Peter Dunne says courting New Zealand First the way Simon Bridges seems to want to do plays right into their hands, making them centre stage once again

Peter Dunne says courting New Zealand First the way Simon Bridges seems to want to do plays right into their hands, making them centre stage once again
Cartoon by Jacky Carpenter.

By Peter Dunne*

A recent prominent National politician had the so-called Serenity Prayer penned by American philosopher, Reinhold Niebuhr, "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference" displayed on a plaque on his office wall. It always struck me that the quotation was as much a statement of this person's approach to politics, as it was a reference to religious faith.

Whatever its significance, though, it certainly has relevance to the National Party of today.

In its quest to return to power next year it faces many obstacles, some clearly of its own making, and some quite beyond its control. Its problem seems to be making the distinction between the two, let alone focusing on the factors it can influence, and ignoring the rest. National is simply spending too much time chasing parked cars, and not enough time spelling out where it might be different from - and consequently better than - the current government.

A recent good example was the incredible comment from leader Simon Bridges that he was open to working with New Zealand First after the next election if the circumstances made that an option.

All that has done has been to confirm New Zealand First's status as a potential kingmaker once more for either the left or the right side of politics. In so doing, it has restored a relevance to New Zealand First that was increasingly lacking, as well as giving disgruntled National voters somewhere to park their vote, in the hope it might ultimately be of help in getting National back into government. It might well be just enough to get New Zealand First over the line again at the next election.

But it is all pie in the sky lunacy.

Even if New Zealand First scrapes back into Parliament at the next election, it is not going to work with National, no matter how desperate the blandishments that might be thrown in its path.

Mr Peters is this country's ultimate "utu" politician.

His driving motivation of the last 30 years has been to make National pay and continue to pay for the way it has treated him in that time - from his expulsion from the first Bolger Cabinet and then the Caucus in the early 1990s, then his sacking as Treasurer by Jenny Shipley, and finally John Key ruling him out as a governing option in 2008 and 2011.

Having now achieved office with Labour, there is absolutely no incentive for his returning to his National roots. Utu, after all, knows no time limit.

If all that is not enough to bring National to its senses, a dose of the realities of history should.

New Zealand First's electoral success is normally in direct proportion to the influence voters sense it might have after the election. Hence, the strong showings in 1996 and to a lesser extent in 2017 when it seemed inevitable it would be difficult, if not impossible, to form a government without New Zealand First; and, the far weaker showings in 1999 after the failure of the first coalition, and 2008 when John Key bluntly ruled out any deal with New Zealand First.

Courting New Zealand First, the way Mr Bridges now seems to want to do, plays right into New Zealand First's hands, making them centre stage once again. And that will not end well for National, either in or out of office.

It is time for National to return to the John Key strategy and rule out New Zealand First altogether.

While on the face of it this is a high risk strategy for National, it does have some upsides.

First, it is a clear message to even the most obtuse National voter that a vote for New Zealand First is no more than a vote to re-elect the current government.

Second, because such a declaration immediately would deprive New Zealand First of its ability to play both sides off against each other, it would diminish its relevance, and therefore also increase the possibility of New Zealand First being tossed out of Parliament altogether, (with a significant proportion of its votes transferring back to National?).

And third, it would allow National to focus on its story and the message it wants to promote to voters, without having to worry about how that may sit with New Zealand First. 

National cannot change New Zealand First's historic antipathy to National. That is not within its ken. but ruling out working with them is certainly something National can change to. All Mr Bridges needs now is the courage and the wit to see the difference.


*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.

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"All Mr Bridges needs now is the courage and the wit.."

Yeah, that all but rules out anything.

I think it is almost inconceivable that NZ First would go into coalition with National now so I am unsure why Mr. Bridges thinks he is doing.

It is also highly likely that after the next election we will have only 2 parties in the House (ignoring Act). Given how MMP works, the party with the biggest votes will win. What a strange turn of events for our election system if that proves to be true.

National by attacking WP pre-election, personally over his super an and domestic situation, ruled themselves out forever and a day. It was arrogant and maladroit and they paid for it. Do think though the Greens will scrape in. They did last time despite their own sincere efforts to self destruct. If so, many will vote NZF again ( provided WP continues) simply to block a Labour/Green lot on their own. But as you say an MMP system may yet turn out an FPP result. That would make NZ look rather odd and one would have to wonder if the country does have sufficient size and maturity in the electorate for MMP to properly work.

Maybe they could peg the threshold to the OCR. Then we might still see some minority groups still having a voice in parliament for some time yet.

It will be touch and go for the Greens as well as NZ First. The Greens are still having an identity crises with the social wing having a strong presence over the environmental wing. However, I think it is likely that they won't get in the House because their voters are disappointed in them. If we only have two parties and it is a FPP style House then we need to lower the threshold rather quickly.

It's not the threshold that is the problem.

The fundamental issues in my mind are:
a) The lack of any real quality politicians/Policy to vote for.
b) The complete lack of understanding from the voters and politicians on what MMP really is.
c) The refusal by parties to negotiate properly. Greens should have been talking to National. National and Labour should have been talking to each other.

We could lower the threshold to 1/120 of the votes. But all that would do is see a bunch of extreme one-man bands. We have done that already (Dunne, Seymour, etc....) they add no value, don't achieve anything, or get linked to a Major party (a la Maori Party) and get destroyed next election.

"c) The refusal by parties to negotiate properly. Greens should have been talking to National. "

Sure, if you don't understand how the Green party works.

They are highly democratic and led by their party members. The party members forbade the Green MPs from talking to National. End of story.

If the Green MPs had started to negotiate with National, their members would have revolted. Only in the case of a truly hung Parliament would Green MPs contenance discussions with National, and even then it's difficult to imagine a scenario where Green party members would think that a National - Green coalition would be better for themselves than a Labour - National one, since Greens - National would obviously have them as a very minor player and given trinkets and baubles, not actual real policy changes, and then blamed for everything that went wrong, as Act, UF and the Maori Party lapdogs were.

The Greens tried to work with National once before with their 'memorandum of understanding' in 2009 which got them an insulation scheme - but when the Greens wanted to make it bigger and more effective, National refused and the whole scheme got shut down instead. The endeavour does not appear to have been particularly productive from the Greens point of view.

National voters and the wider electorate may not like this, or may not understand it, but the Green party obeys what their members say, and what they say is that their MPs will not negotiate with National.

You are 100% correct, which proves my point perfectly.

Neither the green party, nor their voters understand MMP.

They understand MMP perfectly, and they understand that comprising on their policies in the way national would force them to is not worth it.

There is such a thing as integrity, whereas politicians like Peter Dunne simply sell themselves to the highest bidder.

Integrity? They are effectively a Labour add-on. With no power in their own right. Of all the parties since MMP began, they appear to have the least understanding.

They rolled over again before the last election signing a Confidence and supply agreement with Labour? What did the Greens get out of that?

Who is the Minister for the Environment?
What Green MP is in Cabinet?
Are their policies included in the coalition agreement?

The Greens need to take a long hard look at themselves, as the third biggest party they should be having a lot more influence in an MMP environment.

"With no power in their own right."

Yes, because Labour would have given us a referendum on legalising cannabis...

"The Greens need to take a long hard look at themselves, as the third biggest party they should be having a lot more influence in an MMP environment."

Maybe you need to take a long hard look at the election results, and you will see that they have fewer MPs than NZFirst.

So long as the Greens are polling above 4%, enough Labour voters will switch their vote to them to ensure they get back into Parliament.

So long as Labour + Greens appear to be polling just around 50%, enough National voters will switch their vote to NZFirst to act as a spoiler on the government.

Personally I'm not so sure ACT is safe any more. National might be fed up with them, and with Goldsmith now being 3rd ranked in their caucus and spokesperson for finance, they may want him to actually win Epsom. Or he'll go onto list only (the National party rules allow only a total of 5 MPs to be list-only, everyone else must stand in an electorate) and they'll put some other non-entity to stand in the seat.

But I wouldn't be so sure that ACT will come back at the next election.

Yes, it's difficult to see why Bridges appears to be leaving the door open for NZ First.

Winston Peters is a bitter and vengeful old man, who carries a grudge against National. He is also waging a vendetta against Bridges, in particular, for humiliating him in the Tauranga electorate in 2008.

National's clear message must be that a vote for NZ First is a vote for Labour and the Greens.

.. good strategy for the Gnats ... 'cos the electorate tends to punish at the next election the minor coalition partners of the incumbent government ...

Kiwis don't like to see the tail wagging the dog ....

Time for National to draw the line under Simon Bridges would have made a better story.

I tend to agree with Peter Dunns sentiment, but doubt that they will do that on the basis of the old political maximum, - never let your principles interfere with good politics. (not much danger of that with National as they don't appear to have any principles anyway)
It seems to me that NZ First are trying to play a pretty cute game by placing themselves in a position that appeals to the very conservative and rural voters, in part competing with National, but also making them a very natural fit in a future National lead government.
Having said all that, I think that NZ First has displayed far too much irresponsible swagger and well and truly overplayed the power of their bargaining position; to the extent that they have annoyed NZ voters and may well not get back into parliament next election. Next election look for a very conciliatory attitude toward NZ First from National as they are the only potential coalition partner that they have at present.

PD is right, as I've written here before, utu is a key motivator for WP, as it is for all Ngapuhi. They are an angry lot & were so a long time before the Europeans arrived as witnessed in the way they treat one another up there. There is nothing to like or admire about Winston Peters. He is a sly old fox, perhaps well suited to his current role, but this nation would do well to be rid of him forever. Don't do it Simon.

Disagree in part LJM. Having listened to what WP had to say over the years I more often found him expressing what people really thought, usually calling out incumbent Governments for where they were failing. This is why he remains so popular, but in his current position as the DPM and in office he is at least partially muzzled and can't do what he does best - act in opposition. These are traits that make him difficult to work with in a Government and despised in opposition but loved by his electorate. The WPs of this world are too few and far between, but we need them. I prefer him to any of the other sycophants any day.

Yeah Nah Murray and Long John Martin. Yeah Nah. Winston is a hard one. I often think he is very perceptive on the big issues, more than most of the politician. Then he messes up completely with some narrow tit for tat dispute. Really destructive. I just wish he stuck to the good thinking and reflecting what people really thought. But on balance, despite the good stuff, I won't vote for him.

" ... remains so popular, ..."

Popular, really? It has been a few Parliaments since he won an electoral seat, or his party got over 10%.

He won the Northland by-election in 2015, which was the very most recent Parliament before the current one.

I think it's funny that Peter Dunne always talks about personality and personal vendettas when it comes to Winston.

Yes, no doubt there is an element of that, but suggesting that it is the primary driving force behind *all* of his decisions is a bit much.

NZFirst's support base is about 2/3rds from left-leaning conservatives, therefore his constituency is left-leaning. Propping up a right-wing government is not a good medium-long term idea for NZFirst, which the Maori Party finally found out - as did Peter himself, I should add.

If you look at the policies they run on, they mesh better with Labour than they do with National.

Perhaps the Gnats ought to announce they'll form a coalition with NZ Thirst ...but only if Shane Jones is the leader, not Winsome Winnie . .

The Coalition is going to have at least another term in power so all this debate is really a waste of time. National has no leader currently that can take them to the treasury benches, no leader in sight who can lead them to power and no mates to get them across the line. They have self destructed and will warm the opposition benches for some time yet.

Just one word is required to repudiate everything you wrote , Gordon :

" Crusher ! "

Crusher may be popular with hardcore Nats but the broader electorate won't warm to her. She's really the Nat's emergency replacement for Bridges if they start to poll around 38% or lower for an extended period.

If National were polling at 38% or lower, it is likely that a few percent of their vote will have gone to NZFirst as well as to other parties - the only truly viable alternatives being ACT and TOP, and TOP is really center to center-left, not a rightwing party.

Despite Simon, it simply seems that National's share isn't going to fall below 40%, simply because There Is No Alternative - either as a leader, or for right-wing voters to turn to.

I know her personally GBH. I like her. She is intelligent and funny. But if you put her on TV alongside our current PM she would come off second best every time. Jacinda has something Judith does not have and also Bridges does not have. If she did Judith would be the current leader of the opposition.

When she was asked about the destruction to wetlands caused by swamp kauri extraction that Oravida was involved in, her answer was "I don't care, they are swamps, I don't like swamps". That was the day any vestige of credibility she ever had disappeared, as far as I was concerned.

National's election strategy is terrible. I wrote to Melissa Lee a few days after John Key resigned and told her they will need WP to govern, be good to him. They did exactly the opposite and lost the election...

Yeah, maybe you should have written to an MP that actually matters, and not the one who suggested that the western motorway would be good for residents of Mt Albert because all the South Auckland criminals would bypass them.

Classic example of the Tory mask slipping and revealing their true nature underneath.

Simon Bridges is like a drowning man, snatching at any lifeline. He won't be around to front National at the next election. But Winston Peters is a pragmatist, and with a new leadership in place without the baggage of the current one, I reckon Winston would be up for a deal if it got him back in the door.

Yes, I could see Winston swapping to National in 2023 with the right leader. But I don't think he'll be leading the party by then.

It is all just silly, delusional games now, we do not have any real power over our economy and country anymore.

Bridges voice is enough to put most people off. How many would listen to fingernails running down chalkboards even if they had the most profound things to say. That is Bridges for you (bar the profound bit).

National may not need to say anything - the more exposure Shane Jones gets the lower they poll. WP has all but disappeared but Jones seems to be in your face all the time now - showering your hard-earned money on valueless projects in the provinces. And now with a silly hat on I see..