By Peter Dunne*
Most of the time, the Labour Party bears the coarse New Zealand First millstone around its neck with patient equanimity. It appreciates that, however it might resent it, to do otherwise would quickly rend asunder the governing coalition, returning it unceremoniously to the Opposition benches for another, and potentially lengthy, fruitless spell in the wilderness.
Meanwhile, elements in the National Party, including the leader it seems, wistfully yearn for a possible reconciliation that would see New Zealand First emerge as its partner in government after the next election. But that is just not going to happen. National needs to wake up to the reality that as New Zealand First was founded principally on its leader’s sense of utu for having been expelled from National’s Caucus in 1991, it is never going to be its saviour. Despite having potentially greater policy compatibility with National, New Zealand First will always opt for Labour if it can, especially while its current leader is around. National can never hope to appease New Zealand First – its best way to deal with it is to seek to destroy it.
Although all this is to Labour’s short-term benefit, it probably does not want to be locked into the New Zealand First embrace for too long either. While it is, it cannot seriously hope to be able to deliver the progressive, left, government with the Greens it yearns for. The best it can hope for is a continuation of the stuttering current arrangement where it governs, not with the support of New Zealand First, but at its behest. Yet both Labour and New Zealand First understand that for the foreseeable future their fates are intertwined. Electoral mathematics alone make it clear that to retain government next year Labour will have to have New Zealand First, as well as the Greens, alongside it.
So, while Labour will continue to chafe under the New Zealand First yolk, it will never risk shirking it completely. That is why, for example, Shane Jones, whose Ministerial performance has been a failure in just about every aspect, is tolerated, and only ever so gently chastised (being sent away on holiday to read the Cabinet Manual after his egregious outburst to the forestry sector is the latest example) whenever he fails the standards of Ministerial conduct. And New Zealand First have already made it clear, through both Mr Peters and Mr Jones, that, rather than be chastened by the experience, it will become more aggressive and less mindful of Cabinet solidarity in the lead-up to next year’s election, as it fights for its survival. It knows full well Labour cannot really object all that much, because, for electoral purposes, the two are now increasingly joined at the hip.
What Labour strategists have to weigh up in all this is the point at which New Zealand First’s continued unchecked shenanigans start to damage Labour’s own brand, and whether, simply, it continues to be worth it. For their part, the Greens might also become less quiescent as the responsible partner in government if they sense their fate is being compromised by the association with New Zealand First.
One such issue that might bring all this to a head is the matter of drug law reform. The Greens clearly want to push this and move New Zealand towards a more realistic approach to the use of drugs, and Labour, while overtly less apparently enthusiastic, is of a similar persuasion. New Zealand First, on the other hand, is setting itself up to be the anti-drug party, committed to still fighting the discredited war on drugs that most countries, including New Zealand some years ago, have correctly abandoned, hoping to draw in the hardline anti-drug vote, ironically to boost the overall support of the current government.
This week’s flat rejection of the idea of drug-testing facilities being available at major summer music festivals, despite the high profile support of the Labour Minister of Police, is not just another example of the ritual humiliation Labour Ministers have to endure at the feet of New Zealand First in order to survive, but is also plain bad policy.
The point is simple. There are very few people who actively advocate for the use of drugs as beneficial. It is not the case – they are mind altering substances that are potentially dangerous to young people, in particular. The reality is, though, as hundreds of years of history has shown, they cannot be eliminated, so the question becomes one of regulating their use in a way that is safe and responsible. Enabling people with substances to test whether they are safe or not, is not an encouragement of their use and proliferation, but a valuable protection for often vulnerable young people. Labour, the Greens, and elements in the National Party, and the Police all understand that, and, until the blunt New Zealand First veto, there were cautious hopes that a solution could be arrived at for this year’s summer music season.
To date, Labour’s response seems to have been acquiescence, apparently judging the preservation of coalition unity to be a higher priority than the protection of the public health. But to retain any credibility it has as a party of compassion and tolerance, Labour cannot let this position stand – and nor can the Greens.
For both, the millstone may yet become too oppressive to continue to have to wear.
*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.