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.