Peter Dunne says Jacinda Ardern's apparent unwillingness to ruffle coalition feathers is starting to work against her, suggests she takes a leaf out of Helen Clark's playbook

Winston Peters, Jacinda Ardern & James Shaw, by Jacky Carpenter.

By Peter Dunne*

Much of the commentary about the recent ructions within the coalition government has settled on MMP as either the explanation or the blame for what has been going on. In reality, it is neither. MMP is but an electoral system. The blame or explanation lies with the politicians themselves.

Every government formed following the eight elections since we opted for MMP in 1996 has been a combination of at least two, and often three or even four, different parties, in either formal coalition or on a confidence and supply basis. The current government is no more or less a true MMP government than any of those which have preceded it. To suggest otherwise is nothing but a clever deflection of the real problems at hand.

And it matters not whether the government is a coalition, or one based on confidence and supply. What matters most, and ultimately determines its success or failure, is the dynamic of how it works. The claims of dysfunction against this government arise not from the method of its election, nor even its composition, but from its performance.

At the core of that is a perception that the Labour Party and its leader have become hostage to the demands of New Zealand First and its leader and that the Greens are being marginalised. While Labour and the Greens are natural partners, it is the support of New Zealand First that the government relies on to survive. Labour and New Zealand First both argue that there is nothing untoward here, and that all people are seeing is the normal dynamic of a coalition government getting on with its job. It is about give and take, they say.

There is some validity to that viewpoint. But the problem is that there seems to be more give than take as far as Labour is concerned, causing the claim that it is New Zealand First - with just 7% of the votes (less than a fifth of Labour’s share at election time) - calling all the shots, a perception not helped at the outset when it was New Zealand First, not Labour, that announced the shape and form of the new government. Labour seems to be doing a fair amount of giving, for precious little take in return.

When this government was formed, voters expected that the coalition agreement would be the basis of its approach, with other matters decided on a case by case, as had been the practice under earlier National and Labour-led governments. Yet what appears to be happening now is that all the parties are having real difficulty making the compromises necessary on those matters not covered by the coalition agreement. The perception that is creating is one of indecision and internal division, which in turn is leaving the government looking at sixes and sevens, and any progress being made on implementing the coalition agreement being either overlooked or ignored by the media. So the government's story becomes one of internal discord, rather than positive progress.

This is where leadership assumes real importance. Ensuring coalition relationships remain congenial is obviously vitally important, and critical to the government’s survival, but it cannot become just an end itself. The government still has to be seen to be doing things. In that regard, the Prime Minister‘s recent commitment to publish frequent updates of progress is welcome, even if a little late. It may limit some of the cynicism, but of itself is unlikely to be enough. The Prime Minister has to be seen to have dealt to the factors given rise to the negative public perceptions.

Asserting her leadership, and more importantly, being seen to be doing so is a critical part of that. To that end, a public rebuke, albeit well orchestrated, of her coalition partner on a particular issue might also be in order. Her decisiveness to date seems to have been limited to dealing with her own party. She needs to demonstrate unequivocally that she is the head of government, not just head of the largest party in the government. Her apparent unwillingness to ruffle coalition feathers is starting to work against her, especially since New Zealand First seems to have no such compunction about ruffling Labour's feathers.

Her stoicism to date is admirable, but cannot continue. She needs to be seen to be in charge, rather than just turning the other cheek. Her predecessor Helen Clark’s great strength was that people always knew where she stood on an issue. That clarity of purpose enabled her to manage three very different governing arrangements over her three terms in power. As the Prime Minister wrestles to restore her government’s fortunes after an appalling few weeks, she could reflect upon and pick up one or two hints from the Clark playbook.


*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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22 Comments

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So, 8 people are in hospital in Christchurch at the moment due to synthetics and Peter Dunne is writing articles for interest.co.nz.

Blame the politicians alright, Peter Dunne in particular! Stop writing articles and get on a plane to Christchurch Peter. If any of these young people die I hope you attend their funerals so you can see the consequences of your actions firsthand.

Shame on you too interest.co.nz

EDIT: We're now up to 10 and counting ..

What is the correlation between druggies dying and politicians writing articles?

"The blame or explanation lies with the politicians themselves."
~Peter Dunne~

It's the hypocrisy of Dunne giving advice on coalition politics when he he was a hand puppet for National for so long and was ineffectual in everything he needed to do (e.g. ushering in a process for legalizing drugs).

Exactly my point.

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Yeah I suppose Peter Dunne sold it to those 8 people so its is all his fault. How about a better idea, just legalize the real stuff so you can grow a plant in your backyard for free and BAN all the synthetic stuff from coming into the country by making it a class A drug.

Jacinda is running about focused on making all the right noises, but soon she is going to wake up to realise you cannot please everyone

When Peter Dunne was in Parliament, he could have suggested legalizing marijuana. He didn't. That's kind of the point.

Or add the death penalty to use of any and all narcotics outside of hospitals. Then you can shift the deaths from being unfortunate incidents to in the interest of justice!

I disagree with Peter.
While he may be right that Jacinda could learn from Helen Clark in showing who is boss, that doesn't mean the current confusion has nothing to do with MMP. I would say it has everything to do with MMP.
The problem comes from the fact that the voters do not get to decide on the govt, only the parliament. Ending up with a coalition inevitably results in confusion as to who is in charge. And most importantly, there doesn't seem to be any correlation between the size of your vote to how much power you get. That is not democratic.

And before people start saying "oh well FPP was bad", yes I agree, so can we think of another way? FPP was just an electing method, whereas this was replaced with MMP that was not just a different electing method, it was a whole new method of governing (where the voters have no idea what they are voting for).
I would rather just look at the pros and cons of the different methods of electing govts, but go back to having the winner of the election actually being the govt.
My preference is for single transferable vote, unless there are better methods.

"Ending up with a coalition inevitably results in confusion as to who is in charge. "

Not at all. In all of the coalitions that Peter Dunne was in, it was quite clear who was in charge (not him) and that he was happy being a lapdog.

Look up United Future on Wikipedia and observe that in all of his time in government he achieved exactly 0 policies of significance. Compare that to Jim Anderton with Kiwibank.

STV. What? And run the risk of ending up with a situation like Australia's. Hahahahahahahaha

Hahahahahahaha

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The synthetic debacle is blood on Dunne's hands. Too timid to legalise the far less harmful natural plant, and opening the door for a whole lot of terrible analogue products.

A genuine harm-based drug classification system, together will decriminalisation of possession for anything below Class A, would have been preferable.

I think he would have liked to go down a path similar to Portugal's. Sadly he was tied up with the Nats.

The system is exactly the problem and Peter knows this most of all.

In 2014 the Conservative Party got nearly 4% of the vote - no seat! Yet Peter Dunne it again and got a seat with only 0.22% of the nations vote. The Conservative party were 18 times more popular across the country than Dunne.

All the parties in the Bee Hive are pathetic continuing low skilled immigration and handing out lolly scrambles. The thinking is always short term because the election is always near. No competition is allowed in due to the 5% threshold. Unless you're in a Gerry Mandered electorate like Dunne, Act or you're gifted a seat because you have a few drops of a certain ethnicity.

Why blame the politicians.
This is a case of ''user pays'''.
You can have all the laws you want,nothing will change.

I have generally found Peter Dunne to be a fairly level headed dude, I wish he'd tried to keep his idea for income splitting for taxation purposes alive. But when it comes to him commenting on this govt, it is a grain of salt with it for me. He hates Peters, and I imagine will not shed too many tears himself should it all end in tears for the coalition.

I think that the NZ voters got pretty sick of Helen Clark. I know that I did. Jacinda is as different from Helen Clark as it is possible to be and she would be better to just be her self. Trying to behave like somebody else is the fastest way to come unstuck. (maybe that is what Dunne wants) She is not weak when she needs to be. Who wants yet another swollen headed egotist. As for Helen Clark, I am heartily sick of her current egocentric self promotion campaign and willingness to try and steal the limelight away from the present government. She doesn't seem to understand that she has had her time as leader and should quietly and diplomatically occupy her public space. She is demonstrating the sort of behaviour that would have made her totally unsuitable as Secretary General for the UN.
Jacinda's biggest problem is NZ First. Their behaviour and share of the budget is totally out of proportion to the votes that they received. NZ First have well and truly overplayed their hand. This and their intemperate swagger must surely be affecting their voter support. I would not be surprised if they are toast at the next election - permanently.

It must be time for a poll to see where party support is sitting right now.

I think Mark Richardson nailed it with the description of Winston as political pus, but I wouldn’t count him out. He seems to be presenting himself as the moderator of both major parties and given the right circumstances I would vote for him specifically to thwart the Left.

I wonder how many people who voted National would vote NZ First for the reasons similar to you, compared to those who would repeat their vote for them. I voted for them for reasons similar to you, At his stage, for my reasons above and my belief that Labour will be hardened up enough to stand alone I shall probably vote for them next time. As for Winston, if he has any sense he will not stand again, he is getting too old and almost loosing the plot. Should quit while he is ahead and as I said I doubt that they will ever get back in. (unless a whole bunch of ex National voters switch to NZ First.)

It was fascinating watching a flash back to Shipley dealing with Winston in the ‘90s. I think Labour is the proverbial frog in the pot here with Winstone slowly turning up the heat. They should study Winstone’s past behaviour, work out their options and likely scenarios then act.

Personally, I think his weakness is his desire for respect. I would call his bluff and tell him it’s my way or the highway. Deny him the likelihood of a knighthood and a chance to strengthen his power base. It’s a big call but it’s been done before. So far Taxinda has shown nothing but weakness. I don’t think she’s had one win. She owes her position to Winstone and he knows it. Turn the tables and threaten him with irrelevance.

It didn't do Shipley any good did it? As for irrelevance or a totally negative legacy - as you say he has all the power, so it is all in his hands, and so far, once again, he is cocking it up.