Peter Dunne says the way the government has approached the pandemic crisis has effectively side-lined NZ First and the Greens and left them largely irrelevant

Peter Dunne says the way the government has approached the pandemic crisis has effectively side-lined NZ First and the Greens and left them largely irrelevant

By Peter Dunne*

As the government starts to work on how it can move the country on at some point from its current Alert Level-4 status, the other political parties will be starting to think about how they can re-enter the fray and normal political debate can resume.

After all, and not surprisingly, the focus of recent weeks has been almost exclusively on the Prime Minister and the senior team around her, with other political parties, with the occasional exception of the National Party, getting barely a look-in. Yet an election – still scheduled for September – is looming, so all of them will be trying to work out the best time to resume the usual political contest.

An inevitable consequence of the lockdown has been that almost every politician outside the top circle has been rendered largely irrelevant for the time being.

National has been able to reclaim some relevance through its Leader’s positive chairing of the Epidemic Response Select Committee, but it is still very much on the government’s terms. He has properly judged that this is not yet the time for a resumption of full-on political engagement, so has focused instead on areas where the government’s lockdown approach looks particularly vulnerable – like for instance the apparently slack approach to protecting the border. At some point, though, he is going to have to the make the call to go further and resume the normal Opposition function if his party is going to appear as anything more than a pale imitation of the government at election time, whenever that might be.

But National’s challenges here are small compared to those facing the other parties – New Zealand First and the Greens in particular.

The way the government has approached the pandemic crisis has effectively side-lined them and left them largely irrelevant.

Not only have their particular issues been pushed off the agenda, but also, and more importantly, the government has so far demonstrated, albeit perhaps inadvertently, that it does not need their inputs to manage effectively.

This was painfully and absurdly demonstrated by the New Zealand First Minister of Defence’s revelation that he has set up a virtual command post at his home, that no-one seems either to have noticed or taken any account of, leaving him to sit in splendid isolation. The Greens just seem to have disappeared altogether.

Before the Covid-19 crisis emerged both these parties were beginning to define themselves more separately from the Labour-led government they are part of to sharpen their brand definition and secure the support of their particular niches in the lead-up to the election.

According to the last polls before the lockdown, neither could have been absolutely confident of their current electoral prospects. New Zealand First was consistently polling below the threshold for re-election and the Greens were hovering at or just above the threshold.

Historically, New Zealand First has always done better at election time than preceding polls suggest, although until now always from the position of being outside the government at election time, and the Greens, also from outside government, a little worse.

For both, therefore, the election lead-up has normally been critical to their eventual prospects, especially both will have suffered some of the inevitable taint of having been part of the government since 2017.

Yet this year circumstances seem likely to deprive them of their usual election year opportunity. But there is nothing they can do or could have done to prevent that, nor would the public have appreciated any overt politicking at this time by either of them to try to re-establish their position.

To make matters worse for both, there is the potential that the Labour Party, through its handling to date of the crisis could be a major beneficiary in terms of public support.

While there are still many hurdles for it to cross and much opportunity for missteps that could cost public support, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that if New Zealand by election time is looking to have come through Covid-19 reasonably well, Labour could reap a significant electoral dividend. However, that would most likely come from currently soft New Zealand First and Green support. Every poll since the last election has shown National’s support to have remained pretty solid, so the likelihood of a significant crossover vote to Labour even in these circumstances is small.

But here is the problem. Current electoral mathematics mean that the Labour Party needs to have both New Zealand First and the Greens pass the 5% threshold to be confident of remaining in government after the election. Failure of one or both of these parties to cross that threshold will greatly increase the prospects of a National-led government emerging.

Polls since the end of last year had already been showing National ahead, and able to form a government with the support of ACT, putting more pressure on New Zealand First and the Greens. A surge in Labour support now at the expense of New Zealand First and the Greens could have the unwelcome effect of seeing both of them out of Parliament altogether and Labour paradoxically out of office.

Before the Covid-19 outbreak Labour was showing small signs of understanding the need to give both New Zealand First and the Greens the space and freedom to differentiate on key policy areas to secure their electoral brands. Hence the Prime Minister’s remarkable tolerance of Shane Jones’ persistent and wilful breaches of the Cabinet Manual’s provisions on Ministerial conduct, and the various concessions to the Greens.

However, once Covid-19 burst upon us, the government’s response quickly reverted to the old two-party approach. There was a belated, grudging acceptance of the role of the Opposition in a Parliamentary democracy (albeit one on hold for the duration) through the establishment of the Epidemic Response Select Committee chaired by the Leader of the Opposition, but there has been no obvious attempt to involve the government’s support partners in the process. They, along with many Ministers and all of the government’s backbench MPs, as well as most of the Opposition, have been left to twiddle their thumbs, irrelevant on the side-lines.

The perverse upshot may be that while the Prime Minister and her Labour colleagues win the battle against Covid-19 they could end up losing the war to secure a second term in office.  


*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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36 Comments

If it get bad economically and things go all awry in society we can start exploring Marxism again. I have been listening to quite a few talks by American marxists and socialists lately. People like Richard Wolff and Chris Hedges. Thought I would give the opposition a chance. They make some good arguments at times.

DemocratsLabour, the soft face of fascism!
An empty idealogy used to satiate greed.
The kleptocrats are looting and pillaging like barbarian hordes!
Hyper-individualism has destroyed community.
Corporations are not democratic, they are by nature fascistic .

Could be fun. We should all get more political now we have more time on our hands.

It's not too late for Labour to lower the 5% threshold, if they are worried. I think this election will be decided in the next month on whether the lock down works or not. If they do get lucky and eradicate the virus they will have delivered when it really counted and all the other execution failures will be forgotten. They wont need either support party here.

But spare a thought for new parties trying to get to 5% for the first time, this must look hopeless right now. Our main parities are the least competent they have been for decades and under normal circumstances we might try something new but good luck getting to the threshold with a shortened campaign and against the early stages of government stimulus.

Have a threshold but reduce it to 3%. Just enough to keep total flat earthers out but permit ACT to exist under its own steam and a blue-green party to compete with our red-green party and maybe hello to TOP.

(Since we're on this topic,) I don't think we should have any threshold but small parties (<4-5%) in government should be very limited in their ability to bring down the government in a no confidence vote.
The current parties are getting less representative of the electorate every election and even a smaller threshold is an effective gate keeper against any competition, the chances of a 1 percent vote party holding the balance is still low.
If a small center party ends up holding up partisan policy that the opposition wont support either then there is a good chance the majority of the public don't want it. Any lasting problems can be sorted out next election.
My idea to restrict small parties to force them to form a group of parities with greater total vote than the threshold and give them a grouped vote on confidence. For example, 2 or 3 small centre parities (total vote >5%) would form a group where they would have to get unanimous no confidence agreement inside the group before bringing down the government or a small party has their confidence vote removed by merging with a large party.

Winston the chameleon Peters along with side kick Shane have both been quite visible with numerous radio interviews and tv items. Winston is winning by moderating the excesses of Jacinda. The greens have been totally invisible from my perspective. Perhaps quietly cheering the changes and staying in their little bubbles... no cars, no air pollution and no airplanes.

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There is no room for any other party to share the stage and responsibility of this pandemic. You only need one commentator and those on either side of the main political parties and you must admit, regardless of your political persuasion, Cindy is doing a great job. Where is Simon, probably meeting his family at Lake Taupo for the long weekend and do some Trout Fishing with some of his Chinese business associates.

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I say all political parties have become largely irrelevant. So Labour as a consequence by a landslide victory.

To put National in as the next Government would be a huge mistake. Bridges is not at Ardern level. No where near her smarts. We need a leader.

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Bridges is significantly more intelligent than Ardern, his achievements speak for themselves in contrast to her totally empty CV. He's a significantly worse communicator too. I'd rather have the former.

Yeah, what this country needs at a time like this are more lawyers like Simon. Besides, could Ardern have kissed CCP ass as well as Simon did recently? Definitely not.

I find this contention from Labourites that National is uniquely in bed with China and the CCP bizarre. Labour is just as bad. And don't forget it was Labour who entangled us into the Chinese economy.

- Chinese donations.
- Attempting to hide Chinese donations.
- Current MP with links to CCP.
- Refusing to address the above.
- Simon's recent trip to China while fervently singing CCP praises (it was sickening).

There's really no need to say more about where National stand on the matter of China, I just don't believe they represent the interests of most New Zealanders. As for trying to label me as a 'labourite' for expressing my concerns about National, that just shows your own partisian view (i.e. if you're opposed to National you 'MUST support Labour'!!!). I've voted blue in the past (shame on me I guess) but I'm not going anywhere near this lot given their insistence on bubble-blowing over the last 9 years, and more recent fawning over Chinese money. They've sold out.

Agreed, especially Simon's trip to China, that was the lightning bulb moment for me. National does not value our sovereignty.

Political ability and leadership is its own ball game. Normal "CV" smoke and mirrors don't provide the necessary skills.
It's not his communication skills only he lacks, he's someone not particularly interest in fashioning Government policy. Policy is an afterthought for him. Power is the motivation.

I would say Ardern's history in parliament prior to becoming Prime Minister could be summed up as 'Smoke and Mirrors'. No significant policy contributions, just talk, talk talk.

The motivation for all politicians is power and they're all sort of narcissistic for thinking they know what's right for the rest of us.

"Bridges is significantly more intelligent than Ardern" based on what?.... his emotional intelligence?! I think Ardern would win the greatest victory since the Winchester flower-arranging team beat Harrow by twelve sore bottoms to one if it came down to this.

It maybe that National would benefit by not winning. The economic chickens will come home to roost in the next term and there'll be such financial and economic turmoil that National won't be tainted with the economic mess.
As an aside I wonder what is happening to immigration visas of the permanent residence and working type. Galloway and the mass media very quite although at one of JAs presentations he was lurking in the background. No doubt accumulating all the applications for a release later so that the housing market can be revitalised. National of course would be no better and Winston first will be saying he'll reduce it but actually do very little.

One credible theory as to why Clark kept his job is that next in line was associate health minister Julie Ann Genter. Whether that was because it would have enhanced the Greens’ profile at Labour’s expense, or because her credentials are dodgy, is up for debate. National has a diehard 40% plus base and will always be a contender, especially when Bridges’ successor proffers an olive branch to Winston.

National needs to helicopter in a new leader. But before the coming election?

I've wondered why they haven't done it sooner but maybe they're planning on doing it 'Labour styles' 2 months before the election so they can whip up some new support?

High risk manoeuvre but high rewards as well.

Because they're polling at 45% and mostly above Labour. You don't replace your leader in that position.

Interesting as always, PD. Just as the WuFlu is causing a re-think about the relative worth of all sorts of objects (Zuru balloons versus Zuru-couriered PPE), and activities (long-haul, high-volume, high-impact, low per-head-value tourism), the relative worth of parties and pollies is, similarly, up for evaluation.

The Greens have an Interesting conundrum. In one fell swoop, there's no air traffic aside from freight and repatriations (Lufthansa 747's are doing thank-you fly-bys here in Christchurch), much reduced road traffic except for those Essential Diesel B-trains, much reduced consumer discretionary spend on non-essentials, and in general a tilt to some of their dearly held propositions as to How We Should (Must?) Live.

But can they publicly Celebrate much or any of this? Or go further and urge Much More of the same? Or say out loud that this condition should henceforth be Permanent, not Temporary?

That's what the Election process, from the electioneering to the Vote itself, might tell us all......

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A problem for the Greens may well be that their great Satan, ie farming, is our only way out of this economic quagmire. This country does one thing really well: it grows great grass, and I mean the stuff that cows eat.

I struggle with this anti-farming sentiment directed towards the Greens. If you hadn't noticed the drought affecting ⅔ of NZ is still biting economically. Farming as it is under this government and the next will need to adapt and quickly. As a landowner I recognise that the sweeping plains of farmland with few trees in sight has contributed to the desertification of farmland - which as it happens does not "grow great grass". Intensification by irrigation and tonnes of Urea won't help in the long run and our backbone of NZ will cease to produce food both sustainably and economically in years to come unless new measures are put in place. Simon Upton (former National MP) has often provided evidence to the previous and current government that we are close to a tipping point in terms of our economic environmental impact. If he were wearing a green tie - he'd be dismissed as a wacky greenie.

Regardless of who is in power, there needs to be a "Green" tinge before we bugger up our natural resources further.

https://www.nzherald.co.nz/hawkes-bay-today/news/article.cfm?c_id=150346...

Yep I think NZF was already toast regardless of the pandemic, but now I think the Greens are also done and dusted. It's a two horse race and Labour will win it rather comfortably. Act will gain one or two seats but it won't be enough.

Will they RollingOn? I have always been amazed that at the end of World War 2 the United Kingdom dumped Winston Churchill after he had lead them magnificently through a very difficult number of years. Why was that? Because life was very difficult for many voters and their families. Not a lot of food. Unemployment or poor employment for many who had left the forces. In a few months we will have got on top of this terrible scourge or so I hope.
22000 more on benefits last week. Businesses failing. There will be more unemployment to come. People might just think about who put them in their predicament. They will not be thinking about the virus but about how hard their daily lives are. How do I feed my children properly. When will be able to get work again. How do I pay the bank loan or rent due. People do amazing things when they are under stress. They might just lash out at those who made the decisions that turned their lives upside down and for the worse. Time will tell.

The Churchill comment is an interesting one. Churchill allowed for more socialist policies to be put in place than most people, even Clement Attlee himself expected. But what Churchill didn't understand was the depth of the demand for those policies by the majority. Churchill was loved because he was the right man for the war, the wrong man for the rebuilding of society. If there is a parallel between Churchill and Ardern, the question is do we want the rebuilding of society, the rebuilding of the economy, or both simultaneously? And then, who is best at the preferred choice? The problem is, Labour and National are as bad as each other, for different reasons. But here's a clue - if migration patterns are upturned and NZ has unemployment in the double digits, how many voters will support a.) migrants 'taking NZ jobs' and b.) the next COVID-19 (COVID-20?) coming in on a wave on untrammelled international visitors, migrants or not?

It is good to see old fashioned xenophobia (hatred of all foreigners) returning. I have it too. Not a hint of racism - those disease carrying foreigners could be Kiwis returning from working overseas whereas the elderly Indian couple running my favourite takeaway they are one of us; lift this lockdown and I'll be first in the queue when they reopen. At the next election we may have that discussion of immigration policy that in the past has always been either ducked or descended into ugly racism.

NZ voters may be grumpy and wanting bigger handouts but could National ever persuade them that they will open the public purse wider than Labour?

Ardern and Roberston are becoming the Key and English combo. Little has done a good job as minister for his portfolios but it really is a sad state of affairs for almost very other minister bar maybe Faafoi. I think thats what concerns me if Labour have an outright majority. Their lack of depth outside those 4 is truly shocking with Twyford, Davis and Clark as lead examples...

Faafoi is not competent. You must have a short memory.

i class faafoi as naive not incompetent, he learnt a very powerful lesson in that when in power be aware of who your real friends are that you can trust as they are very few, its sad but he learnt to treat all people that ask something of him as a stranger.
its the nature of our politics for the last twenty years where all sides spend so much time looking for dirt to dish even from within there own parties,

Marama Davidson has remained on-message and part of the ERC. Make me wonder if she gets how the world works. Don't get me wrong, issues like access of the disabled to medical treatment are really important especially when they could be overlooked, but Davidson still looks very Green, in more than one sense of the word.

Covid 19 has been the most successful party in achieving the main goals - with one economic exception that the country demanded
1. Build 10000 homes = not needed no tourists no immigration -- 27000 air B and Bs free!
2. Slash immigration --= not only stopped dead for eth foreseeable future -- but watch temporary visa holders be sent packing so kiwis can have those jobs
3. End congestion = way less travel and commuting - roads are perfectly capable - working remotely established
4. increase infrastructure =- massive school and hospital building program on its way to kick start economy
5. Climate change - we have proved we can virtually stop most gereenhouse gasses in two weeks- rivers have cleaned themselves all over the world-- we have the means and ability -- just need the will now

personally - i would like to vote Covid 19 its actually worked !

Greens have been largely irrelevant any way in government after lockdown other parties will have a chance to put ideas forward no doubt . The next budget will be a challenge to find the money to balance the books . Watch other countries there will be no holds barred in finding new taxes multinationals look out you will be in the crosshairs along with the banks eg aussie bank levy a couple of years ago

I would have thought that; clearly the winner will be those minor parties that support Mental Health being for all NZer is this such difficult times: Aotearoa legalise cannabis, Green, Maori - and all others which gave support for more relaxation into relieving the addictions pressures in society: eg. addiction to alcohol, tobacco, gambling, marijuana, vaping (now that, relieve for the Corona vapour droplets).. Real Estate/profit/ponzi wealth creations, ouh sorry.. the last one is supported by both major parties, exclude that.

This is classic NZ political commentary - always thinking of what will get the goverment another 3 years. Unsurprisingly Dunne has completely missed what has defined Aderns' leadership. She has prioritised the right thing ahead of the populist thing. Anyone who thinks that beating covid is 'the battle' and getting re-elected is 'the war' has lost perspective.