John Armstrong's opinion: Winston Peters has breached trust in threatening 'to chuck a spanner' into abortion reform

In threatening to chuck a spanner into the mechanics of abortion law reform, Winston Peters has broken a cardinal political rule.

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Emotions ran high as MPs on all sides debated the divisive issue. Source: 1 NEWS

He is guilty of committing a breach of trust. And it is no small breach at that.

The story goes like this. Labour’s Justice Minister Andrew Little thought he had struck a deal with New Zealand First regarding the passage through Parliament of the Abortion Legislation Bill.

He thought he had made enough refinements to the draft measure to secure New Zealand First’s backing for long-avoided, but desperately needed reform of the existing law.

New Zealand First’s Tracey Martin, delegated the task of negotiating with Little over the matter, concurred. After months of talks, she too thought the two parties had struck a deal on the measure which liberalises the current law which dates back to the 1970s. 

All of a sudden up pops Peters. He pulls the rug from under his MP by declaring that New Zealand First would be pushing for a referendum.

Presuming that the Abortion Legislation Bill was passed by Parliament, such a plebiscite would determine whether the measure’s provisions came into force.

Both Martin and Little are stunned. The question of a referendum had never arisen during their negotiations.

Yet here was Peters seemingly trying to re-litigate things just a couple of days before the bill in question was due to get its first reading in Parliament.

Little’s reaction was forget it. He would not be re-opening negotiations. He would not be doing any deal which saw the holding of a referendum in return for New Zealand First’s nine MPs bloc voting in favour of the measure. After all, he had been led to believe the deal he thought he had struck guaranteed the latter.

Winston Peters. Source: 1 NEWS

Was Peters’ last-minute intervention the result of pressure being exerted from inside and outside the New Zealand First caucus? Probably both.

Peters will put up an amendment to the legislation requiring a referendum. It will fail — and likely by a huge margin.

That won’t concern him in the slightest. He will be able to deflect any criticism from the vociferous, coarse anti-abortion lobby aimed at him and his colleagues by saying he tried to block the bill.

Peters insists that no-one should have been surprised by his push for a referendum. The holding of referendums is one of his party’s founding principles.

It is mere supposition to suggest it, but there is a highly plausible reason why a referendum was kept off the agenda for the negotiations between Martin and Little. 

MPs have a conscience vote on the Abortion Legislation Bill. It is a Government measure, however. That means it would have been signed off by the Cabinet. Had the Cabinet explicitly ruled out a referendum, Peters would have been obliged to abide with that decision. Not to do so would have had him in breach of collective Cabinet responsibility.

For his part, Little is likely to be quietly stewing. 

He has professed to be unconcerned by being blindsided by Labour’s coalition partner.

He has made one very pointed observation. He has since stressed that negotiations between coalition partners needed to be conducted on a “good faith” basis. And he had always done so. The unspoken inference was that Peters had not.

That goes to the heart of the matter. 

There is one ingredient required for the successful conduct of politics. It is the most essential ingredient, however.

That ingredient is trust. When it comes to running a coalition government, trust is not just essential, it is the paramount requirement.

The parties in a coalition government must have confidence that the deals they reach with their partners will stick; that they won’t be circumvented or ignored or unilaterally re-litigated.

At one stroke, Peters has eradicated what little confidence Labour had that New Zealand First will not indulge in such skullduggery.

Quite simply, Labour’s Cabinet ministers can no longer trust what their New Zealand First counterparts are telling them and — more pertinently — what they are promising them.

New Zealand First’s MPs can make all the assurances to the contrary they like. They can argue that the breach is a one-off; that there were special circumstances driving Peters’ actions. They can argue that the levels of trust between their party and Labour have been much higher than anyone expected — or hoped.

That is now all by-the-by. Even if they didn’t already mistrust their coalition partner, Labour’s ministers will now have doubts about the credibility of what they are hearing when they sit around the negotiating table with representatives from Peters’ party.

They will also ponder the authority such mouthpieces have to speak on New Zealand First’s behalf, given those cyphers might find themselves being overruled by their leader.

There might well be further ramifications which are not immediately apparent.

One thing’s for sure. Peters and his New Zealand First colleagues will pay a price for such a brazen flouting of political convention. The only question is how high a price that will be.