By Alex Tarrant
Winston Peters is today set to meet with National and Labour to kick off negotiations over government formation. A morning session with Bill English will be followed this afternoon by a meeting with Jacinda Ardern.
Until now, it’s been all speculation and no specifics as Peters keeps mum on favoured policies, potential Cabinet positions and whether he’ll turn left, right, or sit in the middle. He has claimed proper talks can’t begin until 7 October, when special votes – 15% of the total – are added to the election night tally.
Peters has indicated a decision might be made by 12 October – the ‘return of writ’, or the official result. While he’s received a bunch of flak for waiting this length of time – some claim that he’s holding the country to ransom – I’m yet to bump into an MP of any hue who holds this opinion. Waiting for the specials to come in, followed by intense negotiations, seems to be par for the course. And technically they have six weeks from 12 October to work with, if you were thinking next week is too much.
Talk has been that the Left bloc of Labour and the Greens could gain two, or at a stretch, three seats from the specials if they follow historical pattern and lean that way. A three-seat swing, if it came at the expense of National, would even up the two sides at 55 seats each, giving momentum to the Left. Alternatively, if the Labour+Greens+NZ First result stays at 61 seats, Peters might opt to favour National or the cross-benches due to perceived instability of only having the bare majority required.
Thursday’s meetings are most likely to be broad, high-level affairs giving the parties involved a chance to meet the others’ negotiating teams and lay down some ground rules. The real talks will begin from Saturday afternoon.
What could these talks involve and what could the resulting agreements look like? Peters has been involved in these sort of negotiations twice before – the famous 1996 episode where he played National and Labour off against each other, and the relatively timid 2005 talks with Labour.
(As an aside: both times Peters went with the incumbent, and both times the incumbent happened to have the leader considered the more competent of the two PM contenders at the time - Bolger over Clark, and then Clark over Brash. Could this play against Ardern, who during the campaign was at sea over tax policy compared to English’s relatively stable showing? Does it mean Labour needs to go further than National in terms of position and offer Peters a role where he is seen as a mentor to Ardern?)
1996 vs 2005
The agreements of 1996 and 2005 were vastly different. The former was New Zealand’s first MMP election and Peters had received over 13% of the vote. The 70-page document (the one I have isn’t double-sided), contained a full policy prescription for the next three years, in alphabetical order from ACC to Women’s Issues.
Each policy area – there were 36 of them – included a statement of general direction, key policy initiatives, the fiscal implications of each policy and legislative implications. It even included a fiscal parameters table setting out spending rules. Policy prescriptions were generally 1-2 pages each. It was a manifesto.
The agreement included a clause that neither National nor New Zealand First would be allowed in any way to support any policy put forward by a non-coalition party or private member, and that if such a bill were put forward, would not vote in favour or even abstain from voting unless the other coalition partner had allowed it.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see such a clause in any agreement between New Zealand First and National. The Greens might for now be unwilling to entertain a ‘teal deal’, but I’m sure Peters won’t want them raining on his parade in a year or two if they change their minds and decide they could support National on some policies.
Forward to 2005 and the political situation was vastly different. Peters had only won 5.7%. Labour required the Progressives and United Future as well as New Zealand First to hit the 61 seats required. Each of the three’s leaders received Ministerial positions, with Peters and UnitedFuture’s Peter Dunne outside Cabinet. The Greens also agreed to support confidence and supply issues.
The 2005 agreement recognised that the government would be working with a range of parties both in terms of coalitions and confidence and supply agreements. A clause that the government agreed to not enter any other relationship agreement that was inconsistent with the NZ First agreement, was much less stringent than the 1996 clause.
The resulting document presented by Labour and New Zealand First was also vastly different to that in 1996: a six-page confidence and supply agreement. The preamble sought to set the scene for why such an agreement had been signed:
It noted a comment by Peters before the election that New Zealand First would not enter formal coalition with either a Labour-led or National-led government. Peters had also said he wouldn’t oppose confidence and supply for whichever party the voters elected to form a government (ie that he might consider abstaining). It continues that, when it looked like there was potential for a 57-each split, NZ First had said it would give a positive supply and confidence vote to the party with the most seats in the interest of “achieving stable government.”
That support was given with some provisos. We all know he became Foreign Minister – which Peters says was the final part of the negotiations; everything else had already been agreed on. There were seven entries under an agreed policy programme between NZ First and Labour (as opposed to 36 in 1996), each with a handful of bullet points. These were: Senior Citizens, Immigration, Justice, Treaty, Economic, Health, Legislative proposals.
Some of the entries for each area were specific: “ensure the rate of New Zealand Superannuation is set at 66% of the average ordinary time weekly earnings as from 1 April 2006”; and “Budget for police numbers to be increased to provide another 1,000 police staff over the three Budgets…”.
But, the majority were broad agreements to support investigating certain policy areas, or allowing a certain ambiguous NZ First bill to Select Committee (ie. “relating to treaty principles”, but no more specific than that). Other examples include, “agree that better recognition can be given to veterans of active overseas service and investigate the best way of achieving that”, and, “nominate 2007 as an Export year”.
That wasn’t all though. Attached as an appendix to the 2005 agreement was a list of “issues which are important to New Zealand First and which the government has agreed to address during this term of Parliament". There were ten bullet points:
• ensuring the South Pacific remains a top priority for New Zealand overseas aid
• keeping defence salaries under review
• funding the Maori Wardens an a similar basis to the Maori Women’s Welfare League
• further exploration of a “university of technology” ‘non university’ class of institution
• a review of the judges superannuation scheme
• the designation of the Tauranga bridge as a fully funded state highway
• appointing a representative of New Zealand First to the Shipping Dialogue Group and requesting a full report from that group by mid 2006 on options for moving forward
• review the way in which physiotherapists are accredited and funded by ACC
• non statutory proposals to negotiate improved public access along rivers lakes and foreshore will be progressed
• the continuing problem of access for New Zealand apples to the Australian market
Again, the majority are broad areas of work – something parties to a negotiation might come up with if they hadn’t had much time to settle on specific policy details. So, could 2005 be the blueprint this time around as opposed to 1996, given the time constraints?
And if so, which policy areas might New Zealand First deem important enough to ask for specific policies or work streams on? While some have chosen to focus on the many times Peters and his team uttered the words ‘bottom line’ or ‘non-negotiable’ before the election, it’s widely thought that this was more empty political positioning than negotiating terms.
For all the frustration that Peters isn’t showing his hand, the New Zealand First PR machine has been ticking over since the 23rd. Press releases have been made regarding certain issues, and Peters and Shane Jones have also made public comments to the media.
Last week, Peters in a press release warned about impending economic doom if we didn’t move to improve New Zealand's resilience to foreign hot money flows funding New Zealand banks. Could this be signalling that talks over a deposit insurance scheme would be welcomed?
Later that day he said he’d encourage the Super Fund to invest in NZ infrastructure projects. So at least talk to him about moving Auckland Port and some new railways, and don’t say it’ll be too expensive. (Also, suggest not taxing the Super Fund.)
This week, Peters sent out a press release about the NZ Defence Force having to foot the bill for shifting petrol from Whangarei to Auckland, when – he claimed – it should have been the oil companies being charged. Two potential readings here: Friendly to the Defence Force, but also related to NZ First’s policy platform to curb the powers of large corporates.
Then the media comments. Shane Jones might very well be aiming for the old Minister of Fisheries role to be revived. He turned up to Parliament the other day with two crayfish, then spoke to Fairfax about Maori fishery deals. And Radio NZ rang Peters to get audio on his press release that he would respond to calls from English and Ardern. Their Northland reporter came away with a nice nugget on forestry.
Smoke signals, or red herrings? At this point we don’t know. My understanding is that National and Labour have taken note, although the salt shakers are nearby. Perhaps we’ll know a bit more by Thursday evening.