By Jason Walls
“I give ‘em a year and a half.”
“That’s generous, I give this Government six months!”
The night Winston Peters sided with Labour to form the Government, this was one of many conversations I overheard Opposition MPs having.
There was a lot of resentment within National. That much was clear in the first few months of the Coalition Government’s time in office.
“If you look at the way this Government has come up in, this very unusual circumstance, people will generally say, and of course there is truth in this – Winston chose the Government,” National Leader Simon Bridges told me earlier this year.
Even now, many National MPs feel they were robbed of a fourth term by Peters.
But in its frustration, National found opportunity.
The tactic was simple: divide and conquer.
Bridges painted a picture of instability, of uneasy bedfellows. He actively led a campaign to drive a wedge between the parties.
And why wouldn’t he? In terms of political point scoring, this is an easy area to exploit.
Just two months before the election, the New Zealand First leader and then Greens Co-Leader Metiria Turei were in the midst of a very public feud.
She called him a racist and he hit back: “My warning to the Greens is don’t call NZ First racist – an allegation that is spurious – and think there won’t be consequences.”
Fast forward a few months and the two parties were sitting on the same side of the House, as members of a united Government – albeit with the Greens as supply and confidence partners.
Easy pickings for National to exploit, Bridges – and former Leader Bill English – must have thought.
All they needed to do was sit back and wait; after all, how long could it take for Peters to take a public swing at either the Greens or Labour?
But so far, Peters has been playing nice in front of the cameras and in the House. Any significant cracks that National would have been hoping to see have been practically non-existent.
The only real public instance of tension was when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Shane Jones he had gone “a step too far” in calling for the resignation of Air New Zealand’s chairman.
A slap on the wrist with a wet bus ticket at most.
A solid bloc
The first poll of the year in February was not exactly good news for NZ First and the Greens, getting 5% and 3%, respectively.
Despite a rough couple of months for Labour – harassment at a young labour retreat and Clare Curran’s RNZ saga – the Coalition is holding together well.
Sure, there is undoubtedly some tension behind the scenes, but the face the Government is presenting to New Zealand is one of unity.
NZ First voters are happy – the Government is pouring billions of dollars into regional New Zealand. Green voters are happy – a ban on all future oil exploration is a huge win for the party.
Labour’s base is happy as it gradually ticks off more and more items on its pre-election to-do list.
The most recent One News Colmar Brunton poll has the Greens and NZ First up to 6% and 5%, respectively.
Labour was down 5% compared with February, but that poll was taken in the midst of Labour’s honeymoon period and a slide was widely expected.
The take away from Monday’s poll was the Government bloc is holding up strongly.
Half a year, it seems, was far too pessimistic. But in just a few weeks Ardern's due to go on maternity leave, leaving Peters at the helm of the Coalition Government.
If anything can test the three-way alliance, it will be that.
No doubt National will be watching very closely – its divide and conquer plan still may have legs yet.