Don’t listen to those who dismiss the current muscle-flexing by Winston Peters as nothing more than the standard fare of MMP politics.
It is anything but.
Were there a handbook covering the mechanics of forming and running a coalition government, the New Zealand First leader would currently be writing a new chapter—one which would be without a happy ending for Jacinda Ardern, her coalition managers and the rest of the Labour Party.
The latter should be worried — very worried.
It is the ongoing conundrum of multi-party governments that minor parties which behave themselves and keep their heads down have almost without exception have had their heads lopped off come election-time.
Peters seems to be experimenting with the notion that minor parties which are far less polite get noticed by voters rather than being suffocated.
If that is not enough to give Labour grief, Peters appears to be engaged in trying to pull off what would amount to a massive shift in power within the coalition.
Forget cracks about cracks appearing in the coalition’s facade.
Peters, for one, will not be going anywhere.
The perception of him as some kind of human coalition wrecking ball does not quite fit the facts.
While Peters and some of his then MPs stormed out of their formal coalition with National back in 1998, that occurred as the result of severe provocation on the part of Jenny Shipley, the then National prime minister.
Peters now has the dream job of foreign minister. Yet, he also remains an absolutely pivotal figure in domestic politics.
With regard to the latter, it is obvious there been a major shift in New Zealand First strategy.
What began as an isolated case of New Zealand First thwarting Labour’s desire to eradicate a hardline law and order statute — namely the three-strikes law — has become what looks suspiciously like a carefully orchestrated campaign which has the junior partner in the coalition making ever more frequent raids deep into territory where Labour would insist it has the right to call the shots.
Labour can tolerate having to keep living with the three-strikes law. It can tolerate not being able to raise the annual refugee quota.
After all, prior to a National government-instigated rise in the quota which took effect this year, the quota had been held at 750 for the previous 30 years, believe it or not.
What Labour cannot accept is its coalition partner blocking its long-promised legislation rolling back some of National’s so-called “reforms” in the industrial relations arena.
If Labour is not seething over that, it should be. The dominant partner has to bite its tongue, however.
To react too strongly to New Zealand First’s intention to put up amendments to the Employment Relations Amendment Bill would be to pour petrol on a bonfire called “Coalition Tensions”.
Few things excite the media than the words “splits” and “divisions”.
Peters hardly needs to be told that.
Labour has been outsmarted and outmanoeuvred by him, however.
He has decreed that anything which is not included in the two parties’ coalition agreement, the Speech from the Throne, which sets out a government’s legislative programme, the Budget or Labour’s 100-day Action Plan is not Government policy.
It is —to use Peters’ term — a “work in progress’’.
New Zealand First is using these criteria, either as a means of blocking or amending Labour initiatives or as a bargaining chip at the Cabinet table.
The moot question is how long Labour can afford to put up with a partner causing such high levels of aggravation.
It is bizarre and not a little ridiculous that those who are giving Ardern the most grief are part of the governing arrangement.
Labour will regard Peters' injection of friction into his party’s relations with the former as him testing the limits of Labour’s patience.
National’s leader is having a field day labelling the Prime Minister as weak and indecisive in failing to rein in New Zealand First.- John Armstrong
While it will not please them, Labour’s coalition managers will also likely view New Zealand First’s sudden discovery of reasons to block Labour-initiated policies and legislation as a case of Peters engaging in a complicated coalition choreography.
There are two bottom-lines, however, which Labour cannot accept being breached.
First, Labour’s concern is that the winner in this power tussle will turn out not to be Peters or Arden, but Simon Bridges.
National’s leader is having a field day labelling the Prime Minister as weak and indecisive in failing to rein in New Zealand First.
Any harm done by Peters to Labour’s biggest electoral asset will be deemed as totally unacceptable.
Second, Labour will take a very dim view of New Zealand First if that party’s attack on what Labour calls its socially “progressive” policies sees Labour voters decamping to the Greens.
For those reasons alone, the Doomsday Clock gauging the likely longevity of the current governing arrangement is now ticking much closer to midnight.