Colin Espiner has promised to eat his blog post if the Maori Party does a deal with National. I think he's right, and here's why...

With Labour's announcement last weekend that it would be making no more major spending promises, the refreshing policy focus of this campaign came to an abrupt end. The media stuttered and stalled briefly then, in fear of running out of things to say, started talking about coalitions. (Until Lockwood Smith kindly offered himself up as the clown of the week. But that's another story).

Amidst the coalition speculation, one journalist bravely took a stand. Colin Espiner – a journalist whose work has stood out this year since we returned from the US – said what I've been saying for months.

The political landscape, he wrote in his On the House blog, "means National needs to get very close to 50% of the party vote to have any hope of forming a government. The maths is cruel, but there you have it. The polls mean very little against the reality of MMP".

For all the talk of National sleep-walking to victory, it's always been a closer race than the media has reported for the simple reason that National does not, and has never had, the coalition options of Labour. And to be honest, I've never really figured out why journalists haven't made that clearer to their audiences.

There seems to be an underlying assumption that because National will get the most votes, it is in the box seat when it comes to negotiating wih other parties. That's only partly true. National will be able to argue that is has the "will of the people" behind its efforts to form a government. But practically speaking, it's not as if the governor-general will give John Key the first crack at forming a government. As Dr Jon Johansson says, "the convention is very loose". The governor-general only has to be convinced that a viable governing arrangement has been made, and is likely to keep his nose well out of it for as long as possible. The dynamic of the negotiations will be shaped by the commitments already made, and with the Greens and Progressives lined up on Labour's side and Act on National's, it's an open book. National has ruled out New Zealand First, but New Zealand First has not ruled out National. Which raises the question – unlikely, but possible all the same – whether National's front bench roll John Key if it meant getting Winston on-side and forming a government?

So, with all these questions swirling round, why did Espiner choose this week to point out National's difficulties? He came to his conclusion after a conversation with Dr Pita Sharples. The Maori Party remains the likely king-maker come November 9, and the party's co-leader gave Espiner every indication that he'd rather enter a coalition with Labour than with National. I've interviewed Sharples as well. Only a couple of times admittedly, but enough to get a sense of his instincts. He's a natural interventionist and progressive. There's nothing conservative about him.

Espiner points to the Maori seats issue, the Brash years and all the other reasons so many Maori have so many doubts about National, before nailing it:

To be honest, it’s about whanau. It’s about history. It’s about links between Maori and Labour that go back 100 years. This stuff matters to Maori. At the end of the day, Maori simply won’t wear a coalition with National. Sharples knows this, even if no one’s told Tariana Turia.

Espiner then gets endearingly over-excited.

I’ll go further. I’ll say this: the Maori Party will not go into a coalition government with National. If I’m proved wrong after the election, I’ll print out this blog and eat it, live on webcam.

He adds the caveat that he's not ruling out the Maori Party offering supply and confidence or abstaining from government, but reckons they're unlikely scenarios. Me too. Sharples and Turia want to be at the Cabinet table. They want change now.

The point is that Maori Party supporters have a gut affiliation with Labour. The party plans to hold hui after the election to consult with its supporters before settling on any coalition deal. It's hard to imagine the majority at those hui won't be pro-Labour. If the Maori Party goes against that expression of will, it's heading out on a limb for three years, and if the political wind changes for any reason, it could quickly be blown from its perch.

Sharples knew that three years ago when I interviewed him for a Listener cover story. He told me,

“If your people tell you to do something, you do it. Finish. Or sign off. You can’t represent your people, then turn your back on them.”

As my high school history teacher taught me to say, "the evidence suggests" that the Maori Party's 'we might go with National' line is 90 percent negotiating bluff.

And yet. There's a nagging doubt that's stopped me being quite as 'I'll eat my hat' about all this as Espiner. As Martyn Bradbury has pointed out on Pundit, Turia is conservative, and it's her party after all. She took the risk of leaving Labour, she founded it, so maybe she over-rides Sharples.

Then there's the very real possibility that a Labour-Greens-New Zealand First-Progressives-United Future-Maori Party coalition could be too much for even Helen Clark's and Michael Cullen's formidable political management skills. Even if you take out New Zealand First, just thinking about the political complexity of keeping every one of those parties happy makes your temples throb and your toes go numb.

Finally, there's the Foreshore and Seabed Act. Here's what Sharples told me just three years ago:

“We’ve been around to the doors and we’ve talked to people. We thought the bruising over the foreshore was a big bruising, and we knew. And we were counting on it. That’s why I stood. I’ve got to help these Maori who are hurting over this last, ultimate snub by the government.”

At another point in our conversation, on the beach at Okahu Bay, he added, "You have no idea how hurt they are. They are so hurt".

He was genuinely furious with what Labour – Labour! – had done. Their "last, ultimate snub". And in three weeks he may have the power to throw that snub back in their faces.

So, if National can offer Maori the repeal of that Act... And if Turia's personal anger with Clark – which was strong, make no bones about it – is still smoldering... If the Maori Party decides a coalition of many colours is just too risky...

It's those thoughts that stop me short. Colin, I think you're probably right. I'm delighted that a political editor has finally said the words out loud. But excuse me if I don't join you in promising to eat my post.

Comments (8)

by Graeme Edgeler on October 24, 2008
Graeme Edgeler

National has ruled out New Zealand First, but New Zealand First has not ruled out National. Which raises the question – unlikely, but possible all the same – whether National's front bench roll John Key if it meant getting Winston on-side and forming a government?

I had thought that John Key/National had ruled out Winston (as a minister inside or outside cabinet). This raised the question unlikely, but possible all the same – whether New Zealand First will roll Winston if it meant getting National on-side and forming a government.

by Tim Watkin on October 24, 2008
Tim Watkin

Ha! Good point Graeme. Although Winston is NZ First in a way that John Key that isn't National. Rolling Winston is just inconceivable. But since we're into the realms of the incredibly unlikely, we might as well keep this going... Yes, National has ruled out New Zealand First. But presumably Key made that final call as leader. If it turns out to have been a naive one, could there be the collective will of MPs to blame him and replace him with Bill English for the sake of a deal? I know this is marginal, but it's fun to ponder!

With the Electoral Commission deciding not to go any further with NZF, could Winston get a boost from returning elderly folk who might now trust him again? If he can reach 5%, I think Colin Espiner is even more likely to be right that National will do it tough.

by dave on October 24, 2008
dave

Tim, would you eat your blog post if National des a deal with  National  that leads to a MP minister outside cabinet but not as part of a formal coalition?

Furthermore, will you do it live on webcam? Cos I`ll be watching.. and may even run a live feed to my blog..

by dave on October 24, 2008
dave

umm, I meant if the Maori Party  does a deal with National...,

by Tim Watkin on October 24, 2008
Tim Watkin

I'm tempted Dave, I'm tempted. I can see how that could happen, especially if the Maori Party feel compelled to support the biggest party in parliament out of a respect for tradition.

But the problem with that theory is that a) it goes against their desire for real influence. That comes from sitting round the Cabinet table. And b) the instinct, the pull of the Ratana tradition is still strong.

If you were Turia and Sharples and some time around November 12 you had the offer you suggest on the table from National and the offer of a full coalition and two seats at the Cabinet table with Labour and were staring at the reality of a 70+% Maori party (small p) vote for Labour , which one would you choose?

by Craig Ranapia on October 25, 2008
Craig Ranapia

If you were Turia and Sharples and some time around November 12 you had the offer you suggest on the table from National and the offer of a full coalition and two seats at the Cabinet table with Labour and were staring at the reality of a 70+% Maori party (small p) vote for Labour , which one would you choose?

I'd tell them both that I'd look forward to whoever formed the Government coming cap in hand for support for every damn piece of legislation, and be willing to sell their souls slice by slice to get it.

This raised the question unlikely, but possible all the same – whether New Zealand First will roll Winston if it meant getting National on-side and forming a government.

Nah... First, a good personality cult depends on being full of invertibrates and very dim eco-bulbs indeed.  I'd also suggest the National caucus isn't quite as full of people whose decision making processes are lubricated by a bottle in a desk drawer as it used to be.

If it turns out to have been a naive one, could there be the collective will of MPs to blame him and replace him with Bill English for the sake of a deal? I know this is marginal, but it's fun to ponder!

And Tim, your audition for Sensing Murder is almost as good as Graeme's.  I wouldn't underestimate the bad blood Winston left behind the last time he flounced out a coalition with National; and Bolger's deal with someone he'd be condemning as a racist and pathological liar a few weeks before made his name mud among plenty of people in the party organisation.  And Shipley's supporters picked up on that long before you folks in the media.

A good definition of insanity is doing the same old s**t over again and expecting a different outcome.  And I just don't think John Key or his advisors are that kind of crazy.

 

 

by dave on October 25, 2008
dave

Tim, I`d choose the National option in line with what Craig suggested, but go further in ensuring that happens through a strong agreement with teh way forward  on specific MP policies written into such agreeemtents plus ministerial roles outside cabinet.  I wouldn't  want to have the restriction of collectrive cabinet responsibility. Turia knows all about that..

And I recon thats what wil happen. At least, it should happen.

by Craig Ranapia on October 27, 2008
Craig Ranapia

By the way, unless there's a shameless flip-flop on legislation "entrenching" the Maori seats being an immovable bottom line, it appears the Maori Party have parked themselves on the cross-benches.

Which, in my view, is a very MMP place to be and would be a damn good place to exercise real influence from, no matter what the pale pink (in both senses) commentariat say.

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