By Peter Dunne*
There must be consternation within the upper ranks of the Labour Party at the performance of some of the Ministers in the coalition government.
Every time the government looks like making some positive progress, one or other of these errant Ministers can be relied upon to upset the applecart. No sooner had the Prime Minister returned from her latest overseas trip where she was lauded once more by the international media, and followed that up by honouring her promise to meet Tonight Show host Stephen Colbert at Auckland Airport and show him around the city when he arrived here to film a few programmes, than serial offenders Ministers Jones and Lees-Galloway were up to their old tricks.
Both forced the Prime Minister to abandon the warm smiles and adopt the grim countenance once again as she had to first explain then defend their behaviour. It all had a sad look of déjà vu about it.
In the Jones’ instance her defence was predictable: she “absolutely” would not have used, let alone allow herself to have been photographed, using an automatic weapon of the type now banned in New Zealand, and she urged the Minister to read again those provisions of the Cabinet Manual relating to acceptable standards of Ministerial behaviour. And that was it – as it has been on so many other occasions in the last two years – no censure, no discipline, just the usual wet bus ticket slap.
So too with the different case of Lees-Galloway. What seems, on the face of it, to be another judgement-lacking use of his Ministerial discretion on an immigration residency case, has been given the Prime Minister’s full support as perfectly appropriate.
It may well be valid – given the person’s protected migrant status – but in the absence of any explanation, however generalised, by the Minister of the background, it just looks like another case of his judgement being found wanting, and his ineptitude overlooked again. The upshot is that any political benefit to have emerged from the Prime Minister’s recent international sorties has been quickly forgotten.
Of course, the Prime Minister’s colleagues will point out that in the instance of Jones, as a New Zealand First Minister, the Prime Minister cannot move to discipline, demote or even dismiss him without the backing of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of New Zealand First. They are right to do so – and the reality is that Jones and his New Zealand First colleagues will exploit that to the hilt as a way of differentiating themselves within the Coalition. That is understandable too, but it is arguably an excuse that is starting to wear a little thin.
The Lees-Galloway situation is different. He is a Labour MP, so the Prime Minister can discipline, demote or even dismiss him, as she sees fit, without reference to other parties.
That she has done none of those things now, or at the earlier time of the Soubrek case is a commentary on her leadership style, and the perceived lack of talent in the remaining non-Ministerial ranks of the Labour Caucus to replace him.
Where all this begins to matter a little more is that we are coming to the stage of the electoral cycle where voters start to focus less on the government’s specific individual actions, and more on what the government’s overall impact – positive or negative – has been on them and their families.
Quite simply, with just on a year to go until the next General Election, they are beginning to weigh up whether the government is worth re-election.
In the end, it will be the perennial question, “is this as good as it gets, or is there more to come?” that determines any government’s fate.
This government is, by virtue of its composition, unusual, and therefore somewhat more difficult to categorise in terms of its performance. Previous multi-party governments have had more coherence – either the centre-left, and the centre; or, the centre-right, the right, and the centre working together. This government brings together the left, the centre-left and the centre-right, meaning immediately that the compromises needed for its survival were greater than those within any of its predecessors under MMP.
So, the fact that the Prime Minister is effectively hamstrung over the performance of New Zealand First Ministers should come as no surprise – it was virtually guaranteed this would be the case from the day the government was formed.
Nor should it be any surprise that the Greens have been steadily pushed to one side – again, it was inevitable that there would be a contest amongst the smaller parties for the major party’s prime attention, and that New Zealand First would play much harder ball when it came to that.
While these relationships and tensions were all known from the outset, what was not fully known was how they would play out when it came to deciding policy.
The fear that some expressed then that it would mean that New Zealand First would have an effective veto on policy has proven largely to be correct, meaning that Labour governs at the pleasure of New Zealand First, rather than with its support. It is doubtful that voters wanted or anticipated that a Party with just 7% of the party vote would call all the shots this way.
Now, when it comes to deciding whether the coalition government merits re-election next year, all these factors will come more strongly into play than specific policies.
In assessing the government’s overall performance, voters will be deciding whether the increasing perception that not a lot seems to have happened under this government (remember this was supposed to be the year of delivery) is because its very composition is a block on progress, which needs to be rectified, or whether the issues it says it is dealing with are really so complex that they cannot be resolved in one three year term.
The recent widespread protests here and abroad against a perceived lack of commitment to addressing climate change, and the results of the some of the local elections here last week, show that voters are becoming increasingly impatient with politicians who appear either to be blocking necessary action, or to be moving at too slow a rate. Nor are they afraid of making radical political change, if they think that is required.
If, as seems more and more likely, what we have now is as good as it is likely to get under this government, the next year is likely to be a very painful one for it. It may learn the hard and bitter way that more of the same is no longer a winning electoral formula, no matter how warmly, empathetically and positively it is promoted. Just ask the former Mayor of Wellington
*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.