich and powerful at the Davos summit anytime soon. Because here’s the NZF verdict on those kind of global concentrations of power:

Require a national interest test to stop us being dictated to by the United Nations and agencies like the W.H.O.

-Defund any public participation in the World Economic Forum and related bodies, where their deliberations intend the removal of independent democratic decision making by sovereign nations.

Yep, let’s end our craven dependence on those dictators at the World Health Organisation and the United Nations. And if you read the fine print of the Word Economic Forum that runs the Davos annual global shindig, you will see that their member partners include all of the main Covid vaccine-makers – Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Abbott Laboratories etc. etc. So lets “defund” them as well.

Also: Among those assisting the WEF deliberations at Davos in the recent past has been Greta Thunberg, and we all know whatshethinks about climate change and the inadequacy of what sovereign governments are doing to combat it. So… A vote for NZF would, apparently, be a vote to Take Back Our Country from Greta Thunberg and her minions. At this election, there are few good options, and no good outcomes in prospect.